Alan Jacobs is irritated with the novelist Philip Roth for discouraging a newly published writer; Roth told the guy to stop now, that writing is nothing but torture. Here’s part of Alan’s response:
To write well, one must work very hard. But then, to do almost anything well, one must work very hard. And for his work Roth became quite famous, endlessly lauded, and extremely rich, which is more than we can say for almost everyone else who is as good at his or her craft as Roth was at his. So to Roth I want to say: Yes, you worked your tail off to write those books; you were hard on yourself, you demanded excellence, you forced yourself to go back to your task again and again until you got it right, or as close to right as you could get. That’s admirable. But it wasn’t “torture,” and you were amply rewarded for your efforts. You should consider yourself far, far better off than most.
Amen and amen. Honestly, where does Philip Roth get off talking like this? I work hard at my writing, but in the scorching Louisiana summer, when I see men hard at work doing road construction, or some other physically demanding job, I realize how easy I have it. That’s not quite Alan’s point, I recognize, but still, it’s repulsive for Roth to carry on like that.
More to Alan’s point, I think of a wonderful movie I saw on Netflix streaming yesterday, on the recommendation of a reader (for which, thanks): Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. I’ve embedded the trailer above. It’s a documentary about Jiro Ono, arguably Japan’s greatest sushi chef. His tiny restaurant (it seats 10) in a Tokyo subway station holds three Michelin stars. Jiro is in his mid-eighties, and is still working hard. The film is about craftsmanship and discipline. Jiro is a humble man who has spent his life submitting to the craft of making sushi, and despite being perhaps the best in the world at his craft, is even now trying to get better.
He dreams of sushi sometimes, and then makes what he dreams of.
The lesson in the movie is that Jiro became a master of his craft (art?) through hard work, strict discipline, and constant striving after perfection. But it’s also a matter of talent, of natural creativity. His inborn talent might have been wasted had he not submitted to the yoke of discipline and work. The limits he set on himself channeled his raw talent into greatness. Jiro gave up a lot for his craft — and still does — but you can tell he also finds immense joy in a job done well.
One cannot imagine Jiro Ono making the same kind of complaint about being a sushi chef that Philip Roth makes about being a writer.
I will never be a writer in Roth’s league, though perhaps I could approach it if I were more disciplined. But I find that my own experience of writing is far more like Jiro’s of sushi. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, I would do nothing but read and write all day and all night, between meals and sleep. I think about it all the time. Some nights — this happened two nights ago, actually — I will actually think of something after I’ve turned off the lights and am drifting off to sleep, and will get up, come to the living room, sit down with my laptop and write it down. I’m almost never not writing, even when I’m not at my computer.
In fact, Julie will come up to me at social events sometimes and say, “Thurber,” in a “watch yourself, mister” tone of voice. This comes from a habit the writer James Thurber’s wife had, of catching him at parties losing himself in his head, writing. It’s Julie’s way of saying, “Snap out of it, get your head back with the rest of us.” For me, this is the hardest part about writing: I can almost never simply be present in an experience. I’m always mediating it through words, even if just in my head. How do I describe what that looks like? How do I describe what that felt like? I’m always thinking those kinds of questions. The only time I can ever turn it off is when I drink, and forget myself, forget to analyze experience, and just experience it. For me, at least, that’s the really hard part of writing: never being able to stop, and just be at peace, and rest.
This is not a bad problem to have. In fact, having that problem is a privilege. But it is a problem. If there’s any “torture” to writing — and I think the word is extravagant and inappropriate here — that’s where it comes from: the inability to rest.