The Agony and the Ecstasy

Nothing in life is so terrifying as a blank page, admitted Joseph Conrad several decades ago.

Regardless of that hard reality, this Pole, for whom English was a second language, devoted much of his adult life to filling blank pages with literary genius, thus creating enduring English masterpieces of fiction.

That Conrad, a profound and prolific writer, should be intimidated by the demands of his craft attests to the inherent difficulties involved in transposing thoughts from the mind to paper or word processor.

Writing is a painful process. At the same time it can be exhilarating and liberating. It is a melding, in unequal proportions, of pleasure and pain. As I once divulged to a group of teachers at the Taft Institute of Government at Rhode Island College some time ago, writing, for me, is a form of therapy in which the toxic feelings that result from the rampant abuses within our political system can be released.

Sometimes — though rarely — a piece will virtually write itself, as if some invisible force is working at my computer keyboard, a phenomenon akin to the mysterious “mechanical writing” that so fascinated the heralded British poet William Butler Yeats.

Mostly, though, it’s a strain.

Anyone who claims to love the process is either a liar or a sado-masochist. For mastering the written word is brutal, time-consuming, draining; a sufferer’s paradise. And that’s probably at the heart of what makes it such a worthwhile endeavor.

For someone like me, who has never had an original thought in his life (even that line is borrowed!), attempts at analysis are bound to be frustrating. My mind is cluttered with a jumble of junk and insights that writing forces me to sort through.

When it comes to writing and reading, I know only a single speed — slow: like driving a car constantly in first gear. (It took Carl Sandburg fifteen years to write his six-volume biography of Lincoln; it’s taken me more than twenty just to read it.)

Like the French novelist Gustave Flaubert who searched tirelessly for “le mot juste,” I constantly struggle for the right term, expression, phrase, or metaphor to accurately convey the thought lurking in my mind. It’s often a frustrating pursuit.

As the more perceptive of my readers must have detected by now, I was not trained as a writer. The only formal instruction I received was a one-semester course during my senior year in high school which turned out to be the most valuable component of my academic program there.

Nevertheless, writing always held a certain fascination for me. I wrote for my high school newspaper and churned out press releases and speeches for political candidates. For nearly two years following college, I worked as a news correspondent for a small weekly paper.

The one constant was that every assignment was thrilling and terrifying at the same time, like jumping out of a plane wondering on every occasion whether the parachute would open.

As a columnist, the question I am asked most often is how I manage to find topics to write about each week. Ironically, that’s actually the easy part. I scan the news, bounce ideas off my wife, solicit views of friends and colleagues. And I maintain a list of ideas. Somehow, no matter how many commentaries I write, the list never gets shorter.

But everything else that writing entails is strenuous.

There is nothing glamorous about the process itself. It is often tedious, involving reading and multiple re-readings, cutting and pasting thoughts to determine where they fit most comfortably and logically.

Ideas percolate randomly like the numbered balls in a lottery drawing. My writing evolves in a disorderly, chaotic manner, in fits and starts, like a car lurching forward when driven by a person uninitiated in the art of synchronizing a shift and clutch.

One of the most taxing aspects of writing weekly is being consumed by the task. Every spare moment — driving, showering, eating — is devoted to thinking about the topic at hand. And, as syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman so aptly observed, being a columnist is like being married to a nymphomaniac: as soon as you’re finished, you have to start all over again!

There are other challenges too.

When I tackle a controversial topic and take an unpopular or unconventional stance (as I’m prone do do), I often feel as if I’m naked in the school yard. And there’s always a feeling of vulnerability when my work, with all its imperfections, enters the public domain.

The writing process is always full of surprises too. What momentarily passes for brilliant insights can became quite ordinary-looking at second glance. And the destination a writer ultimately arrives at when concluding an essay isn’t always where he had originally planned to go. Every writing exercise is a voyage of self-discovery; each time it’s a plunge into the uncharted depths of the mind.

Words can be powerful weapons, especially when they reach a mass audience; a writer, therefore, must exercise caution about how he wields them. I’ve discovered it’s frighteningly easy to get carried away with my own argument and to become captive of my own rhetoric.

In taking a chainsaw to seedy politicians and other wrongdoers, I have to remind myself that I’m dealing with fellow human beings (for the most part), individuals who are imperfect just like me. In many instances they are faced with temptations that anyone would find hard to resist. While criticizing others for their shortcomings, I struggle not to lose sight of my own.

It’s tough to consistently produce quality work, and I am seldom satisfied with the final product of my labors. When I fall far short of my own expectations, I comfort myself with the knowledge that no one can hit a home run every time at bat. It’s small consolation.

It can be argued that the writer’s task is to create order out of chaos, and that’s always a wrenching experience. Noting that even smoke rings have form, the notable New England poet Robert Frost once said that his poems were intended to provide “a momentary stay against confusion.” That should be a universal goal of writers.

I envy those authors whose imaginations are so prodigious, whose talents are so natural, whose styles are so seductive, that they can write gems with seeming ease. Stephen King practically pumps out gripping thrillers in his sleep. Ray Bradbury, the popular science fiction writer, recently admitted that he writes quickly and never revises. And Time magazine’s essayist, Lance Morrow, is blessed with a fluid and sophisticated and eloquent means of expressing profundities.

For someone of pedestrian skill like me who has to wrestle with virtually every sentence to tame it, that level of accomplishment is elusive. It would be easier for me to ride a unicycle on a suspended fishing line in the midst of a hurricane than to write anything remotely approaching the brilliance of their prose.

“It don’t come easy,” as Ringo Starr sang long ago. “You know it don’t come easy.”

A version of this essay was published in 1995.