by Stephen R. Clark
Writing is a painful, sublime joy. I think only writers will understand this.
Madeleine L’Engle declares, “The artist cannot hold back; it is impossible, because writing, or any other discipline of art, involves participation in suffering, in the ills and the occasional stabbing joys that come from being part of the human drama.”
The call of writing for writers is both blessing and curse.
A popular quote about writing, and one I’ve used often, is attributed to 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.”
I’m not sure how it relates, but it’s intriguing to me that before he became a journalist, Fowler was a taxidermist.
He gets it right on the painful side of writing. Especially when faced with deadlines that reset relentlessly as they do in the newspaper business. Fowler worked on papers in Denver and New York before launching into books and later screenwriting.
The imagery, of course, conjures up Jesus praying and sweating drops of blood in Gethsemane. He is called to a daunting task yet, perhaps, is there an out? No, just as there really is no escape other than writing for a writer.
It’s funny how a writer’s head can be filled with perfect sentences and paragraphs on a topic, but when sitting down to put them on paper or pixels, chaos and randomness breaks out! The thoughts and the words tacked to them scatter into incoherence and have to be wrestled and wrangled onto the page.
It’s exhausting! But a rewarding compulsion.
Novelist and essayist Anna Quindlen counters Fowler’s thought stating, “Sometimes writing is a chore, for sure, but sometimes it is an uncontrollable urge and the antidote to pain.”
Those of us who are writers understand that “uncontrollable urge.” I’ve experienced it often when, because of the daily requirements of life and duty, I’ve been unable to find the time to sit and write. Ideas are always bouncing around in my head like bubbles in a shaken soda bottle. The words pressing to get out.
A friend of mine who is a writer and professor of English, Danny Anderson, lamented on Facebook once, “Was finally able to write something. Yes it probably sucks, but it still felt good to get it out. I find that my best writing tends to be things that only I could write – the downside to that is that it’s probably only me that cares about it in the first place. Oh well.”
All the common emotions that haunt a writer are in his lament. Satisfaction in finally writing. Fear that it’s crap. Delight in getting it out. Doubt that anyone else will like it. Taken all together, his post expresses the pain and joy, the frustration and exhilaration that is writing.
“I know of nothing more thrilling than the arrival of a good idea for a story,” declares Pulitzer winning author Tracy Kidder. I agree, but this is also when the pressure starts to build. The idea strikes, you know it’s a good one, and now you have to deal with it.
The reality is that not everyone can breathe life into words and bring writing alive on the page. Maybe this is the connection to taxidermy. Anyone can stuff a dead animal, but it takes real talent and skill to end up with something that looks realistic — as if it’s actually still living ready to take off. When this happens in writing, the joy one feels is euphoric.
In her poem, “”Holy, holy,” Marge Piercey captures this feeling.
…. From time to time
usually but not always when writing
something would seize me, bear me
up and out of myself as in an eagle’s
talons. I’d almost forget to breathe.
It was never for long. I’d return
shocked, my mind on fire, a rushing
in me, a coming together, clarity.
I know when I’m finally able to get traction on an idea, tame the various components, and herd the thoughts coherently onto the page, it is as if my mind is on fire, and my heart. Poet Seamus Heaney agrees, explaining, “I’ve always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward.”
There is pleasure in the physical and mystical act of writing, the invisible motion of plucking those just right words out of the ether and placing them perfectly on the page.
John Steinbeck said, “I write because I like to write. I find joy in the texture and tone and rhythm of words. It is a satisfaction like that which follows good and shared love.” Yes, indeed.
Besides the joy and pain, for those of us gifted with this marvelous affliction, writing is something we need to do out of obedience.
Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame was a missionary and a runner. He said, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
He also advised, “If, in the quiet of your heart, you feel something should be done, stop and consider whether it is in line with the character and teaching of Jesus. If so, obey that impulse to do it, and in doing so you will find it was God guiding you.”
For a writer who is also a Christian, writing is something that should be done, must be done. What we write about is weighed to determine if it is indeed “in line with the character and teaching of Jesus.” And when all aligns — calling, idea, desire, and gift — the outcome is spurred by the Holy Spirit in us, a mighty rushing wind of pain and joy, release and redemption.
We write because that’s how He made us. And it is good.
In his poem, “The Trouble With Poetry,” Billy Collins reveals,
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And so, we who are writers, go through our days, in darkness and in light, waiting for that little flame, not just to appear at the tip of our pencil, but to ignite our hearts and minds with the next thing we are being tasked to share. Article, story, poem, testimony, whatever it is God is nudging us to bring into being and put out there in the world to declare His glory and advance His kingdom.
This is why we write.