The Agony (or Not) of Writing

Roth: “Awful”

In November, a waiter at an Upper West Side deli was thrilled to see sitting down at one of his tables none other than Philip Roth. You see, the waiter, whose name is Julian Tepper, is also a novelist, and had recently published a book called Balls. As Tepper described the encounter in a Paris Review piece, he handed a copy to Roth, who had recently announced his retirement as a fiction writer. “Great title,” the novelist said. “I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.” That was exciting, but then Roth went on to say some other stuff:

“I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

Tepper seems OK with this interaction with his hero. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and other works, is not. Gilbert wrote her own blog post about the episode, in which she took Roth (who will turn 80 years old on March 19) to task, declaring:

Seriously—is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally—but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or—for that matter—pretty much anything else that people do?

… Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege.

There is a long tradition of writers complaining about writing.  William Styron said, “Let’s face it. Writing is hell.” Norman Mailer said, “Every one of my books killed me a little more.” Red Smith, when asked if writing was a chore, said,  “Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

(The excellent Web site Quote Investigator investigated that quote, various versions of which are attributed to Smith and other figures, and unearthed convincing evidence that the metaphor must have originated with another American sportswriter, Paul Gallico, who wrote in 1946, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.”)

Is writing hell? Is it the best life there is? Could it possibly be somewhere in between, comprising moments of euphoria and despair, tedium and satisfaction? Yes, all of those things. But it really isn’t very seemly for writers to be constantly on about what it’s like to be a writer. My take is that Philip Roth was humble-bragging, as writers often do. Elizabeth Gilbert was bragging, as writers often do (“many dollars,” indeed). Neither one adds very much to the world’s store of enlightenment. (In Roth’s defense, he was just talking to a guy, not bloviating for the world’s consumption.)

Here is my pledge. If you ever find me expounding on the pleasures, burdens, hellish deadlines, or intricate fine points of the writer’s life, well, in the immortal words of that great writer Frank Loesser, “Sue me, sue me. Shoot bullets through me.”


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