An anecdote from a writer’s workshop I attended some time back: A well-known writer had the misfortune of suffering a severe leak in his basement. The leak was bad enough to flood most of the basement chamber, leaving a knee-high swamp of sullied water in its wake, the flotsam discarded cellar items floating on top like the aftermath of a naval battle. The writer calls a plumber, a robust, salt-of-the-earth, middle-aged man, who unhesitatingly wades in the filthy water with his rubber boots in an effort to find the leak. While in the water, he asks the writer what he does for employment.
“I write,” he says.
“A writer, huh,” says the plumber. “I can’t believe anybody doing something like that for a living.”
The anecdote was meant as a somewhat cheeky reminder to all in attendance how difficult writing is. It was also, I suppose, a means of encouraging humility, that despite the pretensions many writers may have, the role of “writer” carries no entitlement to praise. The juxtaposition of the plumber and the writer put together in a mundane–if challenging–circumstance also made me think of writing as a vocation very much in line with a plumber’s work. As plumbing requires an understanding of the intricacy of houses’ pipe systems, writers need to have an understanding of every element of their story–detail, atmosphere, characterization–while also understanding how those elements fit together in a self-contained and fully functional unit.
Aside from the nature of fiction’s “structure”, the working mentality of the plumber bears no great difference to that of the writer, at least to the writer who knows the reality of her craft. . Aside from the technical knowledge and precision plumbing involves, vacillating on one’s task, or waiting for the Muse of the Pipes to mystically tell the plumber how the job should be done would be absurd. Tasks are there to be performed, regardless of the hours involved or whether one feels “inspired.” Writing involves the same work ethic. Inspiration is simply showing up for work, opening a word processor, getting the pen and paper ready in whatever nook the writers uses to create. It would be easy if most writers truly feel that ecstatic desire to write every time the blank screen is faced. I suspect that most writers, including those who have won every major literary award in existence, have gone through periods where the creative process is the intellectual equivalent of pipe fitting, soldering words together with whatever tools are at hand.
If this sounds like a belittling of the artist’s task to some, or if demystifies the writing process into something unromantic, I would argue there is nothing wrong with a writer seeing herself as a labourer more than as an intellectual. Read enough reviews of some of the best works of fiction and you will encounter the adjective “workmanlike” as a descriptor of prose. Too often the word is used as a byword for straightforward, banal writing, despite the true meaning of the word to describe something executed with competency and artisanal skill. The days when writing seems like a chore or a quotidian task, as enjoyable as filing an expense report or rotating a tire, are days where the process still must be done, connecting word after word until a greater meaning on the page leaps forth. The stamina to go through that process makes one a true artist, amongst those who are willing to wade through the muck before the work is finally completed.