A Writer Should Always Feel Like He's In Over His Head

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I love this essay on writing by Michael Cunningham. (Clicking the link will reveal a website that I frequent. Busted.) It's a lovely tribute to the tumultuous relationship that writers have with their craft, and comforting to someone who often feels she isn't "dark and tormented" enough to make it as a writer.

"All artists, not just writers, are expected to be dark and tormented spirits.... I'm hard-pressed to think of a writer I love who isn't (or wasn't) clearly acquainted with the dark side. This is why expressions like "delighted as DeLillo" or "merry as Morrison" never caught on. If writers like DeLillo and Morrison weren't intimately acquainted with the murkier aspects of human life, we wouldn't love them so; or at any rate we wouldn't trust them as we do. We need, as readers, to feel matched at the very least in our knowledge of human life, and we know from experience how hard it can be simply to live, in the flesh, on the earth...

And still, at the same time, most of the writers we love...are also clearly acquainted with
how marvelous it is to be alive, in the flesh, on the earth. The novels of...every...significant writer I can come up with are at least as full of pleasure as they are of suffering. If an author isn't acquainted with happiness in some form or other we don't trust him or her, for the same reasons we don't trust a writer who seems to know nothing but sadness."

A big goal in France: to get back in touch with my writerly side. A flexible schedule in a foreign country is a great circumstance for writing, and it would be shameful of me to not take advantage of it. A girl I know, a fellow writer who also taught English in France, said she made herself write three hours a day. I might try to set a similar goal, and actually stick to it this time. (Maybe two hours a day.)

"A writer should always feel like he's in over his head. That's part of what makes good writing compelling—the sense that as readers we're in the company of a writer of vast ambitions, who is always trying to do more than he or she is technically capable of.

And there, really, resides the pleasure that comes from writing. It's a quirky, sweet-sour, Yankee-ish pleasure; it's more like a plunge into icy water on a hot day than it is like lolling around in the tropics. It's like what runners feel running the 500-yard dash, making good time and feeling pushed slightly beyond their limits, which is great, and feeling at the same time that although they're able to do something remarkable—they can run faster than almost anyone alive—
they should nevertheless have done a little better, gone a little faster. They'll try that much harder tomorrow. There may be, in the end, no happiness quite so potent as the anticipation of a greater happiness still to come."

photos via we heart it


Rebecca said...

Mandy! you are living a dream of mine. Are you with the program of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs? Several friends of mine have participated, and I myself had hoped to be in Auvergne this fall, teaching English. But, alas! I was not accepted to the program. I hope you will enjoy every moment and will let us have a peek via your blog from time to time.

To whom do you attribute the quote on writing? I'd like to file it away for future reference.

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