Understanding Philip Roth’s retirement: writing is hard

One of the things I dislike most about macho-man academia: the way that you are supposed to act like writing is a no-brainer and that, if you get a block when you are writing, or if you find writing difficult, you’re a sissy. There are many, many scholars who flounce around talking about how they “only took a year to write a book.”

Now, some of these scholars are, in fact, brilliant, and all of their accumulated work is great. But I can usually tell when a book only took a year to write. And I can usually tell when the writing came “easy.” I can tell because the ideas aren’t very deep and the writing isn’t all that good. But since so few people actually read anything, the lines on your CV can accumulate, and you will get raises and promotions.

Getting yourself to write can be a struggle. You have to beat your inner resistance and fear, and that’s easier for some of us than it is for others. For those who don’t have any resistance, well, that’s awesome: bully for you. But I do.

Doing what you need to do to write something as well as you possibly can–that requires real discipline. Here’s Phil Roth talking about his retirement in the New York Times:

Mr. Roth is now in excellent health, after back surgery in April, and exercises regularly. But he said: “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

Anybody who doesn’t understand that sentiment has never thrown away five pages that you have killed yourself to produce.

Some artists go on and on; Woody Allen seems to be incapable of stopping, and thus he goes on, throwing spaghetti at the wall, as it were, and some of it is great, and some of it is not-so-great. What else are you going to do if creative production is still the reason you get up in the morning?

I have no idea whether I’ll go out like Roth or Allen, or whether I will be fortunate enough to age to have the quandary. All I know is that it is hard–and it probably should be.

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