The phrase I don’t like writing, but I like having written has previously been attributed to writer, critic and wit Dorothy Parker. There is doubt that Parker can be credited with this observation. It appears, instead, to have been 19th century author Frank Parker, who also added, in a letter discovered after his death that ‘[I] Hate the effort of driving pen from line to line, work only three hours a day, but work every day.’
No matter who coined the phrase, it means, we may suppose, that writing can be a slog. First, the blank page staring back at you. Then conjuring up the mental magic of inspiration, the getting the words onto paper, shaping them from thought into shared reality. Yet writers persist. Because somewhere, there is a glowing satisfaction to be had – of getting into the zone, perhaps, or of the completed text. When it’s been passed through the mill of creative production once and again. When it works. When it’s good enough to put out there.
Few jobs are without their ups and downsides – and being a writer, whether of fact or fiction, is ultimately a job. A paid one, if you are talented – and lucky. In such cases, there is the extrinsic motivation of financial reward. Take the author Colm Toíbín, for instance, who , when asked which of his books he most enjoyed writing answered: “No enjoyment. No, none,” and cited money as the most enjoyable aspect of a writer’s life. It’s an admission that is refreshingly frank.
Still, it’s interesting to note how many writers appear to have a love / hate relationship for quite different reasons, ones to do with the creative process. Ones that seem to drag themselves, apprehensive and reluctant, through their writing to reach the highs of success.
Novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, for example, described writing as most ‘frightening’, finding it ‘much too anxious a business’. But she also admitted to being unable to stop because ‘When you write something which comes off, it’s a feeling like no other,’ and ‘It’s like being visited by something outside yourself.’ Which seems as good a description of being in creative ‘flow’ as any other. Author Rose Tremain similarly observed that writing sometimes ‘does feel punishingly arduous’, but also that she had ‘found profound happiness and intellectual stimulation in the act of writing.’
So there is a satisfaction here, or a happiness, more intense perhaps than anything to be found elsewhere in life. Writer and scholar Gloria E. Anzaldúa answered the question ‘Why am I compelled to write?’ by saying: ‘Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me.’ And ‘because I’m scared of writing, but I’m more scared of not writing.’
Whatever the gain, is it worth the pain? Only the writer can say.