The New York Times on the Difficulty and Glory of Writing

Anyone who writes regularly knows that it is difficult stuff. A recent article by David Gessner in the New York Times magazine, entitled “Those Who Write, Teach”, captured some of the storm-and-thunder involved in wrestling through the creation of words that form stories and arguments and descriptions and so on. Gessner is a young professor who is currently struggling with the desire to write in the midst of a busy life. Whether you’re a professor or not, his words are worth reflecting on:

“Even if we grant that you can be as original within the university as up in your garret, we must concede the possibility that something is lost by living a divided life. Intensity perhaps. The ability to focus hard and long on big, ambitious projects. A great writer, after all, must travel daily to a mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it. It’s fine for writing teachers to talk in self-help jargon about how their lives require “balance” and “shifting gears” between teaching and writing, but below that civil language lurks the uncomfortable fact that the creation of literature requires a degree of monomania, and that it is, at least in part, an irrational enterprise. It’s hard to throw your whole self into something when that self has another job.”

I like this description a good deal. It makes me laugh to think of traveling “to a mental subcontinent”, but it’s true. To write is to leave this earth for a while and anchor somewhere else. Furthermore, it’s not easy, light-hearted work. Writing is indeed an exercise of “anxiety” and “exertion”. It involves pushing through mental tiredness and clutter and earthly distraction in order to get to that far-off subcontinent. I find that I often have trouble interacting with real-world people after living in the fantasy world in which I am creating a written work. Much like a mad scientist fresh out of the basement chamber has a difficult time chatting about the weather, so too does a writer (a kind of mad scientist, one supposes) struggles to enter back into ordinary conversation and action.

In this second excerpt Gessner describes the urge to write that currently is building inside him like pressure in a bottle:

“I don’t know how long I can survive in captivity. For the time being I will continue to throw myself into teaching and try to take Stegner’s advice about the summers, while hoping my job doesn’t get in the way of my work. I do love teaching and recognize how lucky I am to be living for at least a part of each day in the real world, but while I try to be commonsensical, lately I have begun to feel something rising up inside me. A part of me misses the glee and obsession and even the anger. And a part of me worries that my work has become too professional, too small, and worries that I don’t spend as much time as I should reading or brooding or even fretting. Yes, my lifestyle is more healthful, but is health always the most important thing? The part that answers no to that question is now lying in wait, looking for ways to undermine my so-far-successful teaching career. In fact you could argue that that part of me had a hand in writing this essay, which I am finishing now, a few weeks before going up for tenure. After all, what would that part, my inner monomaniac, like more than to tear off his collar and sabotage the job that keeps him from running wild?”

I understand the bohemian desire to leave the 9 to 5 world behind and go off somewhere to write. I feel it myself at times. The soul of the writer is, I think, a little wild. One has to be a little crazy to work very hard for a long period of time on one piece of work. Of course, in the craziness, in the wildness, one seems to find some deeper purpose, something like the communication of the soul, the unleashing of the mind. If this is surely not the highest purpose in life (being the glorification of God through a heart redeemed by Christ), is it not yet a powerful, soul-gripping endeavor?

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  • B. L. Sutton

    “My name is Marshal Mathers and I’m an…” academic. The quote reflects my understanding and agreement with the struggles represented in this post. Though I must say to indulge too much is selfish. The end is fruitless for a person who does not share the map of his subcontinent with other would-be travelers.

  • Al

    While I write, a little, it is often in conjunction with my work, a pastor. And it certainly does not flow easily out of the tips of my fingers. However, there are other forms of expression that well up, or try to.

    Along the way, for those of us who are believers, there needs be growing in us an awareness of doing all for the glory of God and doing what we are doing as a part of his kingdom.

    Paul wrote about learning contentment. (Phil 4:11-13) How does this fit in to the mix of a job, perhaps a family and a burning desire to write (or anything else)?


  • owenstrachan

    That’s an excellent question, Al. I’m not sure how contentment fits with the desire to write. There’s certainly a balance that one must work out with prayer and dependence on the Spirit to guide.

    With that said, I think that agency, the will to do, is a good thing, a biblical thing. God often seems to bless effort, if the effort is not sinful or shot through with selfishness.

    That’s a quick stab at a great question.