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.
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.