The Doing, and the Having Done

Well… here it is. Anyone? Anyone?

I don’t like to write, but I like having written

Frank Norris ~1905

One hates to take issue with an idea that has been quoted (and reinvented) for more than a century by writers as substantial as Dorothy Parker, Larry Gelbart, Gloria Steinem, and George R. R. Martin—but they’re all wrong.

I love writing. And I hate having written.

I love almost everything about writing. I love to type, and to feel the pressure of the keys through the six fingers I use to do almost everything on a keyboard. I love the arch of my hands over the keys, the bend of my elbows, the way that my left thumb rests against the side of my right hand while I’m thinking about the right next word.

I love hitting the return key, a momentary marker of a finished paragraph. “There, that’s done,” my right hand says, and the cursor jumps down a line, prancing at the start of that open blank field like a dog that just can’t believe it gets to chase the ball all over again.

I love coming back to the surface every few minutes like a snorkeler, leaving the immersion to conduct a quick review of the last work before diving back down.

I love it when my characters tell me I haven’t looked closely enough at them yet, when they tell me that I’ve had them say something artificial, something imposed rather than received. “Yeah, well… it’s sorta like that, but…” When they trust me enough to tell me I’m wrong, then they trust me, and it won’t be long before they let me in further, when they’ll forget that I’m there and just go on about their lives. (Or not. The ethnographer always changes the scene. Maybe they’re modifying themselves ever so slightly, curating the parts of their lives they’re willing to share with me and withholding the rest. Likely so.)

I love setting up the style sheet in Word. For a few books, I let Word choose Cambria as my default serif typeface. (Always serif. I don’t write sans-serif books.) But for the last two books, I’ve grown tired of Cambria, and have written in Garamond, a face that automatically makes the books three percent better. I love setting up what the chapter headings will look like, what the section dividers look like, how the table of contents auto-populates and how it refreshes itself when I start a new chapter. I love changing the file name to reflect today’s date in the morning before I open the story again to carry it forward.

There is absolutely nothing about writing that I don’t like. It is, for me, an ideal mode of being.

Having written, on the other hand… It’s a marker of futility, a reminder of the weight of the world after having spent joyful months in the zero gravity of immersion. I can look back at the book with pride, see the surprising ways in which themes emerge in the reading that I hadn’t consciously planted there while writing. I can take pleasure in revisiting my friends, like going back to see old college classmates at the lake every summer, to remember why I loved them so.

But what else will that story, that book, do in the world?

Will my work make me money? Almost certainly not, and I don’t really care. I don’t have to make my living from fiction, and writing fiction provides almost no one a living anyway. (Teaching fiction, on the other hand, can be a decent gig, and supports the vast majority of writers working today.) That’s not why I do it. The whole process of trying to sell the thing is agonizing and shame-filled. To describe it in terms that are alien to it, to someone who’s trawling in the muddy water for only the trophy bass and who screens out everything else that comes through the dredge net, is demeaning to everyone involved. As I’ve written before, agents and publishers want money, so offering them something that I don’t have a strong financial interest in is just going into the wrong kind of market. They want a Chuck Palahniuk or a Maya Banks, someone ruthless whom they can ride just as ruthlessly to their mutual financial advantage.

Will my work make me famous? Well, probably not, and I don’t really care about that, either. Like many kids of the 1960s and 70s, I can imagine my ten-minute turn on Johnny’s couch (now Graham Norton would be the pinnacle moment), but that would just mean that I’d have to wear something nice and have my picture taken, not a great prospect. I’d do better to be on Terry Gross—radio is more my medium of publicity. But I’ve never thought of fame as a goal, have no desire to be a Kardashian of any variety. What good are three million likes? Likes are just another unit of currency, converted to dollars at some unknown rate of exchange. So are ratings stars on Amazon (4.5, with 47 reviews) and Goodreads (4.02, with 127 ratings… I mean, not that I look or anything.)

Really, what do I get from having written? What do I want to have gotten from having written? Look at that gallery in the photo at the top of the page. Years of labor mounted on the wall, and for what? For whom? And how would we ever know? What’s the return cycle of communication there?

When The Adjunct Underclass came out, I got maybe two dozen very kind letters saying that I’d given someone hope, or that I’d at least made them feel not alone. Those were remarkable, and I’ve held those close to my heart. A couple of those folks have become personal friends, and that’s enriched my life as well. But Nora and I delivered a dozen plates of assorted handmade cookies to friends around town today, for a far greater ratio of joy and appreciation to effort. Maybe cookies are my pinnacle contribution to the world.

Brownies are a far more reliable gift than a novel, it seems. We hear in detail about which of the dozen types of cookies grabbed someone’s affection, rarely hear how the passage on pp119-120 was the one that grabbed someone’s heart. When our friends tell us they liked our work, they say it was really engaging and wonderful; when they tell us they liked our cookies, they say “Oh my god, those raspberry rugelach! I’ve never had anything like that in my life. My husband and I had a fight over the last one; he’s in the bathroom bandaging his hand right now from where I stabbed him with the fork.” As with fiction itself, the specificity is convincing.

It doesn’t make any sense to write for money, because there isn’t any. And it doesn’t make much sense to write for the love of your readers, because that’s pretty scarce as well. If that’s what you need, make brownies.

Or go back to the work. If we love to write, we will write. If we merely love to have written, we will endure writing, for a while, more or less, until something more immediate captures our attention. We will find another more reliable, more effusive means of getting that larger thing that we need, if writing itself isn’t it.

More tomorrow.

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