It was a proto-blogger, the sports columnist Red Smith, who was asked if it was hard to turn out a column a day and responded “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” On the other hand, the science fiction writer and polymath Isaac Asimov was once asked what he thought the afterlife would be like. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, but he sportingly replied as if he did: “Give me a typewriter and I will be happy for eternity.”
Nowadays it’s keyboards, but the double nature of writing is still with us. At its best it can feel as if we are being emptied of our life’s blood. And yet, given all eternity and all the pleasures of paradise, some of us would choose to do nothing else but hunch over our keyboards.
I felt this doubleness too when I was unexpectedly given an opportunity to learn to paint. I knew nothing of painting and had no expectation of ever producing anything good (I was right about that—I started too late for any objective excellence, I suppose). Still it was wonderful because in learning to paint I noticed the twoness of making something. First there is the remarkably strong, even driven, desire to get it right, without any logical basis for what “right” means. I would look at a part of my painting and say to myself “It needs more red” or “that line needs to move over a quarter of an inch.” Then I wondered where these felt necessities came from? Something in me was sure of them. This internal part was being exposed all over the canvas.
I found, as I painted, that I swore softly throughout, sometimes in thought, sometimes aloud, maybe reflecting the bleeding of this internal part, and never sure that I was doing it right. But the second part of the experience made itself felt in the fact that I could not stop painting. Once started, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to get those inner necessities out. I’m writing about painting (!) for a future book tentatively called Looking for My Glasses. When you try to paint, you see differently and feel strongly about how to paint what you see; I don’t know if this is a correction or a distortion.
Through the lens of painting I came to believe that writing is like that, too. I may decide in the abstract on an intriguing idea or a possible plot, but when it comes down to getting it on paper (or the computer screen) I spend my time making sure that the scenes and dialogues have the right amount of red, and that the lines are in the right place.
J. Scott Lee’s book Invention: the Art of Liberal Arts explores how painting and writing are both ways of inventing how to be human. It seems the whole project of living is part of those inventions.
That makes sense of how generally I am always, swearing softly, asking myself: “Am I doing it right?”