, Derry, New Hampshire


May 16, 2013

Column: Writing is a form of manual labor

We all know people who can’t leave their homes with dirty dishes in the sink. And others insist on ironing just about everything, including well-worn jeans and sheets for the bed.

I know people — the orderly kind, the neatniks — who’d love the prospect of flipping open the cover of a spanking-new notebook and seeing page after page of unadulterated blankness.

Look at the possibilities, they’d say. All those clean, straight lines, one after the other, beckoning a writer to reveal his inner thoughts, one word at a time.

But where they’d see pleasure, I see pain.

The four paragraphs above total 96 words — yes, I counted — and took me 45 minutes to write, because while I’ve written hundreds of newspaper columns in the past 14 years, knowing that I must begin a new one in a new notebook almost paralyzed me.

Writing is hard work. At least writing well is. John Gregory Dunne says “writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.”

I’ve never laid pipe, but one summer I did lay sod, and I remember thinking, as I tossed roll after roll of the stuff onto a flatbed truck, How am I ever going to lay all of this out so it looks right?

I discovered during that day that the hardest part was getting started. I fretted over the placement of each roll. But once I had several rolls behind me, it got easier. One after the other, empty spaces got filled. It became strangely satisfying.

I feel the same way about writing in my notebook. The writing comes easier when physical evidence proves that I’ve done it before. Whenever I get stuck, I flip back and look at all the other pages I’ve filled in the past.

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