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Far From Flatbush

Is Writing Torture?

There's a story making the rounds about Philip Roth's encounter with a waiter in a Manhattan deli. The waiter, Julian Tepper, presented the literary lion, who was about announce his retirement, with a copy of his first novel, Balls. In a piece that Tepper then published on the Paris Review Daily website, he said that Roth had warmly congratulated him and then told him, "I would quit while you're ahead. Really. It's an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it's not any good. I would say just stop now. You don't want to do this to yourself. That's my advice to you."

Is what Roth said true? Or is it suspiciously reminiscent of the kind of advice that Traci Lords now gives to aspiring porn stars? In short, are these the words of a fantastically successful person who doesn't like the idea of a potential competitor following the path that they so brilliantly blazed to glory?

Since it’s far too late for me to quit while I’m ahead, and I’ve devoted the better part of my career to attempting to follow a nonfiction route similar to the fiction path that Roth had taken, allow me to weigh in with an objective opinion.

No, I do not think writing is torture. Yes, it’s a difficult thing to do, and it requires an enormous amount of discipline and commitment. But it suits me perfectly well, because I happen to be very good at sitting alone in a room, listening to the voices in my head, getting those voices down on a computer screen (or paper), and then spending the next several years rewriting those words and, yes, throwing away most of the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts. (And maybe the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, too.) But I ultimately find writing to be satisfying, which is why I do it. And every day, once I get in the groove, I often find it pleasurable. If this were not the case, I’d have quit decades ago. Because unlike Roth, my first genuine success didn’t come quickly. Writing was a compulsion, something I felt I had to do, and that’s what kept me going.

What makes writing “awful” and “torture” is the business side of it—dealing with the stupidity and fear of publishers who are looking for pretty faces rather than good books; chasing after people for money; devoting more time and energy to promotion than writing; and simply surviving in a business that’s undergoing the most traumatic upheaval since the invention of the printing press.

But that’s not what Roth told Tepper. So, my advice to young Tepper is: Don’t listen to Roth or to anybody else. And don’t write because you think it might be a good career path. Write because you can’t not write. Write because it gives you pleasure. And keep your day job.
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