It wasn’t always gray, but that’s what I remember: the rags of an English winter, strewn across the sky; clouds and more clouds, endless, gloomy; rain hitting the sidewalk outside.
I was a prisoner of the weather, and of myself: of day after day at the typewriter, with nothing to show for it; of my longing to be a writer, a real writer, though the truth — dark and cheerless as the English sky — was that I had no idea what that meant.
I knew what it meant to be a reporter, faithful to the facts. As a reporter, I learned to weave a net of questions, and cast it, and haul in my wriggling catch: facts, and more facts; the who, what, why, where, and when of a story. But the contests and compromises of the great were no longer interesting. I’d discovered a more compelling story: the changes happening in me.
It was 1970. Nothing was as important to me, or as frustratingly vague, as the nature of consciousness, my own place in the universe. Where were the words to evoke these astonishments and confusions, the news of my awakening? I didn’t know where to begin.
“The trouble,” Robert Pirsig writes, “is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that just isn’t the way it ever is. . . . It’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and circumstance.”
It’s 1988. I sit at the typewriter, rewriting the same sentence thirty, forty, fifty different ways. Unsure what to say, I search desperately for the right way to say it, as if my meaning will become clear once I find an artful-enough phrase. If anything is calculated to deaden the very mood I’m trying to express, this is it. Instead of trusting, in my writing, the same process that leads me each day to new understanding — that opens my eyes to the illusion of separateness, helps me appreciate the connectedness of all things — I build a wall around myself, each word another brick.
This isn’t what I want! I want the words to sing, to weep, to shimmer with a dark beauty, to cast a kind of light. I want the moon in them, and the tides. I want the words to taste like me, to taste like my lips, to touch whoever reads them like a kiss.
I’ve never gotten used to writing for a deadline — defining myself by the calendar, by the hour hand: four weeks until the next issue; one more hour until the office comes to life and my brief solitude ends. Leisurely as a monthly deadline may seem — even to me at the beginning of the month — it grows more burdensome as the days pass. As I hurry to finish my essay, my writing suffers; I suffer. I wait impatiently for the right words — like a dog outside the door, howling, mournful, begging to be let in.
“There’s nothing to writing,” Red Smith writes. “You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”
The rivalry of different voices, each certain what I should say. I listen, confused. I stare at the empty page. Am I really listening? No, I just keep interrupting myself, insisting on the better word, the loftier concept, the more perfect phrase.
The editor in me looks over the shoulder of the writer. He’s a good editor, but this isn’t where he belongs. He leaves me no room for spontaneous expression, for putting down what’s unformed, unpolished, dumb.
Hugh Prather told me that writing used to be a chore, until he realized his talent for expressing himself was given to him to make him happy, not miserable.
“All writing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “comes by the grace of God.”
How difficult it is for me to accept my humanness, my brokenness. How adept I am at editing my inner life, as if it were a bad paragraph, wordy and imprecise. Just as the tall buildings and showy boulevards of a great city speak not of human suffering but of elegance and pride, so do I construct an architecture of accomplishment — these elegant words — in which my pain is denied.
Once, I quit writing, because I realized I was writing for the wrong reasons, in the service of an impossible ideal. I vowed that when I sat down at the typewriter again, it would be because I had something to say, not because I was trying to prove myself, or impress anyone. I didn’t write a word for six months.
“If you write for God,” Thomas Merton writes, “you will reach many people and bring them joy. If you write for people, you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written, and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.”
For years, being a writer has meant being a hero — staying up all night, drinking endless cups of coffee, coaxing one more line from a dull and tired mind. Finishing each month’s essay has been important for me; perhaps it’s been important for The Sun. During the magazine’s troubled years, I never knew from month to month how we’d get by. Didn’t I believe that if I worked hard — if I edited the articles and pasted up the pages and then stayed up all night to write — that if I did all this, God would provide? That if I kept faith with the deadline, aligned my will with the will of the universe, that some grace would sustain us, that The Sun would survive?
Unable to accept myself, maybe I’ve needed to be a hero; maybe all heroes do. But, alas, The Sun is no longer in distress. The readership has grown; the bills get paid on time. Would it take as much courage now not to be in every issue? To let the writer in me wander down this crooked path toward something unknown? How much courage does it take to leave behind a familiar form?
“By the time you have perfected any style of writing,” George Orwell writes, “you have always outgrown it.”
I don’t want the writing to feel like an obligation, like making love out of duty rather than desire.
I want to learn to listen better, judge myself less severely. I want to struggle less with getting it right. I want to be more patient with the creative impulse in me, allow it its seasons, its wandering life. Does this mean skipping a month, or writing shorter essays, or not writing at all for a while? How difficult it is for me to consider not writing for The Sun. I want to be, in these pages, the friend who’s always dependable; the lover who waves a greeting — and runs toward you excited, breathless, thrilled to be in your arms.