Of course, I have written in the past, sometimes quite a bit. But those were mostly letters and memoranda as an executive, and reports and aides-memoire of diplomatic work. Now I write essays and belles lettres. Occasionally stories and poems. A very different kettle of fish.
The other difference is that in my work the writing felt secondary. The real business was to get things done. Words were ancillary to that. The main thing was what you achieved. Now, what I achieve are words. Words, hundreds of them, are primary. I don’t have to think beyond them, the effects they produce. I just have to produce the words.
Richard Nixon, the disgraced US President, who retrieved a modicum of his respectability in the last decade by writing several books, summed up the requirement of his latter life in the coarse but pithy phrase “an iron bottom.” I seem to be developing it very sluggishly indeed.
I barely write a paragraph before I long for a sip of coffee. Another two, and I long to take a look at the headlines. Two pages down, I have a seductive itch for the breaking news on television. An hour or so later, the urge for a lunch break seems irresistible. I have come to see these as short escapes from the onerous yoke to which I have condemned myself.
That is not the only temptation of a starting writer. Sometimes I am eager to tell a story and the words tumble out quickly. At other times, the emerging words leave me with a gnawing sense of discomfort. Surely, I could have said that better! Isn’t there a simpler, clearer way to express that idea? Then I have no option but to turn to some lexical help and muddy the stream of my thought. I am torn between keeping on writing, no matter what, and stepping back and tweaking what I have written.
That is not the only dilemma. I hate doing what teachers tell you to do in schools: make a blueprint of what I am going to write and follow its guideposts while writing. I find the procedure painfully constricting; it takes the joy out of writing. I feel like I am separating my thinking from my writing and placing them in discrete boxes, depreciating both. I prefer the blueprint in my head, mainly because it shifts, sidles and switches, and leaves me free to write by instinct and follow the flow in my mind.
In this respect, I trail D. H. Lawrence who chose to follow what he called his daemon, his guiding spirit, untrammeled by his reason. Beyond minor corrections, he refused to edit his manuscript. If he disliked the result of his effort, he simply started all over again, giving another chance to his daemon to recreate a better opus. Only rarely do I transpose paragraphs or make a significant change to what I have written. Let the substance get the approbation of the readers or their condemnation on its merit.
On the other hand, I am seldom fully content with what has emerged. I can never go back to what I have written a month or even a week back without pruning an adverb or tightening a phrase. I am certainly perfectible. I want to write better tomorrow than I write today.
What do I mean when I talk of better writing?
The first thing I am trying to achieve is precision. I want to say just what I intend to say, no more, no less. I haven’t found such exactness easy to accomplish, but it is still my goal. I feel I haven’t done anything worthwhile if I have not said precisely what I meant to express. At the same time, I want to say it clearly. Nothing in written work exasperates me more than the need to extract the sense of a passage that remains defiantly obscure. I want to make it easy, as supremely easy as possible, for my reader to get what I am driving at. A third concern that I am aware of is elegance. Surely, I want to write some limpid prose that is easy on the eyes and the tongue. I want one to read me comfortably and enjoy it. I am not sure that I am able to meet all the three standards at the same time. In fact, I am quite sure I fail quite often. But I try and the guidelines remain in place.
It is a remarkable pleasure when somebody reads something I have written and likes it. Perhaps he or she takes the trouble to tell me. It is joyful news. Nothing, however, compares with the pleasure of completing something I have started writing. It is a miracle that, where there was nothing, not even a ghost of an idea, a piece of writing has sprung from within me. It is a miracle that never stops stupefying me. It keeps me writing.