As I sat hunched in my dank writing grotto, and tried to figure out a way to move my mouse so that the 40-pound chains that kept me at my desk wouldn’t rattle so, I pondered the rewards of writing. No, no, not those tinhorn rewards like a Booker or a Pulitzer or a Nobel, where you are forced to podium-prattle about authorial intention while you die inside over errant exposure of your nose hairs to the functionaries seated below. No, too tedious those rewards—I turned them all down, a polite click on the phone.
The rewards in question are the spurs, the goads, the carrotiest of carrots: the in medias res rewards you give (or deny) yourself while you are writing, or after a writing bridge has been crossed. The system of checks and pizzas, er, balances, by which you induce yourself to squeeze out another chapped chapter or even a single soggy sentence. What are those rewards? Do they work? (And does this punctuation mark make me look fat?)
Cauterize Your Writing Wounds
Don’t start with me that the writing is its own reward. Downy thoughts those, but we all know that writing is a disemboweling, by ravening wolverines wielding jagged scalpels. So let’s discuss how to cauterize those wounds, but with sugar, not fire. Perhaps all it takes is a physical shift:
• Conventional rewards are labeled unhealthy, so after you’ve mapped out a stirring scene, you might take a yoga break. Wait, a YOGA break? Sheesh, if that’s a reward, bring me some annual reports to edit, with frosting.
• What about even-steven: finish a chapter, finish a cookie. But if you’re chapter-quick, that’s a lot of cookies. And will the cookie lose its savor and become two cookies? That could slide to sloppy excess: Finish a good sentence—tequila shooters, all around!
• Go old school, and turn to Whitman: issue a resounding barbaric yawp to celebrate yourself. But don’t frighten the cat. (Writers should have cats; if you don’t have one, you can check one out from the library.)
• You could avoid all these calories and the caterwauling, and maybe take a Twitter break. But is that a real reward, anyway? (Plus, one hears that Twitter causes loss of focus and unfitness for complex sentence building.) Not sure. Don’t know. Yep.
The Tortuous Self-Negotiation
Writing can be a tortuous negotiation with yourself; it’s so rare for a writer’s inner critic to say, “Man, I nailed it this time. Franzen, step back!” Instead we often have the reaction I had when I recently finished a novel: Man, I’m glad that’s over. But that’s ending things not with a yawp, but a whimper, to borrow from T.S. Eliot. Besides, it’s never really over, is it?
The old Catholic in me feels guilty about rewards. But it’s not natural for me to turn to the Good Book for solace, unless perhaps it’s one from Henry Miller, who could ride exuberance’s horse not until it was tired, but was ecstatic. Henry probably didn’t trouble himself about whether he should dole out little rewards to himself for writing; he was too busy typing away.
Maybe I have it all wrong: maybe the writing is its own reward. I’ve always liked this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books … ”
There it sounds as though the highest happiness is expressed in those dancing little lines. Of course, when you know the context of the quote, from Fitzgerald’s extended essay on his own descent into despair in “The Crack-up,” perhaps the reward example is ambiguous.
Who Trusts a Happy Writer?
I don’t trust those happy writers anyway. Writing still feels like work to me, grunting when you move around a paragraph, probably because it’s built like a stack of sliding bricks rather than the gossamer wings you intended. So do reward yourself when you get a good set of bricks in place. If tequila and cookies makes you toss your cookies, make your reward a brisk walk, a cheery call to your mother, the purchase of a 39-acre estate in the Hamptons. (I so hoped to be born the scion of a dynastic family, but I comfort myself by knowing all that scionizing must be quite tiring.)
Give yourself a little something after you turn a corner in your writing, and you’ll be able to hit the gas for those long writing roads that lie ahead.
So, what’ll it be, WU? The tequila/cookie combo? Issuing your barbaric yawp from the teak rail of your Hamptons’ yacht? Shaving the cat? Let us know the flavors of your writerly rewards.