As literary controversies go, this is the granddaddy of them all: is writing even fun? Why of course, you say? Why else would I be doing it? Never mind the alcoholics and suicides. There’s parties and awards and private moments where you, for one second, wrote the perfect sentence. There’s the opportunity to communicate what you believe to everyone and see what they say. To lay out an argument and edit it. That’s what I believe about writing, and this is why I do it.
Philip Roth apparently didn’t think the whole thing was worth it. According to an encounter with a New York waiter/novelist, Roth thought writing was terrible work. And then Roth quit writing soon after and was damn happy. (Perhaps letting go of that whole Nobel Prize thing helps?) And then Elizabeth Gilbert, she of relentless optimism. self improvement, and globetrotting, was like, “no, no, writing is fun! How dare you, you cranky old man?”
This New Yorker article by Avi Steinberg lays out the difference between Roth and Gilbert, apart from the obvious, eloquently. So I’m not here to rehash that.
And you know the statistics and quotes as well as me. Kurt Vonnegut, a depressed writer himself, and one of the funniest, believed that writers were a naturally depressed lot. Bukowski, another cheerful soul, thought you shouldn’t be a writer unless you were consistently inches away from suicide. Not to mention unless we are Elizabeth Gilbert or lord save us, James Patterson, we’re inclined to starve. Really, what is the big deal about writing?
Well, I guess we’ll keep talking about me here. At some point, like right now for instance, when I have about three freelance articles to write, two of which are pro bono or close to it, several article ideas floating out in the ether, a few emails to send asking politely for review copies, and about three hours and a headache to do it all in…no, I really don’t like writing. When you have no idea how to approach a review of the book that’s been sitting on your couch for three weeks, I could cheerfully ram writing into the toilet with a crusty old plunger. And that’s not even including my fiction, which I’ve functionally ignored for the past year since I have no stories I feel moved to tell, my poetry, (same thing), and the nonfiction essays which I do not have the desire to rework. At times I’ve felt bitter and burnt and really wish I had gone into genetics like I wanted to when I was 11, because vivisecting mice would be a better career path, and far more fun.
Except that…aagh… truth be told, I like the thrill of pursuit, churning out ideas, and interviewing zany people (though I will never ever like transcribing and as soon as I become famous, which will happen in about 2087 at the rate I’m going, I’ll hire a secretary to take care that). Not to mention getting free books, which is why I started reviewing books in the first place. OK, that’s not a very writery reason, other than the cheapness factor. Let me do the writery thing and tell you a story.
Jennifer Egan, of Goon Squad acclaim, came to my Advanced Writing Workshop in my junior year of college. I had mixed feelings about Goon Squad and the class in general. Still, it’d be nice to hear a writer talk about writing, especially at a point when I felt so low. I did not expect to hear Jennifer Egan tell us that the most important thing in writing was to have fun, and though I was sitting there sleep-deprived with a head cold, about to rush off to volunteer at some ridiculous literary event, this got through to me. Oh yeah, Liz. Remember when you used to announce you were working on your novel and disappear into the study for hours, giggling because you were having so much fun?
Our professor, (coincidentally the department chair), asked us the week after what we’d taken away from the encounter with Egan. Though I felt absolutely ridiculous and like I could be saying something far more insightful—akin to having sat in presence of royalty and only noticing their shoes—I said that I found it amazing that Egan still had fun with writing. Do you know what my professor said? He said that was absolutely one of the most important things to keep in mind. That writing is supposed to be fun, no matter how hard it gets. He mentioned it several weeks later, at the end of the semester, during which I had written a story that once again made me laugh hysterically as I wrote it, about a couple and a giant loaf of bread (fill in the details however you want) that would later be accepted for publication.
You do have to make time for the fun. It doesn’t creep in automatically. But for instance, this post has been hilarious for me to write and research. And before I inadvertently take over the job of some other Jet Fuel columnist, let me resolve this controversy by saying there’s no controversy at all. Writing is fun. Even if you’re not drunk, or winning prizes. Apparently, not being Philip Roth helps too.
– Liz Baudler, Blogger
Editor’s Note: Liz Baudler recently graduated from Columbia College with a Fiction Writing degree. She founded and used to edit The Toucan Literary Magazine. She writes about Chicago Memoir for Examiner.com and reviews books for Chicago Literati. When she’s not glued to a computer researching literary controversies or reading books and chuckling, she likes to ride her bike, and cook. If you want to know what Liz thinks about when she’s not thinking about literature, go to www.theblonelyblog.wordpress.com and you will be occasionally disappointed. She still writes about literature.