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.
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