The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing

There’s a spectacularly stupid quote attributed to Hemingway that seems to be everywhere on the internet these days. It goes like this, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It turns out that Hemingway probably never said this (although he may have said other spectacularly stupid things), although that has not stopped the quote appearing here and there on writing blogs with all the persistence of Japanese knotweed. 

One thing that annoys me about this quote is that it seems to me to support a common myth that certain kinds of self-regarding writers like to perpetuate: the myth that writing — that real, serious, grown-up writing — is pain, misery, suffering and so on, and that a writer is a kind of shaman who journeys into this terrible darkness to bring back deeper understandings for the rest of us.

However, I think we could do without this kind of thing. Writing can be difficult, of course. Anybody who has tried to put together a story, a poem, a novel, or a birthday limerick will know that writing can be difficult. But then, anything worthwhile, interesting or enriching can be difficult. Snowboarding can be difficult. Playing the tuba can be difficult. Solving quadratic equations can be difficult. Solving quadratic equations whilst snowboarding and playing the tuba is, I hear, exceedingly difficult. But difficulty is not something in itself that we should shun, and neither is difficulty something that people in general do tend to shun. The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun.

Recently I’ve been reading Tove Jansson’s biography by Boel Westin, and one thing that is striking is that Westin’s  book is how much it highlights the extent to which Jansson was driven in her work by pleasure. Jansson painted and wrote because she loved painting and writing, because it was a way of seeking out pleasure. It seems to me that many writers are like this. Sure, writing is difficulty. But it is also pleasurable difficulty (whilst opening your veins over your typewriter is not pleasurable, particularly if you are the one who has to mop up afterwards). Writers, I suspect, don’t like to admit this, because it makes them shallow. Much better to look like a shaman, a martyr, a prophet; much better to look like One Who Suffers than to admit that this whole writing business might be pleasurable. But there is nothing shallow about pleasure. Pleasure is about engagement with the world, it is about richness and, yes, it is also about depth.

Very often, when writers talk about pleasure, they like to give it a tinge of bloody, excessive, Dionysian darkness, because that seems so much more grown-up and serious. Academics, incidentally, are the same, with all their harping on about Bataille and Lacan and jouissance, and all that malarkey (I have tried to read Lacan many times, and in my view there are few things less pleasurable). But pleasure is not just wild Dionysian ferment. It is also delight, and fascination, it is lightness and play.

As somebody who not only writes, but who also teaches writing, it seems to me that all of this stuff about typewriters and open veins, this notion of the suffering writer, is counter-productive and leads (more often than not) to bad writing. My view, increasingly, is this: that the task of somebody who teaches writing is, in part, to help students to find out where the pleasure and fascination may lie, leading them to begin to delight in new forms of difficulty, and providing — amongst many other things — richer pleasures both for themselves and for their readers.

12 thoughts on “The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing”

  1. I’ve also been annoyed by such comments about the pain and suffering of writing. I have to be in the right frame of mind, but when I get into my stride writing is great fun, although it does deplete my energy!

    While reading Kate Atkinson’s novels I often have a mental image of her smiling to herself as she contrives a particularly convoluted plot twist, or believable bit of dialogue.

  2. I write. It’s often hard. But sometimes I find myself ‘in the zone’ and it’s good. Like when your golf swing is lucid and fluent and your not making mistakes or like writing a program in Java or C++ and the code just flows or when you start getting all the answers right watching Jeopardy. Those are the moments that make writing, for me, addictive.

    p.s. I’m not in the zone atm.

  3. Yes… agreed. It is not that it is constant pleasure, but it’s not something that is devoid of all pleasure. I’ve not read Kate Atkinson, but I do like writing that has a sense of a smile in its voice (I love this in music as well…).

  4. “… very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun.” Couldn’t agree more, Will. I’ve been a painter, writer, and classical musician all my life, and it’s the challenge that keeps me motivated. I hope it will keep me young, occupied, and passionate for twenty or thirty more years!

    • Visiting your blog, Beth (why had I not subscribed to the RSS feed until now? Anyway, made good on that one), I don’t doubt that it will.

  5. Thanks, Will — for some crazy reason I didn’t have yours in my feed either, but that omission has was rectified yesterday. I’m planning to write a post linking to this one of yours today.

  6. Heh. Saw the tweets related to this but just got around to reading it. Writing isn’t that difficult. It’s writing well that’s difficult. And it’s the difficulty that makes good writing a joy to read. And it’s the difficulty that makes attempting to write well so rewarding. I suffer from a physical condition that limits how much I can write. Having discovered that I love writing I find myself limited in how much I can do. I imagine I’d write for 16 hours a day non-stop if I was well. Crafting sentences and making things clear for a reader are difficult, but the most fun you can have sitting down. And I mainly write non-fiction, so I’m not even getting to make stuff up!

    I heard an anecdote about Michel Foucault repeated by John Searle. (during a lecture so definitely attributable to him). Foucault was a very clear thinker and speaking to him was apparently very rewarding because of his clarity of expression (in French, his English wasn’t so good). But in France one has to write obscurely to be taken seriously. The more rococo one’s writing is, the better. So while Foucault, was a clear thinker and speaker, his writing is terrible. Same goes for many 20th century intellectuals. Obscurantism often rules.

  7. Interesting about Foucault. He’s not always massively obscure, although he can be. Certainly some of the stuff where he is more off-the-cuff, where he’s closer to the spoken language, is beautiful (the Ethics book is particularly good in this respect, I think). Some kinds of continental philosophy act on the principle of linguistic extrusion in which words keep on coming out of the philosophical sausage-machine—and could potentially go on doing so forever. Then you say, ‘But what does this mean?’, and the sausage machine splutters for a second or two, then it starts up again, and goes on extruding… which doesn’t really answer the question.

    There is, of course, the reverse problem, in which you can be so determined to write with clarity and freedom from ambiguity — in a world that is decidedly messy and ambiguous — that you start shunning the mess and only talk about a very limited range of things, dismissing all other discussions as empty. So you say more and more precise things about less and less. I’d like a sausage-based metaphor here as well, but it is late, and I’m incapable of coming up with one that works.

  8. Funnily enough about 30 years ago I briefly made sausages for a living in a neighbourhood butcher’s shop in Auckland. Not that it’s very difficult, but I really enjoyed it and became quite proficient.

    I suppose the metaphor you are looking for is that one spends all one’s time perfecting the mixture and never quite gets around to stuffing it into pigs’ intestines and frying it up.

    Knowledge certainly seems to have fractal geometry – no matter what level you look at it, there is infinite detail. Zooming in and zooming out doesn’t change that. But the kind of writing one does changes.

    I don’t see any great problem with zooming in and getting lost in the details at a micro-level if that’s what floats your boat. Knowledge seeking is a collective activity and it takes all types. Those of us who spend more time at the upper levels of the taxonomic tree appreciate those who beaver away at the roots.

    My own writing is quite niche, but people still read it everyday. I’ve spent this week looking at all the dozen or so possible Chinese and Sanskrit precursor passages for a single phrase in the Heart Sutra and writing up my notes in an essay that maybe no one will ever read.

  9. No, I see nothing wrong with zooming in either, and I agree about the fractal geometry of knowledge. Besides, as Borges points out “There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition”, and those who beaver away at the roots are often vital, as you say . But what I do have a problem with is the kind of approach that dismisses other, broader discussions, and that insists that the micro-level is the only level that matters, or at least that a narrowly defined set of problems are the only problems that are worth spending time on. This doesn’t happen so much in the sciences, but the philosophers are sometimes guilty of this.

  10. I just used the bloody image in a blog post, and doing a quick search on the web, I found these words to be uttered by Gene Fowler: Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

    For me this statement says something about the distance between the idea of the text one is writing, and the reality of what one manages to write.

    I find my own writing process to go through different stages, sometimes I feel almost paralyzed, and then I need an image to convince myself that I have to trespass the impossible to get to where my text wants to be. It1s definitively a kind of romanticism – but it sort of works.

    • Hi, Sigrun, It seems tricky to really be sure of the actual attribution (again, the blog post here is good: Different versions of the quote seem to me to say very different things. The version that mentions ‘opening your veins’ seems to me to be stupidly melodramatic; but the version that you cite about staring at a sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead (and the suggestion that this is easy…) seems to have a more sardonic strain of humour. Besides, drops of blood on the forehead make so much less mess on your manuscript than do open veins…

      I too have different stages in my writing process. Some are more enjoyable than others. But I worry when writers suggest that the whole thing is a cause of immense suffering (as, for example, Javier Marías just has in his article in the UK Independent).


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