A Lifetime of Homework

by Hugging The Coast /
Hugging The Coast's picture
Jul 09, 2009 / 2 comments


Writing is, at least on the surface, a peculiar activity. For starters, it’s a deeply antisocial behavior whose end product provokes another antisocial behavior (i.e., reading) in others. For the practitioner it’s often inexplicable and for the casual observer utterly incomprehensible. And reasonably so, I’m inclined to believe.

There are indeed many who cannot understand why any sane person would voluntarily write anything they didn’t absolutely have to. To them, choosing to write is like a student volunteering for extra homework. It isn’t a question of there being something pathologically screwy with writers; the question is whether, like swine flu or the clap, it is somehow transmissible. (UPDATE: the CDC in Atlanta assures me that there is no evidence of the ‘writing bug’ being caused by an airborne pathogen, and that, to the best of their knowledge, no one has ever become a writer ‘by injection’.)

The non-writing masses may have a point. Here’s a question to consider: in literature, how many novels about writers have happy endings? Go ahead – name as many as you can in one minute. No, better yet, take your time and name as many as you can in an hour.

(Sound of crickets chirping)

Uh huh. Me neither. Novels about writers are invariably tales of alcohol abuse, drug addiction, unsatisfying infidelity, stroke-inducing frustration, shattered hopes, unbearable disappointment, abject misery, and suicide. Why? Because writers write about what they know, that’s why!

Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but it’s not far off. Here in the South, there’s never been a shortage of novelists willing to wring the last sweaty drop of drama from their own lives (and the lives of others, of course.) They just do it with quiet dignity while wearing white suits.

But literature isn’t the only whipping post for writers. Even on film, writing is never depicted as anything like fun – at worst it’s a toxic chore and at best a compulsive, often-lethal hobby.

SCENE: (Mid 20th century; interior; night; rain) A neon sign outside the window intermittently illuminates the seedy hotel room. A slow pull back & pan reveals a mesh trash can with a few crumpled balls of paper inside and a writer staring at a blank sheet of paper in an old Underwood typewriter.  Writer rubs his five o’clock shadow and stubs out a cigarette in a half empty glass ashtray. Fade out. (Melodramatic music rises to indicate time passing)

FADE IN: Writer opening a quart bottle and pouring brown liquor into a shot glass.

CUT TO: The trash can, overflowing. Sound of writer ripping paper from typewriter, crumpling. (Melodramatic music gets louder.)

CLOSE UP: Writer’s hand stubbing out cigarette onto desk next to wildly overflowing ashtray, then pouring brown liquor into a highball glass.

CLOSE UP: Writer’s forehead; drops of blood forming.

CUT TO: Writer’s hand, sloshing last of brown liquor into a large mason jar.

MEDIUM SHOT: Wall clock in shadow; empty bottle crashing into clock (melodramatic music reaches crescendo).

CUT TO: Exterior. Day. Rain. Mourners quietly assembling at graveside.

Well, to be fair, that’s not always the case. There are actually times when the writing goes well.

SCENE: (Mid 1700’s; interior; late afternoon) A slow pull back from a window overlooking a formal garden reveals a well-appointed drawing room. A bewigged manservant lights long candles in baroque candelabra.

CUT TO: A healthy, pink-cheeked young man in his early 20’s, sitting at a handsome writing desk, holding a very long quill over an inkpot as he stares, smiling, into the middle distance. The opening notes of a J.S. Bach concerto signal the strike of inspiration.

CLOSE UP: Quill tip moving quickly across page.

CUT TO: Writer loosening his cravat; night falling.

CLOSE UP: Inkpot, now nearly empty.

CUT TO: Slow panning shot across candelabra showing candles burned down almost to their bases; camera continues pan across desk to see the writer’s ink-stained hand laying down a two-inch nub of quill.

CUT TO: Writer, in dim light of fading candles, leans back behind stack of manuscript sheets, looking pale and exhausted, but happy. Writer coughs briefly.

CUT TO: Exterior. Day. Rain. Mourners quietly assembling at graveside.

On balance, I’d have to say that, yes, writing is often a peculiar, inexplicable, apparently thankless, and occasionally fatal activity, and that doing it voluntarily certainly could seem as ridiculous as, say, volunteering for an IMAX colonoscopy.

However, (and the governor of a certain southern state in which I happen to reside might agree with me on this) sense and reason aren’t, ahem, always the primary compelling forces behind human decisions. (Disclaimer: Any sarcasm detected in the previous sentence is purely coincidental and does not necessarily represent the views of management.)

Sometimes, it’s passion.

And as anyone who's ever felt it knows, passion is a flood. A forest fire. An awesome, irresistible force whose voice causes immoveable objects to tremble. For some, passion can be the trumpet call to greatness; for others, the Siren’s call to disaster.

Sometimes, though, passion’s voice is quiet. Sometimes it whispers and speaks only to you. Sometimes it tells you where to dig to unearth the treasure that is your life’s work, your soul’s fulfillment – whatever that treasure is. And nothing on earth feels quite as good as when that shovel strikes pay dirt.

Whether it’s writing or some other apparently thankless pursuit (and there are many), there are times when our choices might confuse others. “C’mon,” they urge, “Let’s grab a couple of beers and a cheeseburger down at the pub.”  Well-meaning as they may be, those people will never understand what would make someone refuse the opportunity to ‘cut loose’ or ‘have a good time’

But then, they’ve probably never heard that awesome, irresistible whisper. “Hurry! Grab your shovel,” it says, “Let’s go!”


--Doug DuCap, Southern Food Editor/Wandering Educators.com. Weblog: www.huggingthecoast.com

Comments (2)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    14 years 9 months ago

    DOUG - you've NAILED it. brilliant, brilliant article.


    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

  • Kerry Dexter

    14 years 9 months ago




    "Sometimes it tells you where to dig to unearth the treasure that is
    your life’s work, your soul’s fulfillment – whatever that treasure is.
    And nothing on earth feels quite as good as when that shovel strikes
    pay dirt" -- that's great Doug, and so true. thanks.

    Kerry Dexter

    Music Editor, WanderingEducators.com


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