There is ample evidence that for some, the act of writing a book – indeed, book after book – seems to flow as effortlessly as a summer breeze. But we all know that for most authors, struggling to write too often leads to more pain than word-count gain. Author Michelle Huneven tackled that topic at a writers’ workshop recently, and she did an unusually elegant and thorough job of plumbing the depths of “The Trouble with Writing.”I didn’t hear the presentation, but I did find (via The Passive Voice) an adaptation of Huneven’s thoughts that she contributed to The Millions. It’s definitely worth a read if you’ve ever struggled to sit down at your writing desk, or wallowed in despair when you did.
I’m not the kind of person to join self-help groups, but I have to say that reading about Huneven’s personal demons was cathartic. She trots out nine high level issues for writers, each usually attended by additional sub-miseries, phylogenetically grouped rather like related species of conflict organized under a shared genus of angst. I suspect that you’ll recognize many of torments listed, and claim at least some of them as your own as well.
The one that hit me hardest is this one, as it concisely sums up the box I’m currently finding myself in trying to finish my second novel:
2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing
…I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble….I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way…
Bang! Boy, do I know that feeling right now. Happily, it’s not a problem I have often, but when you find yourself in this kind of hole in a book, as compared to a short piece, the sunlight at the top of the well can look very dim and far away indeed. Faced with that type of situation, curling up in a fetal position and moaning softly while rocking back and forth can feel like a more logical way to address reality than to take up the laptop once again.
But while Huneven may feel that she get’s herself into trouble, it’s hardly obvious from her style, or the composition of her presentation. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading an instructive piece by an able writer taking the job seriously is enjoying the skill with which they are presented; rather like hearing Bach’s Inventions as compared to listening a music teacher drone on. Here are just a few bits of Huneven’s wisdom, skillfully conveyed:
“Trouble. Trouble is a great dustpan of a word.”
“Writing is difficult. Writing is difficult in the beginning, difficult in the middle and difficult at the end. And then, when you’ve finished, there is a whole new raft of difficulties having to do with publication—but I will save those issues for a much longer speech entitled The Trouble with Publication.
Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved,…”
“The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death.”
“Dylan Thomas said that he knew he contained a river of poetry within him. The trouble was getting down to that river.
….We range back and forth along the banks of the river, wondering where to plunge in.”
“Writers have to be able to delay gratification. To work without immediate pleasures. To delay gratification in general is the great sign of maturity. In writers it is absolutely essential.”
And, inevitably, this:
“The trouble with writing is writing.”
If you’re having one of those days where you’re looking for any excuse not to sit down and write, this piece is for you. And if you find, as I did, that Huneven is a writer whose skills you admire, you might want to check out her books as well. You can find them here.