Give me the Cake, with Frosting

In the (and temporary, I hope) brain-stunned state I find myself in after finishing a draft of my current novel—an Elder Darrow, if you’ve been pining for news—I’m forcing myself not to think about it for at least a month, or failing that, another day or two.

I try not to complain about the writing—nobody’s asking me to do it and it’s not like I’m making my living from it—but as my brain pan slowly refills and I’m shaking off the memory of those grinding mornings, I’m wondering (and again, temporarily, I hope) why the hell we do it.

And I come back to Annie Dillard, who had the most intelligent response I’ve heard to a question from one of her students as to whether Dillard thought he could be a writer.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you like sentences?”

If you pay attention to social media, you might think that writers spend all their time when they’re not writing, hustling their books, their public appearances, and their connections. I think of all that as a sideline, an unfortunate (at least for the introverted among us) byproduct of publishing your work and finding its readers.

Obviously, the largest number of us do not do this for the money which, even when it appears, is fickle and insufficient. And I think of contests, prizes, and panel appearances at conferences as frosting. Good for the flavor, but it is possible to mistake the frosting for the cake.

So if it isn’t the money and it isn’t the notoriety? Why?

For me, it does come down to, yes, the sentences, and the words, that occasional but deeply seductive moment when what you want to say and what you do say mesh like the fine gears of an intricate machine, when the pieces of a plot click into place. Oh yes, and the pens. And the Rhodia pads. And the physical act of writing, the hand moving across the page.

You get to judge what means success to you: your sales, your publication history, how close you come to saying exactly what you wanted to say. Or all of the above.

Writing, especially for publication, is a strange enough seeking, but then there are people in the world who hit little white balls with a stick or try to fool a fish with a brain the size of a peppercorn with a bit of fluff and feathers.

In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, “We’re in the world to fart around.” I can’t argue with that. The most sensible view of why we write may be that it is our own personal form of farting around. That’s good enough for me, and maybe we don’t need to be any more serious about it than that. I’ll be the one sitting over here, slightly cranky and slightly aloof, hoping you love my books.

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5 Responses to Give me the Cake, with Frosting

  1. John Clark says:

    Then, there’s the delicious inner mystery we writers possess. It’s the part of us that has no clue what’s going to happen until we write the next (sentence, page, chapter) and go, “So that’s what happened.”

  2. Enjoyed reading this, Dick. I’ve been reading a book on craft lately and it has me thinking a lot about why we do this and how we do it better. Also, alas, whether I have peaked and am sliding down the other side. It always helps to be reminded that taking the time to do it right, and the delight when it works, is part of the process.


  3. Bob Tucker says:

    Thanks Dick for the memorable Vonnegut quote (and I for one always look forward to your next novel).

  4. Julianne Spreng says:

    Definitely looking forward to the new Elder… Thank you for letting him come to us through you.

  5. jselbo says:

    Great post to read in the early morning hours going through pages yet again. Getting a few more sentences “right”. And I don’t have Rhodia notebook – look nice!

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