The Word-Paper Way

Over at the Guardian, A.L. Kennedy has a new blog about writing. His first post, appropriately enough, is about why it’s futile to expect writers to stop doing what they want to do, even when it’s clearly in their best financial interest: 

Once somebody wants to write it’s almost impossible to stop them without also killing them to some significant degree. Nothing beats that raging delight at three in the morning when sentence number 15 finally agrees to do what you want, and never has banging wiggly marks on to a computer screen seemed so heroic – even if you’re simply ensuring that the orthopaedic surgeon ravishing your senior nurse in the sluice room doesn’t seem implausibly limber and can meanwhile reawaken echoes of that summer afternoon with her funny uncle … And if you think you might actually be doing some good, amusing someone other than yourself – making them less lonely, more alive, more informed – well, you’re just not going to chuck that over in favour of crafting, long walks and a quiet life. Hence the number of regimes and leaders who have discovered that killing writers until they are entirely dead is a highly effective method of slowing literary output.

After too many years of dicking around and getting my literary kicks from newspapering, I embarked on a disciplined writing regimen in the early 1990s. I kept at it because, after about eight months of steady one- and two-page a day effort, I had produced a finished novel. It hasn’t been published and may be unpublishable — most first novels are, in fact, unpublishable — but I loved the emotional rollercoaster experience I had in writing it, the sense that I was plumbing wellsprings of creativity and inventiveness that had never been put to use, only sensed in a vague way. I sincerely believe that being involved in a long-term creative endeavor — and, above all, completing it — carries personal benefits that go beyond the issue of whether the work is ever published. As I once heard Lawrence Block say, your odds of getting a novel published are about the same as your odds of getting picked for a professional sports team, but that doesn’t mean all those hours spent playing sandlot baseball were wasted.

There’s a half-good movie from the 1980s, Reuben Reuben, that comes to mind whenever my obsessive writing habits come up in discussion. The movie is about a fading Dylan Thomas-type poet who’s hasn’t written a line in years, and scrapes out a living by doing readings for suburban literary clubs, cadging meals from well-off patrons and, whenever possible, seducing their wives. After one too many reversals, he decides to string himself up in his rented room. Dictating his suicide note into a tape recorder, he comes up with some good lines, tells his estranged wife to write them down and make some posthumous money, then realizes what he really wants to do is go on writing poetry.

I’ve had some hellacious bad luck in the writing business, but even when things were at their worst, some other idea would occur to me and I’d be off chasing it. At this late date, I don’t think I could stop — my brain is simply hard-wired to come up with ideas for writing projects. Stopping that would be a sort of little death, and maybe not all that little, either.

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One thought on “The Word-Paper Way

  1. mikeb302000 says:

    Thanks for that beautiful post on writing. You made me feel less embarrassed about that completed but unpublishable novel I have in the closet.

    And thanks for putting me under your heading “Good Reads.”

    Coming from you that’s a major compliment.

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