Writerland, Chapter 1: Do Writers Have to Suffer?
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
I stopped writing six years ago. I was planning to work on a new book but was advised by my agent that the book, which he might have been able to sell before the upheavals caused by digital disruption upended the publishing industry, was now something he didn't even think worth trying to shop. I wrote a couple of long magazine pieces and then, assuming my writing career had effectively come to a close, turned in 2013 to publishing, creating with my colleagues a nonfiction publishing platform we called The Big Roundtable, the precursor to the Delacorte Review. I wrote one short piece in 2015 about luring my daughter into the emotional purgatory that is being a New York Mets fan. But otherwise, not a word.
Then in late 2018 my daughter mentioned that she might be traveling to Israel, a country I had visited five times but had not returned to in the thirty-five years since the death of my best friend. I asked if she’d mind if we overlapped by a day, so that at long last I could make the trip to the desert kibbutz that my friend helped found and where he was buried. Her plans gave me the pretext I needed to make a trip I had so long avoided, and though I did not know it at the time, to return to writing.
I did not go with the intention of writing. Still, I packed a notebook and my laptop, just in case. I also brought along the letters my friend, Jonnie Maximon, had written to me so many years ago, and that I discovered I had saved. It was as if he were making the trip with me.
I returned with a notebook very different than the ones I’d carried back from all those years of reporting. Fewer quotes, fewer facts. More impressions, descriptions, memories. So many memories, extending back fifty years to my first trip to Israel and then, further back still, to meeting Jonnie and becoming his friend. In the past, I might have tinkered with a lede, an opening, on the flight home. But then again, that would have meant I was writing, and I still wasn’t sure.
I was fooling myself. I was going to write. I was always going to write because that is what we writers do. It is how we order things, collecting what we gather in a single document so that, when we’re done, we can look at it and if we got it right, say to ourselves, That’s what I learned.
I started to write. I wrote that first day and the next and the writing extended through the week and into the next. I wrote for three weeks and it was as it had always been – bouncing between bursts of a few hundred words, followed by stretches of nothing on the page. Anxiety, fear of failure, the occasional giddiness of fleeting success, sleeplessness.
And something else, something I could never recall feeling in any sustained way through all the stories I had written: joy.
I was enjoying myself.
How did that happen? I asked myself, why hadn’t I experienced this joy before? But that was really beside the point: I hadn't because I never believed I could, or should.
The more pressing question was whether I could find it again, whether there was a different way to approach my work.
It stood to reason that if I could find joy in writing after experiencing mostly pain, others could too. And if they could, not only would they be better for it, but so too would their stories. If their stories were better, the readers would be happier and if the readers were happier, well, the virtuous circle was complete.
This newsletter tells the story of a journey, and the plan is to tell it a chapter at a time, every other week.
I am setting off knowing what I am searching for, which is an answer, and whom I plan to meet along the way: all sorts of writers and editors. Journey stories have been around since the Odyssey, and their thrill is the thrill of discovery, for the writer as well as the reader.
Stories need to be launched and this one is propelled by a question framed by a belief: Is it inevitable and maybe even essential that writers suffer? I don't think it is. I have come to believe that nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves.
If you do not write, you think, That makes sense. If you do write, you think, Not so. I need to suffer. I need to hurt, because every story of every writer who ever earned a spot in Enduring Quotes From Famous Writers offered some variant on the experience distilled by the great sports writer Red Smith: Writing is easy. You just open a vein and do it…
I have written for newspapers and magazines and I have written six books. For over forty years, anxiety was a constant work companion. It could just as well have been depression. Pick your poison. I assumed the pain was part of the deal, that if I was lucky enough to be able to write for a living, I had to pay a price. That is what I thought, until I started writing again, and discovered that maybe I had been wrong all along.
Finding joy in writing is not about being happy, nor taking a cleansing breath and leaping in with a smile. It is about craft. It is about practice. It is about having the mastery of the material and the skills to convey what you learned through reporting, because while the best fiction is propelled by imagination, the best nonfiction (which is all I write, publish, and teach) is propelled by reporting.
It is about all those things, but it is also about something more: about a writer’s relationship with the story he or she is telling.
Which is something I never considered until I had been writing for fifteen years and discovered the book that would forever change the way I thought about my work.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.