Sunday, August 02, 2009

I Hate to Write

by Libby Hellmann

I read Dave’s Compromising Positions post (see below) earlier this week, as well as all the thoughtful comments, and I want to put in a vote for the other side. I’m one of those people who hates to write.

There. I said it.

What’s more, I’m envious, insanely jealous, to be honest, of writers who sink themselves in the process and find euphoria. I find misery.

On the other hand, I love having written. (Actually I think Patricia Highsmith said that first). I love the fact that I’ve written nine novels and published six. And I do consider myself a storyteller. I love to create characters, put them in situations of high conflict and danger, and see how it all turns out. But like Guyot, I always thought my storytelling would be on film. I studied film production, got a masters degree, and worked in the industry for years before moving on.

I was the last person in the word to expect I’d be writing books. Using the written word to create images and tell stories. Which probably is at the root of the problem. I usually feel unequal to the task. I constantly second guess myself, rewrite, edit, and rewrite again. I obsess over every sentence, every phrase, trying to elevate it beyond “workmanlike.” Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. For me, writing is the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. And it doesn’t get any easier over time. I don’t expect it too any more. I’m used to the struggle. Kind of like a battered individual who’s used to getting beat up on a regular basis.

Someone once asked me why I put so much pressure on myself. I didn’t have a good answer -- except that the idea of seeing the finished product on sale in a bookstore, and knowing I created it, is immensely satisfying.

Over the years, I’ve discovered one mantra that helps, particularly when I’m facing a blank page: Annie LaMott’s advice in Bird by Bird (a fabulous book for writers, btw) to write “shitty first drafts.” She devoted an entire chapter to them, as I recall. Like her, shitty first drafts are now my goal. I write them all the time. It doesn’t make the process more enjoyable, but it does take some of the pressure off.

But enough from me. What about you? Especially those of you who love the process. What do you love about it? Care to share any tips on making it more enjoyable? I’m all ears.

Finally, a couple of notes… I’m thrilled to report that Easy Innocence is now available on audio. Here’s the link. This is my first novel to make it to audio (although several short stories are on Sniplits) so I’m pumped.

One other thing… There’s a funny series of 10 short videos titled “The Book vs. the Kindle” over at The Green Apple bookstore’s blog. Rumor has it the tenth installment is “f---ing hilarious.” Check it out.


Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, I love to write, I love being lost in the web of words, and the nest of stories. What I don't do well is think--it's hard for me to think a story through without writing it, and so I'm forever writing vast amounts of material I can't use. It wasn't a problem in the past, but now, with the pressure from publishers to keep cranking out material, and my own physical disabilities that make prolonged time at the keyboard difficult, I find myself unable to get the joy from my work that I used to.

Dana King said...

I like to write, but lately I've found myself thinking of the things I could be doing if I didn't spend most of the evening writing. We're not talking about curing cancer or performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony or climbing Mount Everest, either. I'm thinking about things like watching more baseball on television and sitting on the patio trying to guess which bead of sweat will reach the bnottom of my beer glass first.

That's probably not a good sign.

Anonymous said...

I hate writing, too. That's why I've only coughed up a handful of short stories and one never-to-see-the-light-of-day novel. Even a finished story stresses me out because it's never really finished, is it?

Naomi Johnson

David Ellis said...

Interesting post, Libby. I'm with Sara ... I spend a lot of time writing stuff I ultimately can't use, because I have to play it out on paper; it doesn't play out as clearly in my mind. The writing-shitty-first-drafts advice, although never articulated that clearly in my mind, is often how I work now. Just write it to get it out, and then fix it.

Libby Hellmann said...

I know what you mean by thinking it through, Sara and David. I have that problem too. I think it stems from film, where you can cut to a completely different time, location, or character, and just assume that the plot developed offstage. Not so in novels. Readers won't accept half baked stories. (Neither will I, actually)...

Dana.. I love the image of the bead of sweat. You are a writer, whether you admit it or not.

Naomi, you're still writing something. As am I. So there must be some force driving us to tell stories.

Sara Paretsky said...

Naomi, I think of David Remnick's comment, "There are few writers of value who do not approach the end of a long project with at least some sense of dread, the self-lacerating [belief] that the [work] is not so much finished as abandoned, and that everyone will see all the holes [in it], all the shortcuts, the tape, the glue. Finishing is more about terror than exhilaration." That passage is what keeps me going, most days--it's a terror that most people, even the ones with a lot of public bravado, experience; so try not to let your own demons get the best of your writing voice

Rob said...

For me it depends on the day. There are times writing makes me want to gag. That's usually when I'm at my most self-critical. Other times, I get real jazzed, having fun playing around in the scene, discovering those surprise moments where the subconscious makes something click and I look way more brilliant than I actually am.

I'm bipolar about the whole writing process, I guess.

Libby Hellmann said...

I get that, Rob. I think I veer in that direction too...

Anyone have any suggestions for us?

Judy Alter said...

I think the quote about loving having written originated with Mark Twain, though I can't recall his exact wording. I put off writing--like Erma Bombeck, I can wash windows instead--but once I get going I love it and get lost in it. To me, making things work out in words is like solving a math problem--which I never could do.