Writing isn’t hard like digging ditches (or raking leaves!) is hard, but it most definitely can be hard on the spirit sometimes. It’s bad when the words aren’t coming, but it’s a different, perhaps deeper and harder kind of bad you’re feeling that the world doesn’t care* about all your work: No one understands. No one believes. Geez, no one even reads anymore!
What’s a writer to do during those rough patches?
I turn to other writers and books. What wisdom might I find there? There’s Rilke reminding me that “patience is everything,” and there’s the crazy-funny, crazy-smart Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird reminding me that shitty first drafts are okay, and there’s the master, John Gardner, who combines inspiration with practical advice (the chapter in The Art of Fiction about plotting is superb), and there are any number of books on my “writing book shelf” that have dog-eared pages and underlined sentences that will speak to me.
But, honestly, the best antidote for this sort of deep-dark darkness is Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel award ceremony. I may have posted it before, but it’s time to look at it again. Read it out loud, if you have to. I defy any writer not to feel stirred by these words.
December 10, 1950: William Faulkner
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
"Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Go forth and write!
*Sad reality: Actually, the world doesn’t care. The trick, always, is to find ways to ignore this fact.