Buckley and the hard work of writing

William F. Buckley, Jr. now occupies, we hope, a seat in the bleachers to the right of Home Plate. We’ve been looking through his Buckley: The Right Word. We were not surprised to find him weighing in on the reading crisis. This, from 1980: “The good news is that there are people around who are trying to discover why it is that American youth, year after year, are having greater and greater difficulty in expressing themselves. There are a lot of wisecracks readily available (“they have nothing to say”), but one tires quickly of them, and then genuine worry sets in” (p. 131). And having nothing to say did not dissuade John Cage, who said, in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” (Silence, p. 109). Buckley finds fault with TV: “You can’t simultaneously spend four hours watching television and four hours reading good prose.” But he also acknowledges that any suspected blame does not seem to apply universally.

If any one fault can be ascribed, perhaps the sheer physical difficulty of writing, and writing correctly, must be to blame. We are looking for cause and effect, but can not find even correlation. The effete and elite are each stricken equally, as the case of the Harvard student, passing placement exams but sitting in Expos unable to write a sentence, demonstrates. Buckley is then thrown off base by the Dick Cavett caveat, “Why does it matter?” Then comes this thunderbolt: Buckley relates that William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, once told him, “I am afraid, Mr. Buckley, that you do not really know the proper use of the comma.” Buckley’s response: “If St. Peter had declared me unfit to enter the Kingdom of God, I could not have felt more searingly the reproach…” (p. 306). Things are as bad as they ever were because nothing has made things any easier.

Thinking about writing, and actually sitting down and doing the writing, are two different occupations. We can always start a book with a few chapters and claim a work in progress, even if we never pick it up again; but who benefits from this kind of deception? Buckley points to the hard work of writing: “Working on a novel, I like to write every day….On the other hand, don’t ever devote the entire day to doing just that….I’d like to see more novels not written by people who have all the time in the world to write them” (p. 285).

But if writing is hard work, “But how would the reader know?” Buckley asks. The answer to that question Toulmin gives us, arguing that the work the writer does not put in, the reader must. But in spite of the hard work, Buckley assures us there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. “Writing, if it’s done at all, has got to yield net satisfaction….I’m simply saying that writing is terribly hard work.” So he allows for distractions, change of pace and location, ancillary pursuits. He listened to music while writing: “Yes, I have the record player on most of the time.…I don’t play jazz when I write. I don’t know why but I just plain don’t. But I do when I paint” (pp. 290-291).

We do listen to jazz when we write, almost exclusively, but usually instrumental, no vocals, which can be too distracting. But what’s the one significant takeaway we want to emphasize with regard to the hard practice of writing? What do we want from writing? What do we expect? We must write most days to develop answers to these and other questions about writing and reading. Posts may be warm up exercises to the real work.

Buckley, W. F., Jr. (1996). Buckley: The right word (Harvest Book edition, 1998). New York: Harcourt Brace &  Company.