Words || Meg Mason
It is 10.37pm. I’ve been sitting at my desk for, let’s see, coming on four hours since the dinner dishes were washed and put away, the laundry folded and the children encouraged up to their bedrooms. A full day’s work of the paid kind has been done. This is the night shift.
And so far, I’ve achieved nothing. Except staying in my chair, which is a sort of achievement considering that the temptation to get up and make another cup of tea, or admit defeat and go to bed becomes almost irresistible the longer I’ve spent staring at the glowing white horror of a still-blank Word document.
If, when I first sat down to it, I made the mistake of reading over what I wrote last shift, I’m worn out already by the job of quieting the voice that says “Look how horrible it is! You thought it was good yesterday, but all those clunky metaphors, the mangled phrases! Give up! Give up, you are awful.”
A sentence is finally written, only to be deleted, rewritten, deleted again, put back how it was. I would do a word count for a second of relief, except I can see quite well without that I’ve produced exactly seven. I could quickly check the news or look up one of those “My Writing Day” pieces on the Guardian to see how Hilary Mantel does it, except I flicked the Wifi off before I sat down to prevent myself from doing precisely that. So instead, I just sit clutching my sides against a psychosomatic stomach cramp and check the time. 10.38pm.
Does every writer find writing as difficult as this? Does producing effortless prose always require the most blistering grunt work and bloodyminded endurance? Surely, Ian McEwan doesn’t sit in front of his screen all day and end up with nothing? Do Barbara Trapido or Nina Stibbe produce such hilarious novels despite the fits weeping brought on by the sheer overwhelmingness of it all?
Do you know, I suspect they do. Writing is hard. Not laboring-in-the-salt-mines hard, but as something we choose, it can be the purest agony. Far less a form of therapy, as people sometimes say, than something that sends you into therapy.
There are moments, rare and exquisite, of finding the flow, when the words pour out and survive into the next day but since they’re only ever the product of eight torturously unproductive hours chained to a chair, why do we do persist?
Because we have to. We can’t-not. For all writers (paid or voluntary, there’s no distinction), the need to capture and observe and put down is so strong, it can only be put off for so long. Avoidance eventually becomes more painful than the pain of actually doing it.
And maybe, maybe, it gets easier. Keep up the disciplines – the sitting, the making and guarding time, the stubborn refusal to quit – and the words will surely follow. With time, the writing voice get stronger than the voice that says stop.
While I wait to find out if that’s true, I remind myself that writing is a privilege and second to having a baby, there’s nothing so ecstatic as holding a finished thing in my hand, that by some miracle I still like after so many months, and is it stands there’s still only one way to get there. I never want to write, Mark Twain (or was it Dorothy Parker?) said, I want to have written.