by Suzanne Farrell Smith, with Cheryl Wilder
ed. Claire Guyton
There are days when I so badly want to write, that I think I could put my infant son in his crib, close the nursery door, and let him wile away the day so I could surrender to my urge. I don’t. Of course I don’t. But sometimes I think I could.
In January 2006, in a downtown Manhattan jury holding room, while braiding and re-braiding my hair and waiting for my name to be called, I was startled by a fervid need to write. At the time, I was teaching second grade at a school for boys. My baseball-obsessed class of eight-year-olds had recently revealed they were surprised that girls like baseball too. An hour into my first morning of jury duty, backpack loaded with my intended time-passers (magazines, crosswords, mail), I claimed a cubicle desk and gave in to my urge to write a chapter book about a girl named Zoo who loves baseball. It was simple: I had to write this book for my class. My fingers danced and my name was never called. In twenty-one hours over three days, the entire time I sat in the holding room, I wrote a complete draft.
After that, I snuck writing in at school, envisioning a series for Zoo and her friends. I jotted essay ideas on apple-shaped notepaper and my mind drifted at lunchtime from the “Muenster bagels” on the table to the book I would write about childhood obesity. A colleague and I wrote a tongue-in-cheek dramatization of the First Continental Congress for our students to perform. During a parent conference, I got the idea to write a series that combined math and geography, and lost the conversation thread while fantasizing about “polar perimeter” and “Serengeti symmetry.” I was living two lives: one, the professional educator; and the other, the artist, starving inside because I’d developed a longing and couldn’t fulfill it.
What happened next alarmed me because it felt as though it happened outside my control. Two months after my three-day writing bender in that Manhattan courthouse, I resigned from my teaching job and applied to graduate school. I applied to only one program, The New School for Social Research, because, among other things, it required a thesis rather than a comprehensive exam. I needed to write.
Christopher Hitchens co-taught one of my first semester classes, “Cultural Criticism.” During his handful of appearances, Hitchens exposed us to fascinating facets of the writing and lives of Twain, Orwell, Mencken, and… Hitchens. Here was a real writer. On Hitchens days, the class attended in full to lap up his words. Again and again he said something that imprinted itself—for better or worse—on my understanding of writers: Writers need to write every day. In other words, writing is biological. Like a reflex writers are born with. Writing is an acute urge with no lasting satisfaction, for it repeats itself each and every day. To me, that sounded like obsession. Passion. Lust. And it sounded like justification for my abandonment of a stable career. Listening to Hitchens, I leaned as far forward as my chair-desk allowed, and practically shivered with recognition. That’s why I badly needed to leave the job that I really did love. I am a writer.
Why such longing for the page? Writers give a number of reasons for why they write: to understand a situation, to solve a problem, to make sense of chaos, to share information, to opine, to clear cobwebs, to inspire new ways of thinking, and on and on. George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is often cited for its list of four primary motives—“sheer egoism,” “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse,” and “political purpose”—which spring from the intellect and nod to another sin, that of Pride.
But something else lurks inside our motivation, something that originates not in our intellect but in our gut, a gnawing hunger that seizes us in an inspired moment. Orwell sees something deep in writing that is neither noble nor pretty, a “mystery” that lies behind all other motives: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” I think back to Hitchens’s Lustful comments on the writing life, delivered through fat wet lips under bloodshot eyes and sagging skin, via a smoke-ruined voice scraped together from raspy breaths, his round belly full of whiskey and ready for more after class—Hitchens as writer was a picture of Lust’s wreckage.
Writers “itch” to write. We feel the “burn” and write even though it hurts. I am aware of my Lust most when the world presents just a spare hint of an idea and suddenly nothing else matters. My breath quickens and my body lurches. The need to spill words interrupts everything, including work, time with my family, sleep.
We asked a few writer friends if they experience the same. “I’m one of those writers that have to write. Otherwise I’m cranky,” my series co-author, Cheryl, says. “I drop everything … to make notes, write a few lines or a stanza—enough to get the idea on paper. Five minutes at most.” Giving in to her urge satisfies Cheryl, but only for a moment. She’s left wanting more. “Walking away from the initial idea fuels a lust to revisit those words; I’m tantalized by the mystery of where they will take me when we meet again. Full lust kicks in when I finally sit down with them and I’m working toward a first draft. Nothing pries me from the chair when I’m engaged in a long love-fest with flushing out an original image, sentiment, or idea.”
“Sometimes I think of something in the shower,” says Risa Nye, “which means I don’t get around to all my usual post-shower maintenance routines until I write. An hour later (maybe longer), I realize my hair has dried into its frizzy natural state, my skin cries out for moisturizer, and I have not quite finished getting dressed.” I imagine what writers look like to others, as our eyes fade in order to focus on the inner landscape, and our hair, like Nye’s, runs wild. Orwell’s demon bares itself.
Recently, when my newborn son’s Social Security card arrived missing one of his middle names, I took him to the nearest government office to have it corrected, an outing that proved at once humorous and frustrating. I needed to write about it the moment we got home. My tiny baby lay on his activity mat, staring at his hanging toys, while I kneeled next to him with my laptop, hastily logging notes on what had happened at the courthouse. Did I miss twenty minutes of bonding time when I could have been joggling my son’s owl chime? Yes. It couldn’t wait until he was napping? No.
Lusting to write can make us Kerouacs, tossing off pages and pages of raw material. Losing ourselves in the act is, in fact, something we are at times advised to do—just write, without looking back at what’s been written. Push forward. Succumb to the stream of consciousness. There’s always time to go back later. When Lust takes hold, however, how long should we write before we wrench ourselves away? When is it time to let the words breathe, and when do we return to revise? Do we even have the self-control to stop and move on to something else?
One problem with Lusting to write is that we don’t always Lust to engage in all stages of the writing process. We might Lust for that one piece, nurturing it, cradling it, unable to tear ourselves away and release it to readers. We might Lust after what’s new, without finishing drafts—it’s always the next project, the fresh idea, the novel form that tempts us to the page. I have a stack of unfinished pieces, a folder of diatribes and scatterbrained story starters, a file stuffed with rejections of pieces that, when I really examine them, were just not good enough to submit.
Another problem with our Lust is that we writers Lust for all things literary, which makes it tough to prioritize. There are times I find myself Lusting after anything and everything that stimulates writing, without actually writing a word. I ask to be assigned more magazine submissions even when time is scarce. I bookmark so many online essays my list of unread pieces would take hours to scroll. I volunteer to provide feedback on friends’ manuscripts. The summer after I started grad school, I attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, enjoying nightly readings of brand-new work by attendees. I came home Lusting for more. I founded a group to fill that need, and, years later, still rely on my monthly fix.
Formally introduced to the writing life by Hitchens, I used to think “true writers” are those who always feel Lustful and give in to their writing urges, day in and day out, at the expense of their “normal” lives—or those who never build non-writing lives in the first place. Those who are married to writers, who write twelve hours a day, who talk about writing with other writers, who dress, speak, and act the part. I saw Hemingway and Woolf, Hughes and Stein, Kerouac and King. In other words, I saw true writers as those who perpetually live in sin.
I valued this kind of Lust, one I expected to look like the cover of a romance novel. And I Envied it. I thought that writing—and the sexier of its attendant activities like giving intimate public readings or spending debaucherous evenings with other writers—should be an all-consuming passion that wells up from within, takes over, and makes us sling ink all over everything without worrying about what gets dirty.
It’s both tantalizing and troubling to consider a life so full of writing there’s no room for anything else. I simply Lust after too many other things. Time, most of all, but not only time to write—time to read, cook, and stay current with Breaking Bad. When asked if she ever Lusts after things other than writing, Risa Nye says, “You mean like ice cream? Or going out with friends? Or sleeping? Checking my stats on my blog obsessively? Then, yes.” Sleeping sounds great to me, too, now that I have a baby. I need strolls along the High Line or East River Esplanade. I long for afternoons at a market—farmers or flea, Amish or Chelsea. Then there’s the editing jobs, the friends with problems, the family obligations, the apartment repairs, the laundry. I understand now that I am no less a true writer for knowing that I must juggle my writing cravings with other wants and commitments.
Of course there are many ways to juggle our Lust for writing, our desires for the writing life, and our everything-else. Almost seven years into my own writing life, I’m not clear on what model of the writing life I should emulate. I floated Hitchens’s comments and my former vision of true writers in a workshop once and was admonished by writers who write for different reasons, write just in the summers, or spend most of their writing time working on paying projects they’d rather not be doing. Maybe no “true writer” automatically succumbs to the Lust to write. We all wrestle with the seductive beast—whether trying to lock it out, tame it, or entice it into one’s bed—in hope of finding the right relationship with writing.
“The ‘true writer’ idea is a tricky one,” says Jason Mott. “I consider myself a true writer now because I’m, fortunately, now able to do it full-time. This is a rarity and a blessing. … Was I a true writer before? Actually, I believe I was. A true writer is simply someone who finds it impossible not to write. If you’re okay just writing occasionally, you should be doing something else.” But Mott acknowledges that sometimes we must write when it’s disassociated and mechanical, when we’re driven not by Lust but by discipline. Mott, echoing Hitchens, says, “There is the ‘myth of the muse’ that hurts writers the most. Some people think writers only write when they’re inspired. No. Factory workers, car salesmen, lawyers, shipbuilders … those people write when they’re inspired. Writers write every day. They reach out and claim their inspiration, they don’t wait for it to find them.”
Adam Arvidson says it can be difficult to maintain Lust specifically because he gets to write for a living. “To use the metaphor of seduction: I pitch an idea to a magazine that I am totally in love with at the time, but through the process of research and interviews, I find I’m maybe not as interested in the topic as I thought I would be. So when I actually have to sit down and consummate the assignment, I find myself going through the motions. There’s no Lust anymore, just performance. And, insidiously, by then I usually have a new love, a new article, something I’m actually interested in. And I’d much rather be seducing that project than consummating the current one.”
Jennifer Lunden says, “I lust to write every day. It’s what drives me to eke out the time to write when I can.” And since she works a full-time job outside of writing, the desire to write can feel quite wrong. “It’s like lusting after a hot but taxing lover even though I’m already married. To my other job. The one that pays the bills.” But Lunden aligns Lust with another passionate word: mission. Intellect and Lust meet, creating the force needed to wrench Lunden away from “real life.” “This lust was not always so powerful,” she says. “At one time, it was more of a tender, hopeful yearning. … But then I discovered my mission. My passion, if you will. And now, nothing will stop me, not even my other job, not even all the other thieves of time.”
Tavia Gilbert explains that her motivation to write is not to earn an income or answer an urge. Rather, she’s motivated by circumstance. “I am significantly challenged by my body,” says Gilbert, “by the chronic pain of fourteen corrective foot surgeries, and by pain and limitation from spinal ill-health resulting from dysfunctional feet.” Gilbert notes that despite the pain, it is still possible to do this thing she does so well—writing—so she does it. “I don’t feel that I must write, like some people seem to. But I do feel that I can and I should write, especially because pain has given me a premature look at aging, a shadow experience of torture, insight into the lives of people with far more debilitating injuries and illnesses than I have had to bear.” The very real threat of a life without writing brings Gilbert to the page. “I can’t say if I would have pursued writing without this unusual path, but I do think my circumstances were offered to me in this lifetime as an opportunity, a teacher, and a gift.” And as Cheryl points out in her essay on Sloth, neglecting one’s gifts is a grave sin indeed.
What I didn’t foresee when I first left my stable job and jumped into bed with writing was the series of quiet activities that make the writing life less a steamy affair and more an enduring relationship with its periods of distance, ongoing spats, and moments of tenderness. I didn’t foresee what my writing friends grapple with every day, the different Lusts and longings that pull them in all directions. Now I laugh at those who chide authors they don’t like by saying, “Anyone can write a book!” Anyone can try to write a book, but it takes discipline to manage one’s life in order to actually write one. Page one might be wine, silk, and mood lighting. But page 200 is microwave popcorn for lunch and you’re lucky if you showered. Still love writing when it’s crabby and has morning breath?
Just weeks into my first master’s program, I knew I’d want to get my MFA, too. And a couple semesters into that, I knew I’d need a post-graduate semester. More loans, more late nights and weekends of schoolwork, more time spent drumming up income in lieu of a regular job—anything for writing. But in the last year, I’ve wondered and worried if my own Lust for writing was still there. Once I finished and submitted my memoir manuscript, I struggled to ramp up the same fervor I felt while writing the book and while living as a graduate student, the fervor I felt almost seven years ago when I typed: “The bell rang. Zoo knew she was in trouble.” Instead, I expanded my freelance editing business, taught graduate school, and became a mother. And honestly, I enjoyed HBO and weekends at the lake more than almost anything else. Life took me away from writing more and more. The fire had cooled.
In these last couple of months, working on this series has meant living the writing life each and every day—to show up for Cheryl and Claire, to meet deadlines, to fulfill my promise to our surveyed writers. But none of this has felt like an obligation. I’ve wanted to get in the chair. I’ve yearned for it. It’s just the spice my writing life needed. There’s nothing so unabashedly sexy as raw pages in need of substantial revision. There’s nothing that takes my breath away quite like a deadline knocking at my door.
Late last night I fed my son and put him to bed, awoke three hours later to comfort and feed him once again, and set my alarm for one hour after that in order to write. And so, after yet another night of four hours of sleep, while my son and husband still snooze, I choose to write rather than eat breakfast, check email, do house chores, shower. I choose to write over enjoying a precious extra hour of sleep. Because this morning, here on this page, it’s like no time has passed since I last tinkered with my words, running them through my fingers and watching them fall in new arrangements. Tired as I am, I want to be doing this more than anything else. This morning, I Lust to write.
The writer friends quoted here…
The questions we asked…
- Do you ever burn to write but can’t?
- Do you ever intellectually know you need to write and sit down to do it, even without the burn?
- Do you ever desire to crack an inner ring of “true writers” but fear that you can’t because you hold a job, raise a family, watch television and movies, etc?
- Has Lust for other things ever hindered your writing life?
- Have you ever Lusted for other writers? For their work? For a writing environment?
Image of red paint or ink splashed into water. Experimental abstract photography by FLY:D via Unsplash.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.