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On Writing

There have been many books recently about reading - about the pleasures of libraries, the history and construction of the book, the passion of book collecting - but I don't think that they can add anything to the pleasure of reading, which flows out from one's character, not from the external world into it. Reading, to be sure, requires a text, and a text is an external artifact (even if you're reading something you wrote yesterday), but the pleasure of reading begins within. Some people like to get comfortable, while others, perched on the edge of their seats and hunched over their books, seem impervious to all externalities except the text. This is the visible aspect of reading, and it's not very important, but like the connections that readers invisibly make as they comprehend what they're reading, which are, it is determined by the reader, not the writer.  

I suspect that most readers believe, without being at all conscious of doing so, that the text that they're reading was composed as fluently as they themselves are reading it. This is certainly an effect that writers seek to create. Evidence of the act of writing ought to be completely effaced in a final draft, if only because it would simply remind most readers why they hate to write. Every now and then, I find that something I'm working really does seem to write itself, while all I do is read the words as they appear on the screen and fiddle with punctuation. But most of the time, writing is an unpleasantly erratic activity. Inclined to be a trifle vain about my human dignity, I'm mortified by the realization that nothing unlocks my inner chimpanzee quite as writing does. I fidget, I scratch, I look out the window vacantly, or stare at the walls as if the words I wanted were about to appear in ribbon headlines. I shift in my seat; I rub my eyes; I rearrange the debris surrounding the computer. Now and then, I type. Some of what I type makes sense right away. Some doesn't. I weigh and consider the inclusion of a fact: have I got it right, or should I check it in a reference book - or leave it out altogether? More fidgeting. The other day, I wasted an hour poring through all three volumes of Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, looking for something that I was sure I'd read there but never did manage to find. By the time I've nearly finished a piece of writing, the bottom of the page has accumulated five or ten severely aborted paragraphs. On the too-rare occasions when I find that I've written a real zinger, a mot justisssime, I have to fight down the impulse to pick up the phone and bother friends with my abominable conceit. The act of writing, chez moi, is not a pretty picture. The only attractive thing about it is the tray that's almost always by my side, with a teapot and a teacup on its saucer. I go through a lot of tea when I write, and inevitably the caffeine intensifies my simian jiggling.

When I was too young to have anything to write about, and so could only dream of writing someday, I saw myself seated with great composure in a sort of classical alcove, with abundant drapery to one side and a view of distant hills through open windows. Music would move gravely through the air. In the event, my writing life has to be marked not largo maestoso but allegro scherzando e pizzicato. I tried positioning my writing table so that when I looked up I looked out, but I found this very distracting; I prefer to have the window to one side. And a lot of dustcatching drapery would only muffle the sound of traffic on 86th Street, a dull roar that I would notice only if it stopped. Even so, whenever something interesting occurs to me while I'm reading, or taking a walk, or talking at the dinner table, I still think that the writing down of my new idea will be easy and pleasant, and I actually look forward to writing. I must be like the used-car salesman who was so persuasive that he convinced himself to buy one of the lemons on his lot. (May 2003)

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