Head Banging Against the Low Ceiling of One’s Own Talent

Some days it’s easier to write than others.
About a week ago I woke up with the germ of an idea for a book I‘ve been working on. Nothing earthshaking, just an agreeable little plot twist that might have amused readers. By late that afternoon I’d come to realize either the idea initially had no legs, or it had lost its appeal in the hours between six in the morning and midnight. Or perhaps my mood changed, and what looked inviting early was simply dimmed.
This happens routinely. Writing is, for better or for worse, an emotional endeavor, one based on frustration and, often, undefinable blues. I know a few content writers, but their output so far has been limited. The ones with issues, with subcutaneous melancholy, with angst over yesterday and tomorrow, those writers full of fears and uncertainty about what the upcoming hours will bring, they seem to produce stuff by the reams. Not necessarily good stuff, mind you, just lots of stuff.
Georges Simenon once said that “writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.” If this is true (and I sometimes believe it is), then one must ask, why write? Normal people don’t have a need to tidy their thoughts so they can be wrestled upon a page and thrust, unwanted, upon others. Perhaps this is yet another addiction, albeit a marginally socially acceptable one.
Pondering such imponderables can rapidly escalate one’s discontent with the process. Is there anything as unglamorous as hunting and pecking at a keyboard all day in the hope something worthwhile will emerge?
Simon Brett, a bestselling writer, wrote in the quarterly Journal of the Society of Authors that, “When the writing’s going well, the author’s is the perfect life. When it’s going badly, there’s no one else to blame.” He believes that, “writers feed on themselves. It’s an emotional business. A new idea, a surge of energy that lasts a paragraph, a page, a chapter, can make you feel you’re producing the definitive work that is going to redefine the parameters of the novel as an art form. Yet within a sentence, when the right phrase won’t come, you can be in total despair and about to scrap the whole project.”
And then of course, writing is solitary work. There’s no feedback, no attaboy, no reason to doubt that only an overactive ego might claim that anything produced is worth reading. I know, for example, that in the last few years, I’ve stopped hounding most of my friends to read my stuff. This came after I realized the request was tantamount to asking they give their time to do something they might not enjoy. That’s how thoughts pattern themselves initially. Realistically, who knows, readers might enjoy my work, but this isn’t the concept to emerge first, if ever. (Which of course makes the blog an ideal vehicle. Bloggers don’t ask people to read them. They simply hurl their stuff against a virtual wall and rarely even know what sticks.)
Additionally, writing is a day-at-a-time process that must begin anew each morning regardless of one’s outlook on life. Says Brett, “For most writers, any time spent away from the keyboard or pad of paper is basically cheating. You should be writing.”
But of course can’t write all the time. Brett quotes Michael Ratcliffe in a Times review of Graham Greene, “Writing itself, of course, is an ideal form of escape, unless you happen to be a writer, in which case there comes a time when you have to escape from writing, too.”
This is difficult for a lot of us. Our characters are more interesting than we are, their adventures more captivating, their dialogues wittier than anything we might have to say in ordinary conversation. Probably, they’re younger, more vital and better looking as well, and more attractive to the opposite sex. “Eventually,” writes Brett, “you’re going to have to get back to reality. Because, apart from sometimes being the most fun you can imagine, writing fiction is also the most exhausting activity you’re ever going to undertake.”
And another thing: There is no guarantee what was written with grand expectations today will be seen tomorrow in the same light. I can probably count on fingers and toes the pages written that, later, I still believe are as good as the day they were born. (This has other ramifications. Most writers see both the permanence and ephemerae or words, written and spoken. What I am told Tuesday may not hold Wednesday.)
The trade is riddled with failure, and “authors who feel they’ve failed don’t have to look far for confirmation of that opinion,” says Brett. “Bestsellers lists are everywhere, bulging with the names of other writers. As if the living weren’t bad enough, you also have the genius of the dead to contend with. Cast your eye along your bookshelves. It doesn’t take long, looking at names like, Austen, Dumas, Tolstoy or Wodehouse, to feel your head banging against the low ceiling of your own talent.”
In spite of all this dire stuff, writing remains the art of hope. Most of us know one or two authors who’ve made it, who travel to the south of France yearly and get six-figure checks and the adulation of readers. We hope to transcend ourselves, to obtain with our creations what we can’t find personally. We look to be revealed while hiding in our tale.
I’m certain most writers would be willing to be left behind if only their works could forge ahead.

About epiphanettes

Writer, songcrafter, possibly the best French pedal steel guitarist in Virginia.
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