When the writing life is like eternally rolling a boulder up a hill
I wish I’d thought of the phrase in my headline. It’s Anne Lamott’s description of many a writer’s life. The phrase comes to towards the end of her introduction to Bird by Bird, where she talks about having no regrets for choosing the career she followed.
“I’ve managed to get some work done nearly every day of my adult life, without impressive financial success. Yet I would do it all over again in a hot second, mistakes and doldrums and breakdowns and all. Sometimes I could not tell you exactly why, especially when it feels pointless and pitiful, like Sisyphus with cash-flow problems.” page xxvi
I picked up my copy of Bird by Bird in 1995 in the Kinokuniya bookshop on Orchard Road in Singapore. It was the first book on writing I think I had ever read. I had always been of the “you can’t teach creative writing” school. What I probably meant was I was too pig-headed and arrogant to believe anyone could teach me anything. Understandably, I had written very little by 1995.
Lamott’s voice was warm and encouraging and compassionate. And funny. I’m not sure what the book taught me about the technicalities of writing but it certainly made me feel that doubts and fears and all the things that kept me from the page were perfectly normal.
I’ve had the book on my shelf since then. But it was only as I reached the suggestions for further reading at the end of Vivian Gornick’s book on memoir and essays (The Situation and the Story) that I was inspired to pick it up to read again. Gornick only lists seven books and Bird by Bird is one of them. I had forgotten the long introduction is really a memoir. It tells the story of how her father influenced her, her struggles at school, and then the practicalities of turning up day after day to face the blank page. Hence the Sisyphus reference.
Sisyphus refers to a character from a Greek myth who is damned by Zeus to eternally roll a large boulder up a steep slope — in Hades, of course — and never quite reach the top. The boulder always rolls back to the bottom and Sisyphus has to start again. He was probably on minimum wage, too, but that’s not made clear in the original stories.
Sisyphus never makes it to the top. But writes sometimes finish something — get the boulder over the crest of the hill and watch it hurtle down the slope on the other side. But then what? Back to the bottom of the original slope to look for a new boulder. Writers tend to condemn themselves to the eternal punishment. There’s no blaming Zeus for that.