Monday, September 21, 2009


How deep is your passion for writing?

How strong?

“. . . when I’m not writing I’m prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria,” William Styron said of his therapeutic writing. But, to him, writing itself as an act isn’t fun. Asked if he enjoyed writing, he said, “I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.”

Certainly, to each his own. Is the process of writing pleasurable? Ernest Hemingway said, “Very.” And is writing a pleasure or hell to Gabriel García Márquez? To that, the Columbian novelist said writing was a jubilant act when he was young, writing almost irresponsibly, knocking off 10 pages a day for a novel. Then when he became older writing was painful, simply because his sense of responsibility increased. “Now,” he said, “I'm lucky if I write a good paragraph in a whole day.” William Faulkner said the same thing. “At first, no, I enjoyed it,” he said of the pleasure the act of writing brings. “Now I hate to sit down to write. I dislike it so much that I don’t even write letters.”

However, your passion for writing, especially during your creative period, goes through ebb and flow. Each time you sit down (or stand up like Hemingway) to write, you must fight all sorts of demons that try to lure you away from your writing. They come out during your solitary moments and break your concentration with temptations. You find yourself daydream, and hours pass before you suddenly wake up to a still empty sheet of paper. Here’s the demon that keeps Styron distracted:

“I spend about five hours at it, of which very little is spent actually writing. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on in the story before I put it down on paper, but actually most of this breaking-in period is one long, fantastic daydream, in which I think about anything but the work at hand.”

Demons of booze and cigarettes, of late night drinking bouts and bad hangovers the morning after.

But good writers guard themselves against such temptations. It’s called discipline—the guardian angel of writing passion. Without it, the passion atrophies. Though known as a heavy drinker, Hemingway was always sober at work. There was a three-story tower at a corner of his house and in the top tower was a writing room where he worked. Unless when the passion of writing urged him to climb the long stairs to that room, he preferred to write in his bedroom. Someone once asked if it was true that he wrote each morning with a pitcher of martinis by his side. “Jesus Christ!” Hemingway said. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked?”

To write you must keep yourself focused. You might turn your room into a smoke cave like Gabriel García Márquez, smoking 40 cigarettes a day while writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, eventually a literary classic. Those cigarettes kept him focused, didn’t they? To keep the demons away, what did Hemingway do? Sharpening 20 pencils to keep his mind focused? “I don’t think,” he said, “I ever owned twenty pencils at one time. Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work.” Well, perhaps he did sharpen seven of them.

So you have a passion for writing. It is a volcano waiting to erupt. But when it emits only gases, you’re stuck. “It's the most distressing thing I know next to claustrophobia,” Márquez said. What’s the hardest part in writing then? Putting down words on a blank sheet of paper. Then he found help by heeding Hemingway’s advice on when to break off work, “The best way is to always stop when you are going good. If you do that you’ll never be stuck.”

Some were born with an innate knowledge of themselves being a writer. When asked “Can you recall an exact moment when you decided to become a writer?” Hemingway said, “No, I always wanted to be a writer.” Yet Márquez wasn’t so sure of himself when he was young. Then one day he read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis’s opening sentence, “As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” He said to himself, “Holy shit! This isn’t right! . . . Nobody had told me this could be done! . . . Because it really can be done!     . . . So then I can! . . . Holy shit! . . . That’s how my grandmother told stories . . . The wildest things, in the most natural way.” What happened in the next 15 years was a concept of magical realism brewing in him until his passion for writing ripened. But it was through the serendipity of Kafka that Márquez discovered himself as a writer.

But to remain a writer, you must have persistence, discipline—both to keep alive in you the passion for writing.

*          *

The reason why I wrote this post was because of this unbelievable feeling I had after reading a recent story in The Washington Post. This featured story is about Danny Smith, the special teams coach for the Washington Redskins. It’s about Smith’s passion for football. As a writer, I thought if I could have an ounce of his passion, I’d never ride into the sunset.

As a sidebar, here’s the moment when Smith, then young and passionate, was applying for a job as an assistant defensive coach at his alma mater, Central Catholic High in Pittsburg.

Rich Erdelyi, the longtime offensive coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University, was the Central Catholic head coach at the time and invited Smith to his home one night to interview. Erdelyi asked Smith what he knew about a Cover 3 defense, and an excited Smith popped up and began rearranging the living-room furniture to illustrate football strategy.

“I told him, ‘Coach, it’s like this right here, that’s a wideout here, we’re gonna line up seven yards off, one yard out, this kind of stance, shuffle this way,’” Smith said. “I was moving all kinds of stuff around the house and I just kept going and going and going.”

At around midnight, as Smith briefly paused to catch his breath, Erdelyi jumped in. “He told me, ‘Look, I got school tomorrow. If I give you the job, will you get the hell out of my house?’” said Smith. “I said to him, ‘Coach, I’m only here to get the job. Tell me I got it and I’m out the door.’” [Source: The Washington Post, September 7, 2009, Redskins’ Smith Has Made Himself Heard]

[Image from]


  1. Well, I think it's more than passion. But it's a fascination with how things work, a willingness to understand the intricacies, and a slight obsession to stay with it.

    I think everyone has something where their heart fits, that drives their life force. The challenge is finding it, admitting it (sometimes) and pushing aside the fear when you do. So whether it's football or writing, or being a really good cook I think the passion you describe is really satisfying.

    As for being blocked --that only happens when I'm not attending to something that's out of whack. Sometimes it's writing related, sometimes it's not. So I have to retrace where I've been, deal with it before I go forward.

  2. You still haven't broken the news about your 'dear novel'. Or have you ignored its moans in the box?

  3. I think I'm a bit of a Styron. Though I love writing I hate the process of redrafting and can be distracted by someone walking past the house from that. Sadly, that's the stage I'm currently at: the 'I'll just make myself another cup of coffee' stage. Yesterday I just had to make cookies. It's ridiculous.

  4. And are you still in love with the Himalayan balsam? When I first saw the photos, I thought, like Kanani, the leaves weren't the orchid type of leaves. But there's always an expert out there besides our favorite friend Google.

    When are you coming back to share with us your charming stories?

  5. Good post.

    I was thinking about this topic the other day. I don't really think writing is fun. I think it's hard work.

    For me, writing verse is fun--greeting cards, things like that. Serious writing is a chore. (But I still like doing it.)

  6. Yes, Kathy, I agree. Serious writing demands dedication. I was a hermit for several months while writing my first novel. I vowed to never do that again to my family. Thanks for coming by.

  7. I really enjoyed this post Khanh, thanks. I can relate to all of it on some level. Writing is a passion and obsession, and it's hard work and dedication, but also therapeutic. When it's good, it's indescribable. When it's bad, it's like a waking nightmare.

    I can also say I can't remember that exact moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer - but like Marquez, I will never forget the moment of epiphany where I thought, "Holy shit! Nobody told me this could be done, but it can be done!" That was while reading Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine in 7th grade. My eyes were open to the magical, transformative potential of really good writing.

  8. Thanks for reminding me about persistence and
    discipline. I was forgetting for a while.

  9. When I was writing for television, I was so constrained by the demands of others that I lost my passion and it became just about the money. Now that I'm retired and writing just for my own pleasure, the fun and excitement has returned. Important lesson: do it for yourself.

  10. Pat and Jayne: We have two schools here for writers -- the Styron school and the Hemingway school. But, painful or not, what drives us toward our goal when we write 'THE END' is still our passion.

  11. I truly enjoyed reading your blogs. It's fascinating! I never could guess what the next post is going to be.

    An old school mate - You know who!