Thomas Hart Benton’s Instruments of Power
The Guardian recently published an essay by an author who complained that far from being a dream job, writing is hard, “unimaginably hard, for those who have not tried it. I cannot imagine that it is less complex than brain surgery, or, indeed, the proverbial rocket science.” He goes on to list the skills one must master to do the job properly, calling it a “Herculean labour.”
Worse still, you always fail, he says. “Any author will agree. . . that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned. And, as perfectionists, we always fall well short of our goals. We live with failures, even when we are successes – because we have the whole weight of literature standing behind us, mocking us with greatness and shadowing us into insignificance.”
He goes on to talk about rejection, envy, loneliness and insecurity (emotional and economic).
Since reading the piece I’ve been having . . . thoughts. A few of them ignoble. I should say that I’ve met the author (we were on a press trip together, ages ago), though we’re not in contact. I’ve not read his novels. I imagine he was commissioned to write the essay in a hurry when the Guardian’s editors heard about the poll. I am sure that seeing it there in the paper, being a perfectionist, he wishes he could finesse some of his points. I can empathise. Having been a journalist, I also know that he’s not at all responsible for the ridiculous headline: “You Think Writing’s a Dream Job? It’s More Like a Horror Film.” Nor did he decide to illustrate it with a photo of Jack Nicholson from The Shining.
All that aside, I have to say it out loud: writing is not as hard or as complex as brain surgery, or any kind of surgery. It’s not as hard as rocket science. It is not as hard as standing on your feet all day gutting fish in a factory – or doing any kind of manual factory labour. It’s not as hard as going down a mine shaft in search of precious resources. It is not as hard as teaching. Writing is not as hard as firefighting. It is not as hard as sex work. It is not as hard as being an astronaut, a social worker, or a sweatshop pieceworker. It’s not as hard as farming.
I know. I write.
On other points, I agree with him. Writing is frustrating and the work is never quite right. Ian Rankin once told me, “Lee, the book I finish is never the one I set out to write, so then I have to write another one, and it’s not the book I had in mind, so I have to keep going.”
Certainly writing is humbling – my goodness is it humbling. If you’re neurotic – and I am – it presses every button, every day. But while that’s stressful, it’s not unbearable (except for my friends). Though it’s hard work, it’s not bone-breaking, life-threateningly hard.
The part of writing that tough is getting paid for it!
You know what would be harder? Not having a place to put your feelings when you’ve suffered in love or watched a good friend die. Not having an outlet for your ideas and your questions about the world. Not having a mode of expression. That would be hard. That is why we write. Well, one of the reasons.