Piers Paul Read is two things: a typical writer and an atypical one. He is successful at what he does, and that makes him atypical. His nine novels, plus the non-fiction best seller Alive, have done well enough for him to live in the south of France, near Nice, where he writes amid great beauty and good food. But he complains, and that makes him typical. "It's a wretched life, a writer's life," he said in a recent interview. "My father always tried to put me off it."
I suppose I should not complain about Read's complaining. Although not a novelist, I am a writer, too, and because of remarks like Read's, people often take pity on me. They think what I do is hard, that I must suffer much, that, like Hemingway, I do daily battle with a blank sheet of paper, counting the words and then proclaiming the day good or bad on the basis of output. Because writers write, because what we do is read by others, our problems, our difficulties -- for instance, the heart-stopping dread of writer's block -- are well known. "Writing is easy," wrote the journalist and author Gene Fowler. "All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."
There are many such quotes in the anthologies, but there are few -- none, actually -- that I can find about the sheer joy of writing, the wonderful privilege of being published. The kvetching of writers has been turned into an ethic, a sort of conspiracy in which we are obliged to complain about work that we would do -- and probably have done -- for free and that we have to do simply because being a writer is what we are.
The public, though, accepts the writer's lament at face value. When I speak in public, I am often asked about writer's block. Sometimes I'm tempted to go along with the myth, to concoct an agony so vivid that my audience will come close to weeping. But the truth is that I have never had writer's block. I have good days and bad days, of course, but never days in which I cannot write. I cannot afford them. Deadlines come anyway; bills have to be paid. "What do you do for writer's block?" I am sometimes asked. "I look at my mortgage," I say.
I'm unconvinced that writing is harder than other forms of making a living. I am convinced, though, that writers are convinced it is. Maybe if doctors or auto workers could write, if they had the access to the media that writers do, people would know more about their difficulties. It is hard to see, though, how they could move their occupation to the south of France.
The sound of writers complaining about how bloody awful their lives are has all the pathos of the rich lamenting the servant problem. It's not that Hemingway, for instance, was not sincere about his difficulties; it's just that it is hard to feel sorry for a man who strikes not one note of exultation at his success.
Of course columnists are not novelists. The news is our crutch. Every day the newspapers cry "Write this," "Write that." A novelist must reach deep inside himself for his creative energy, and sooner or later his energy and imagination begin to run dry. He sometimes depletes his store of experiences. Hemingway was once a journalist, an ambulance driver in World War I. After the success of his first book, he became a writer, and he no longer could write about what he did because what he did was write. He had, in fact, used up his life. That has to be a horrible feeling, a kind of premature old age in which death comes early and stays late. Anyone who writes anything is entitled to dismal thoughts. But these thoughts occur to all of us in our own ways, and there is no reason they should be given a certain gravity just because writers write them.
There is a certain telephone voice that, over the years, I have come to recognize. It is usually old, sometimes a bit whiny, and belongs to the person who calls to say what he thinks after I have written a column. There is a subtext to the call, a plea to be heard. The person has views, he is smart and, were it not for a mistake made long ago (say the need to make a living), he could have been a writer. Who am I to be the one who is published? What makes me so special? Why isn't he as good as I?
I have no answer for these questions. The voice on the phone is always different, but the face I assign to it is always the same. It's that of an old man I once knew, a worldly, bookish man of passionate political views who at an early age was forced to pick a trade. He became a paperhanger, and as he hung paper he wrote letters to the editor, first in his head, later on paper. He must have wondered what cruel trick of fate made him hang wallpaper and let others write.
I am no better than some of the people who call -- no smarter, for sure. But I am a writer, a columnist, born with a certain talent and lucky enough to practice it. My life is a bit of luck, a privilege, and while I too fear the scraping sound coming from the interior of my mind, I think of the paperhanger and consider myself blessed.
Paul Newman says he would make more movies if only he could find good scripts. In contrast, Woody Allen keeps making them and never complains about scripts. (Maybe because he writes them.) The rich complain about taxes that the poor would be thrilled to pay, and writers like Piers Paul Read complain about a "wretched" life doing, in the south of France, precisely what they want to do. The least the rest of us can do is what we have always wanted to do when we hear those complaints: Shout "Shut up!" ::