There is no writing more precious and self-indulgent than the essay about the difficulty of writing, so I will not write an essay about that. The truth is that writing is easy if you have a little talent. A little talent affords some writers a fine living, in fact. The only real pain comes not from the act of writing, but from a voice hovering in your ear, which may be your conscience or your mother but most likely is the devil, whispering: They’re not going to like it.
What does the devil get for his trouble? A cheapening of words. Another breezy, bullshitty essay, or another snarky, hopeless one: It makes little difference; the devil edits them all.
(See how he’s angling for your sympathy, with his poor-tortured-truthful-soul-in-a-sea-of-mendacity shtick?)
So if you’re not careful, you become by degrees a pandering liar, your essays like snappy book reports from the unfolding story of You. And this you is a petty beast—no longer worried about conjuring the apt word so much as hammering out the requisite number of them, a cheap little thrill in his chest the morning they are published, his energies turned to desperately broadcasting their existence in hopes they’ll go viral, which is truly and regretfully the best term for what you write once you care more for what they think than for whether it’s true to the marrow.
(If you could see how many sentences he’s typed and deleted just to get to this place, you’d understand how desperately he wishes he were the Typhoid Mary of essays.)
Someone mentions a husband who cheated on his wife, and four boys instinctively look at me, because their mother has made sure they all know I am a cheater, a promise-breaker, the sole reason their books and clothes and toys are spread across two homes.
And what am I to say? Will I make things better if I try to explain what it’s like to go for years being denied sex, affection, a little goddamned deference? I’m taking the high road. I’m sparing them the pain of feeling like ping-pong balls. One day they’ll see how Christ-like I’ve been.
And all of that self-praise aside, the truth is that nothing excuses what I’ve done.
(He doesn’t believe that for a second. See how he slipped in his excuses, under the pretense of musing to you, his anonymous confidante, about whether he should share them? What kind of self-preening jerk worries more about the opinions of strangers than the respect of his own children?)
They look at me, and I change the subject, because while I’m just an above-average but not great writer—and let’s just be honest with one another about the facts here, the increasingly obvious presence of which is another reason I edge closer, daily, to quitting altogether—I am an exceptional choreographer of conversations. I’m decent on a page; I’m a seducer in person. Just trust me on this.
(Jesus Christ, now he’s bragging about the very thing he wants you to think he both deeply regrets, yet is not responsible for.)
They love me, and how do you not believe in God or angels or something better than us and the mess we’ve made of things, when the creatures we birth are, for at least a brief time before they learn too much from us, simple saints in their dirty shoes and untrimmed fingernails?
(One time his now ex-wife tried to help him meet his idol Cal Ripken by suggesting he tell the Camden Yards officials his daughter had recently died, and this epitomizes a trading in grief that he often silently condemned her for.
And sometimes he shares this story as part of his ongoing labor to vindicate himself by comparison while nobly avoiding mention of her deeper flaws, which he knows you will infer because anyone so crass as to suggest what she urged in Baltimore must have done other deplorable things.
The point is: what a hypocrite he is—see how easily he trades in maudlin stories of his children?)
In church my head is bowed and my eyes are open…
(He wants you to imagine he considers himself a bad Christian. He wants you to judge him all the more earnest for inclining his head despite his Great Spiritual Suffering, and for being self-critical about opening his eyes while he does it.)
And I see my eight-year-old peering up at me…
(He trots out his youngest when he aims to double-down on the sentimentality.)
And I see that he sees in my downcast eyes despair and hope and whatever else comes spilling through the soul’s windows when its habitation is tilted on its axle.
(Turn your phrases, inconsequential man. Pirouette on the thin, small surface of your empty words.)
And if he sees anything about me, I pray it is this single unguarded moment, when even the devil himself is quieted in my ear, and no treacle spills from my lips.
Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website http://tonywoodlief.com/.
The above royalty free image of “The Hermit” (António Dacosta, 1985) is attributed to Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr.