The Agony of Writing
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 6, 1933, issue of America, titled “The Agony of Writing.”
Every professional writer, that is, every person who makes publishable composition his trade, whether he be paid for it or not, experiences at times a supreme disgust with his profession and himself. Now many of these writers would no more make a confession of such weakness than they would admit that they were not just as good as any of their contemporary writers, if readers would only judge the merits of writing honestly. But if there is any professional writer who asserts on all occasions, especially in the occasional moments of candor that even authors may have, that he is not oftentimes bored to death by his trade, and furious at himself for being an author, then that professional writer is only an amateur, and if not that, a prevaricator.
Just now, I am of the opinion that there is no greater life work for man and woman, no keener pleasure in any form of human occupation, no finer joy than that of phrase making, of stringing out my muddled thoughts into articles, stories, plays, treatises, books, into manuscripts that will be carried to the printshop, that will be tapped off in linotype by a serious-faced typographer with a green eye shade above his brows, that will be guided through the flapping printing press by a hairy-armed mechanic smudged with oil and ink, that will eventually appear in neat black on white, and that will be sold by a circulation manager and his agents, and be read, am I exaggerating? by a million eager eyes. Undoubtedly, authorship is a grand profession. Because I am of that opinion at the present time, I can also assert the opinion which I had a few days ago and which I may have a few days hence, and assert it with equal honesty and with a vehemence that is sincere, namely, the opinion that the life of a professional writer is an execrable sort of existence and is a most abominable slavery.
Sometimes it is a rather miserable life, this profession of letters, and sometimes it intoxicates one so that he could sing for the joy of being an author.
Sometimes it is a rather miserable life, this profession of letters, and sometimes it intoxicates one so that he could sing for the joy of being an author. But whatever the mood, the true professional in his deepest depths would remain the writer as long as the printer would take his copy. He may insult himself and his profession, he may bewail the day when the madness of his ambition or the urge of his soul persuaded him to attempt the art of literature, he may groan over his miseries and resolve never to write another line, but he will keep on writing as long as he can find a publisher. And if he does not keep on writing, he will be more miserable inside him than if he did continue to write. For he will be henpecked by a shrewish conscience or bitten by a chained ambition. Wherefore, despite the joys it brings, authorship is a merciless tyrant.
Let no young writer who proposes to be a contributor to the best magazines and the author of the best-selling books be deceived into believing that authorship is mostly the glory of admiring his thoughts in print. It is more often the gory battle of twisting his brains dry and spilling them out on a manuscript. And let no complacent reader who finds an author entertaining in the finished work, or who admires the ease with which an author expresses himself, be deceived into concluding that the author enjoyed himself the while he wrote so entertainingly and graciously. The author may have passed through paroxysms of pain in order to give joy to his dear readers. “Let me tell you,” says Warwick Deeping through one of the characters in “Old Pybus,” “writing may be a bloody sweat. You’ve got to be nailed to a tree.” Sir Philip Gibbs, I recall, in some of his novels confesses the same conclusion. But Sir Philip and Mr. Deeping, you will notice, regularly indulge in the bloody sweat, as does Branch Cabell who admits in his latest book of essays that writing is sometimes agony, though on the whole he likes it. Even Heywood Broun could relate seriously in a comic magazine that “there were three who live by writing gathered at a party the other night and all agreed that composition is the most dreadful of the tortures.”
Most authors, I judge, seldom advert to the chronic phase of their malady. By that I mean the turmoil that is always going on in their subconscious, the alertness that makes them close observers of all about them, like a dog listening while he is asleep, the sensitivity to impressions, like being a photographic plate, the concentration that keeps puddling ideas about even in the most idle and relaxed periods. One who is actively engaged in the painful pursuit of literature, is always engaged in it, every moment, and is never entirely free of it. He need not necessarily be on the lookout for material; he cannot avoid or escape the material, for it forces itself on him. He cannot be just a normal human being; he is condemned always to be a writing human being. He does not need an assignment to make him miserable; he may not have any definite piece that he is cogitating; he may possibly be in that dead state in which he knows absolutely that he is never again going to find anything to write about; but all the while he is plagued by the disease that keeps absorbing the location in which he happens to be, and the situation, and the conversation, and the personalities so that they may all be stored away until the bloodletting time of actual composition arrives. He is never immune from a good idea, or a good scene, or a good phrase, or a good plot. He is in the grip of a vice; but that is also the virtue of a writer, as he will reluctantly admit.
It is not that the writer has nothing to say; thoughts may be churning within him, but he cannot force himself to pick one out of the many.
Sir Philip Gibbs, in “The Winding Lane,” has a paragraph which neatly diagnoses one of the ills that keeps a writer from being like other men. He is speaking about a novelist, named Brandon:
Always at the back of his mind was the writing man’s instinct to get alone into a quiet room where he could creep back into his imaginary world and hold conversation with the children of his own brain, and shut the door against reality and intrusions and other people’s egotism. Like a child kept from its toys and bidden to sit still and listen to grown-ups, he wanted to steal upstairs to play his own game of word building on a pad of white paper. Even Foster’s company became rather a strain at times, after the first week, not because he tired of his unfailing humor, but because his friend kept him from that introspection which becomes like a secret vice to a writing man absorbed in his own ideas, a “dope” which he cannot do without for long periods.
As in physical diseases, the sharpest pangs and the deepest miseries are intermittent. Every professional writer knows that sometimes he approaches a piece of work with a tremendous gusto, with a hop and a shout, and that he pours himself out in a high state of intensity, and that his fingers are laggard to his brain, and that writing is a kind of ecstasy. But also he knows that sometimes, when the spirit is not moving and when the brain plays laggard to his desires, composition is a task that nigh sickens him. And this, not because he has nothing to write but because he is afflicted with a distaste for writing. Elsie McCormick, and a clipping from her column is as good as another, may be used as an illustration:
People write in occasionally to ask what my working procedure is—probably so that they can avoid it when doing articles of their own. My procedure is usually just about the same. At two o’clock sharp, I begin the first motions of writing. After the typewriter has been uncovered, about one hour is devoted to finding pencils and carbon paper, getting drinks of water and petting the cat. Then the name of the column is carefully typed at the top of the page, and another forty-five minutes devoted to staring at it. The rest of the afternoon is devoted to writing.
Still another testimony is that of John Vandercook, who may not be of prime importance but who also is an illustration. He wrote, once upon a time, to the Literary Guild:
The dismal truth as to how I will spend my summer is quickly told. I will rise punctually at eleven, hurry through breakfast and go to lunch at the Players’ Club fifty feet from my front door. There I will prolong that function as long as is decent and about an hour after that point; then I will walk fifty feet back and, the day’s exercise done, I will sit at a typewriter, moan, make guttural noises in the throat, gaze solemnly at the wall, cross out sentence after sentence, throw away reams of stuff, smoke too much, welcome correspondence like this as a blessed interruption, and try to get a book finished by next Spring.
All of which amounts to the plain statement that a writer more than often fights off writing, that a writer drags himself, like the proverbial horse to the drinking tub, and will not write, that a writer is rebellious against the necessity of doing what he likes above all else to do. It is not that the writer has nothing to say; thoughts may be churning within him, but he cannot force himself to pick one out of the many. It is not that he is lazy or indolent; he may be in a fever of anxiety to get started and to work viciously. It is as if a hand were restraining him, mysteriously, even maliciously, having tied him at the starting post or, having let him get a start, tripped him and kept him sprawling.
Later, the author is as proud of his article or book as the mother is of her child.
In “Daphne Adeane,” Maurice Baring makes Dettrick, a novelist, relate his experience:
It’s a lovely day; everything was ready, favorable, propitious for writing. I sat down at my table, having planned, mind you, more or less vaguely what was to come into my mind, and lo and behold! the words, ideas wouldn’t come.… Writing I have always told you, is planchette, only before you can get the planchette to work mechanically, some sharp pointed instrument must wound and stab you.…Well, I thought I had reached at least that stage. I thought the planchette was working famously. So it was, till this morning. I was pleased with the story and I didn’t think I had come to a check; but this morning, nothing will happen. I have been sitting for an hour and a half in front of a blank piece of paper, biting my pen.
Now the normal human being would advise the writer, in such periods, to lay aside his work and take a rest. But the writing human being knows that that would be an almost fatal step; he realizes that out of this desolation he will spring into action; he fears that if he gives up now, he will never be able to reach the pitch of intensity that he feels is imminent. For writing is not a peaceful pastime that can be laid aside and taken up, like knitting socks. Writing is a burden of the soul. Its closest parallel is that of a human birth. There is the ecstasy that accompanies the conception of an idea, a thesis, a plot; there is the dull process in which the idea develops in the mind, a process of which the author may be conscious or unconscious; and then there are the throes of composition in which the idea is finally revealed. Later, the author is as proud of his article or book as the mother is of her child.
In conclusion, I repeat that, in writing this article, I have not experienced any agony such as I have suffered while writing other things. That will explain why the article is not so entertaining. Some other time, I will have more to say about this matter.