I remember the first day of a workshop when we were going around the table getting to know each other, and several people had recently taken up writing, noting that they were bored with their present careers and that they enjoyed writing. “Writing is fun,” several of them said.
I kept my smile in place, but inside, something recoiled in horror. “Fun”—it seemed such a curious word for the constant, endless, soul-sucking struggles with the muse, with the marketplace, with the self. It struck me that no matter how long the list I was asked to give to describe writing, “fun” would never be a word I would choose.
For months I worried this over. What did it mean that I didn’t think writing was fun? What was wrong with me? Why was I doing something that I didn’t consider fun? I even stuck into a short story a moment mocking a character who calls everything “fun.” I remembered an old episode of This American Life that stuck with me, something exploring romantic relationships and a Russian woman saying something along the lines of this: “All you American women, you want a man who ‘makes you laugh.’ What’s so funny all the time about life? Nothing.” (Imagine a very scornful Russian accent.)
This is not to say that there aren’t things that I love about writing and the writing life: the thrill of nailing the exact right word, the moment where you see what should happen next and it’s good, the SASE in your mailbox that’s a contract instead of a rejection, the life I have where it’s perfectly normal to take a walk and think weird thoughts about imaginary people, hearing a bit of unusual dialogue and sticking it in a novel, the odd scrap of research falling into exact place to perfect the story’s metaphor, knowing that reading books and stories is part of my job, seeing my novels on a library shelf.
But when I think of “fun,” I guess I think of pleasant mindlessness, and writing is anything but mindless.
I’m probably making more than I should of one simple, nervous moment at the beginning of class with an inscrutable teacher sitting in the front of the room. But even so, why did these comments shake me so much? Why am I thinking about that one word all this time later? I don’t doubt my choice to devote my life to writing (I mean, I don’t doubt it more than a thousand times a day, which seems average).
Am I missing something? Is everyone else having fun? It wouldn’t seem so, given the conversations I tend to have with other writers in which we bitch about agents, publishers, never enough time to work, and our “stupid novels.”
Or was it apprehension I felt, seeing these students standing at the sunny edge of a field, about to plunge into the beginning of a scary, dark path, knowing that I was about to lead them deep into the tangled woods and then simply leave them there at the end of the semester?
I guess I don’t think roller coasters are “fun” either. But I remember vividly every single one I’ve ridden.