On Writing: Performance Enhancers

In its August issue, Runner’s World profiles  author Malcolm Gladwell (who was a high school Canadian national track champion). Every nonfiction writer should read Gladwell, not only because he is a prolific bestseller but because he changed the nature of nonfiction. His writing is narrative, but anecdotally so, and he has perfected the concept of analyzing big, even abstract, ideas, by focusing on tangible, relatable examples. This formula works, and it sells lots and lots of books. I think there are certain “sweet spots” in fiction where a story is accessibly written but yet the reader comes away feeling as if they have learned something important (see: The Paris Wife, The Help). Gladwell — though perhaps somewhat less accessible — does this for his readers. It’s nice to throw around anecdotes from The Tipping Point or his “ten thousand hours rule” in casual conversation.

Gladwell’s Runner’s World interview is pretty running-specific, but this paragraph caught my attention:

I remember when [New York Yankees pitcher] Andy Pettitte was injured, there was some allegation he was taking something during his period of recovery. How can you blame the guy? He’s a professional athlete. If I got carpal tunnel and couldn’t type, would I take a drug so I could get better sooner? Totally. My living is typing.

Author Michael Farris Smith also speaks of performance-enhancing substances for writers in his New York Times piece, “What if Novelists Took Steroids?

I’m not talking about traditional writer standbys like booze or pills or wild, obsessive lovers. Or hard work. These have all been known to transform a writer from something into something else. I’m talking about a fat pill I could swallow once in the morning and once at night, and then sit back and reap the benefits of a stronger, faster novel-writing me.

Gladwell of course is implying more of a physical effect than creative. But I’ve thought about this often — what is it that makes writing so difficult and is there anything we can do to overcome that? Is it the solitude? The insecurity? The sheer frustration of seeing a crap first draft? The inability to focus? Sometimes I think I became an agent because, while I love to write, I don’t have the innate creative fire to write an entire book. And I so admire people who do, whether their books end up being published or not. (And this is why I try to be respectful of writers who query me — I know what it’s like to put yourself out there. It’s terrifying!)

Smith ends his piece neatly, although I have to disagree: “Cheaters always know how it’s going to end….part of the fun of being a writer is not knowing the ending before you get there.” It’s true: you never know the ending. But I find that more terrifying than fun.

Writers, what say you? Would you take a magic writing pill (not booze, not adderall)? Do you plot out your endings beforehand (as Joyce Carol Oates does, on many index cards)? Or is the not knowing the fun part?

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