, Derry, New Hampshire


May 16, 2013

Column: Writing is a form of manual labor


That’s usually all it takes to get me going again. But writing on that first page of a brand-new notebook is like the first dive off a diving board — will it be a clean slice through the water, or a stinging flop that sends torrents over the sides?

In times of need, like this morning, I turn to Donald Murray’s “Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers.”

It’s full of quotations and maxims from writers of the past and present who talk about how they get the work of writing done.

I instantly feel better when I realize that things could be much worse. I could be Joseph Conrad: “I sit here religiously every morning — I sit down eight hours every day — and sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair … Sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall.”

And I could keep worse company than Ernest Hemingway, who reminds me that what I’ve experienced this morning is par for the course for him: “My working habits are simple — long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.”

I know my fear of writing in a new notebook is irrational. I just proved it by writing these last nine paragraphs in the time it took to write the first four. I just needed to fill up some space to remind me, as John Hersey puts it, that “to be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk … and write; not waiting for that little jet of blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone — just plain going at it, in pain and delight.”


John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.

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