“There was a point while writing when I felt the kind of self-loathing that I haven’t felt since middle school. I texted a bunch of my writer friends, and they all either said, ‘Yeah, buddy, welcome to being an author,’ or ‘Why do you think so many of us drink so much Scotch?’ ” — actor/writer Kal Penn
Sometimes writing, the very act of it, makes me sick. It’s not uncommon after a productive session, the kind when time flies in a flurry of unblocked industry, words and ideas popping, that I’m left with a residue of inexplicable malaise. I am drained, depressed, deflated. I dread returning to the page to see the massacre I have committed, and I dread facing the hard work it will require to repair it.
Writing is an out-of-proportion existential crisis for me, because too often it’s an unsparing referendum on my talent. If I write OK then I can, at best, momentarily relax. If I write badly then it’s a fiasco and I am a failure and a fraud and scrambling for a horse pill of strychnine.
Self-flagellation is as twinned with writing as the tip-tap of the keyboard. Rarely will I re-read an article once it is published or posted. When I do, invariably it’s a letdown. What I thought was good, sometimes better than good, is without fail crushingly mediocre, a lance through the writer’s rice-paper soul.
Dramatic? You bet. Most writing is performative, for the reader and the writer. So you are on, and the show had better be good. Unless you’re a hack and I can’t even think about that option. That’s worse than anything.
During an interview for my second newspaper job, I told the managing editor that writing was a physical act for me, not just a mental one. I meant that I invest so much of myself into crafting a story, taxing my brain, getting the blood flowing, almost squirming in my seat, that I actually exhaust myself if I’m doing things right. Nuts. I know.
I wish I was a kinder self-critic. Life would be easier. I would wince less. The ulcer might stop screaming. But I’m not. I’m a dick to myself.
I know writers who fa-la-la through the process, whipping out ribbons of words they’re proud of in a sliver of the time it takes me, a real bleeder. They float on air, eluding the bruising hangover I experience upon a project’s completion. Their confidence has buoyancy, like a big fat dumb balloon. (The upshot: their stuff is usually crap.)
They lack — lucky dogs — the perfectionist’s curse, knowing that whatever you have just sweat over is anything but pristine. In his quote at the top of this post, Kal Penn is learning the pain of prose that comes with a passion for craft, the “self-loathing” that leads so many writers, me included, to pour a Scotch or three.
And yet, really, come now, writing is fantastic, even when it’s excruciating — just like human love. Scotch? I get drunk on words, mostly others’ and, on that very rare occasion, my own. It’s true. And it’s an unmatchable high. I can like what I type. It’s happened. It happens. It will happen. So I keep going, the burn be damned.
There. I said it. Drink up.