“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” — Thomas Mann
I first came across this quote in my early 20s. The first time I read it, I was astonished! How could writing be more difficult for a writer than for other people? But it is. It is, almost to the point of rendering the writer unable to write. For a writer, the stakes are sky-high. Writing is a cerebral, exacting, daunting task, made even more formidable by the omnipotence of the words and the language that we use to communicate with all the time.
A friend of mine recently lent me a book called Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer. It was described to me as a book about D. H. Lawrence, “and so much more.” It is a novel about the author’s inability to write a study of D.H. Lawrence, mixed in betwixt the facets of his life (such as his peripatetic nature) that keep him from reaching his most primal ambitions, with D.H. Lawrence leaking in intermittently. In the end it is indeed a study of D.H. Lawrence, as well as a memoir, a travelogue, and a critique on literature and philosophy. It is also about the difficulty of writing.
At first I was taken aback by Dyer’s stylistic echoes of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (an homage – or offense, depending on how you look at it) acknowledged as early as Page 3: “As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realized I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel which, more than any other book I had written, had to be written immediately, before another protracted bout of labour came between me and the idea for what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel. It was now or never.”
Ben Marcus, who wrote about Thomas Bernhard in Harper’s magazine, is my least favorite writer for the same reasons I was initially apprehensive about Dyer. Bernhard is one of my most revered authors, starting with Corrections, which I read about the same time I came across the Thomas Mann quote. Corrections is the dark-edged paragraph-less narration of a project that is continually being “corrected” to the point of oblivion. Bernhard is a genius. When someone tries to imitate him it gives me pause. Copying a Picasso might not be such a difficult task, but it doesn’t make you Picasso.
But as I read deeper into Out of Sheer Rage I was drawn into its meandering melanges, and Dyer’s looping novel/memoir/literary critique entertained and fascinated me in a way that Marcus’ hollow post-postmodern babblings never have. I loved Dyer’s commentaries on Rilke, Italian society, Camus, and Oxford, aka “Dullsford,” a place where “dim-wit academics [are] shoveling away at their research, digging the grave of literature.”
What does it require to write? The right time, the right mood, the right energy, the right place, a fancy studio, the cabin in the woods? All of those things and none of those things. What are the great enemies of writing? Distraction, procrastination, insecurity, atychiphobia (fear of failure), cynicism, depression, illness, exhaustion. . . the list goes on.
Dyer is haunted by the constant feeling he should be doing something other than what he is doing, or living somewhere other than where he is living. This torturous sense of indecision haunts me as well. Do I write now or go to the gym? Do I go to the gym and write later? If I write I will wish I had gone to the gym; if I go to the gym I will wish I was writing. Later I am highly likely to be too tired for either, having stayed up very late reading. But it’s the weekend, goddamnit. In the end I decide to clean out the blankets of dust from behind my refrigerator. I also have to go to the store. And do yoga. Check Email. It is just like at the office: death by a thousand paper cuts, though I accomplish a lot more there. At times I am so driven, I become paralyzed; hence the difficulty of writing. Of course there are larger issues at play here, mostly related to fear of writing itself (graphophobia!).
There are so many sources of inspiration: books, the Internet, conferences, workshops, classes, writing groups. They are all so helpful and yet so potentially distracting from the central difficulty, which is expressed so succinctly in that brilliant Nike slogan: Just Do It. However we may cajole, reward, pressure, manipulate or encourage ourselves, it all boils down to those three silly words. Of course it’s true for everything from exercise to cooking, whether you love doing it or not. There is that constant battle with malaise. Artistic creation, however, is so ensnared with ego, hope and desire, that traction is even harder to gain.
“The more I ponder these questions the more I am persuaded that the real subject of this book, the one that writing it was an attempt to evade, is despair.”— Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage, p226. One could easily say the same of Bernhardt.
Then there is the “what if” factor, i.e. “what if I didn’t have to work; what if I didn’t have to go to that meeting; what if I didn’t have to volunteer for that worthy cause?” And this is what Dyer has to say about that: “The perfect life, the perfect lie, I realized after Christmas, is one which prevents you from doing that which you would ideally have done (painted, say, or written unpublishable poetry) but which, in fact, you have no wish to do. People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted.”
Suddenly it is after midnight. I should have been asleep two hours ago. I have to be up in six hours for work. A kind of sudden brilliance suddenly crackles through my mind. Ideas for stories, poems, essays – the blog – well up in phrases and sentences that long to be captured. This occurs at precisely the moment when I am most exhausted (and, perhaps, finally, my brain is most relaxed). The irony of this is not lost on me.
Between the great devouring maw of time and the endless tasks (real and imagined), the magic kingdom represented by those three little Nike-ian words continue to propel us to put pen to page.
As Dyer says, “One way or another we all have to write our studies of D.H. Lawrence. Even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions, still we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D.H. Lawrence. The world over, from Taos to Taormina, from the places we have visited to countries we will never set in, the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.”