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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What Makes Writing Worth Doing?

By Paula Margulies

In one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, Manhattan, there's a wonderful scene at the end of the film where the main character, Isaac, a neurotic, divorced television writer, finds himself at home on the couch, holding a tape recorder. His teenaged girlfriend, Tracy, has left him, he's blown a relationship with a woman his own age, he's lost his job and his apartment and has discovered that fears about his health were unfounded. In that final scene, alone and hopeless, he turns on the tape recorder and asks himself, "What makes life worth living?" He then answers the question, mumbling into the microphone in his hand: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, the incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo's, and, finally, he adds, "Tracy’s face." These last words hit him in a way the others don't; he gets up and, in true Woody Allen fashion, runs through the streets of Manhattan to find Tracy before she leaves for college in England.

I won't tell you what happens at the very end (I'll save that for those who haven’t seen the movie), but I love the fact that the final realization in this film comes because of an image. The picture of a young girl’s face in a man's mind summarizes her whole being for him: her sweetness, her radiance, her intelligence. It reveals these characteristics in a way that is so monumental that Isaac has to act. And off he goes, to whatever resolution the story has in store for him.

We writers deal in images. And like Isaac, we often find ourselves at a point in our writing lives where we're on the couch, alone and hopeless, wondering if we can continue to pour our hearts out on the page year after year.

Most of us have been in the situation where something that was at one time important to us - our job, our marriage, a sport, a hobby - changes, and we suddenly find ourselves asking, Why am I doing this? What's in it for me? In many marriages, this moment tends to occur after some years together (we'e all heard the warnings about the seven year itch). We reach a point where we ask ourselves why we married our spouse, why we chose to have kids. We imagine what our lives would be like if we hadn't gone down the marriage path. Or maybe we meet someone who seems like a true soul mate and wonder "what if?"

Writers often experience a similar pattern. We take some classes, win a few awards, find a good writing group, maybe even land an agent. But our first, and perhaps even our second, book doesn’t sell, so we doggedly write another one. And halfway through that next one, after maybe five or six or seven years of writing and going to classes and conferences and meetings with other writers, we ask ourselves, why are we doing this? Why spend so many hours away from our spouses, children, and friends, to slave over pages of words? Is it worth it?

And this is where our inspiration falters. Some writers stop writing. They begin to doubt themselves, they become more critical and anxious at their group meetings, or they don’t come at all – spending their creativity on inventing excuses: "I had too much work this week," "I’m not feeling well," "I have to go to an event with the kids," "I can’t find the inspiration/motivation/courage, etc." Even published writers go through times of doubt, wondering why a book hasn’t sold despite good publicity, successful book tours, and decent reviews. Why do any more book signings, they ask? Why write the next book? What makes writing worth the effort?

As in a marriage, when a writer's relationship with his/her work starts to falter, it might be time to examine the situation and get some counseling. A good conference or class can be the answer for some, providing a new way of looking at our writing, or offering new grounds for inspiration and camaraderie. Perhaps a stint at a writing residency might do the trick, providing some needed time for soul-searching and reconnecting with our creative selves.

Or maybe it's time to talk with a spouse, trusted friend, writing expert, agent, even a publicist. Anyone who’s a good listener can act as a sounding board. Have that person ask (or just ask yourself), "What makes writing worth doing?"

If you're honest, your answers might surprise you: maybe it's worth it because you love creating a world all your own from your own imagination; maybe it's the exhilaration you feel when you find that perfect word that illustrates exactly what you’re trying to say; maybe it's the admiration you receive from your friends, your family, your readers; maybe it's the friendships you've formed with other writers like yourself; maybe it's the voices of the characters you hear in your head, begging you to bring them to life on the page; maybe it's an image of a young girl's face. You don’t know what that image means, but you feel driven to write about it, to find out why it haunts you, to discover how understanding it might impact your life.

Listen carefully to your answers. If you're lucky, you just might discover an idea, a thought or, possibly, an image so powerful that it gets you up off the couch and running to create your next scene.

Oh, and for Isaac, I would have added one more thing that makes life worth living: writing.
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Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her website at www.paulamargulies.com.

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