The writing life
In a recent article in The New Yorker, John McPhee (one of my favorite authors) writes about the pain and difficulty of, not just writing, but writing well. He recounts all the work a real writer knows: the multiple rewrites, the problems with writer’s block, word selection, subject selection, the constant feeling that your writing is worthy of a second grade reader.
And yet this is John McPhee, who teaches at Princeton and has written dozens of books about matters as diverse as tennis and nuclear power, dirigibles and oranges, plate tectonics and birch bark canoes. If there’s anyone who can be called a successful contemporary writer, it’s John McPhee.
So why the doubt? Why the insecurity, the hesitation to call oneself a master wordsmith, an influential journalist, a brilliant writer? When everyone and their mother thinks they can write, why can’t a writer who works at one of the world’s most prestigious universities and is regularly published in one of the world’s finest literary magazines simply say, “I’m a great writer and after many years writing comes easily to me.”
The answer is in the process. While everyone who learns to read can put words down on paper, few do it well, because few put in the effort required to think about every word, every sentence, every thought on the page.
I remember the worst writer’s block I ever had. It came gift-wrapped in anticipation and excitement when I opened the box that contained my first personal computer—an Apple Macintosh, of course. It was an amazing experience. I no longer had to re-type a manuscript because I changed one word in the middle. I no longer had to worry about Wite-Out. I no longer settled for less because I ran out of time typing, even though I knew I could make it better if I just inserted one line in the second paragraph. I could cut, copy, paste with ease. And that’s all I did, for six months. I’d cut one line and place it here, change the tense of the story because I could, dwell on one sentence for days, revising, revising, revising, and going nowhere. It wasn’t until I overcame my overwrought overediting that I could move forward again.
But perhaps the best thing that ever happened to my writing occurred about a dozen years ago, when I was president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. I’d already had short stories published, won writing awards at the University of Michigan and from the State of Florida, and freelanced for a variety of newspapers and magazines. I’d worked as a copywriter for ad agencies and a writer/producer for Disney, but the single best job I’ve ever had has been working on this column for the Heritage.
I wanted a vehicle to improve communication within the community, so once a month I submitted an article to the Heritage, and it worked. The people I needed to reach read what I wrote, and it was good. Community relations improved. A few years later the timing was propitious, and I asked for the opportunity to replace Dan Coultoff, who had replaced Gene Starn, to write regular editorials. Jeff Gaeser gave me a chance, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history, albeit of a minor sort.
Now I won’t blow smoke your way and claim that this is a highly prized position. It’s not, nor would the people at the Heritage say it is. It’s fun to have this little sphere of influence all to myself. It’s fun to write about whatever I want, from global politics to the most personal of subject matters. More than that, however, is what it’s done for me as both a writer and a person. It’s honed my writing, teaching me how to effectively communicate with a minimal amount of waste in 800 words or less. It’s taught me discipline, introspection, and, to a certain degree, the confidence to speak my mind rather than remain silent on the most important issues of the day and my life. It’s not easy. It does take time, and editing, and I think about everything I say. And for all that, I’m deeply indebted, and very grateful.
So now I come to the end of another season of writing. My last child has been bar mitzvahed, and there will be no more rites of passage articles, nor any reason to continue other than my love of writing. But I do plan to be back in the fall, and meanwhile put you all on notice. A collection of 72 columns that are my personal favorites will appear online when I return. Called “The Good Word: A Decade of Jewish Thought and Chutzpah,” it will be available as both a paperback and ebook. Look for it, and if you think a writing life is worth supporting, buy a copy and throw a few good words my way. Peace out.
And that’s the Good Word for 2012-13. The opinions in this column are those of the writer and not the Heritage or any other individual, agency or organization. Send your thoughts, comments and critiques to the Heritage or email email@example.com.