Before he moved to Connecticut, Philip Roth used to have breakfast at a deli on the Upper West Side. After an absence of almost a year, he was approached by a server, Julian Tepper, who had been waiting to see him again. Tepper bravely presented Roth with a copy of his first published book, Balls.
Roth congratulated the young writer, and even gave him the kind of praise that's manna when it comes from your literary hero, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”
Then he told Tepper to quit writing.
To be specific, he said:
“Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and 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.”
Awful field? Just torture?
Well, sure it is.
We’ve all heard the quotations. (A favorite of mine is Hemingway’s “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”) What can be worse than staring at a blank page or, even worse, staring at your own limp sentences?
A lot. As an antidote to whining authors, Elizabeth Gilbert decided to write a response to Philip Roth. Consider her a fairy godmother to all the would-be writers who are being chased away from their craft:
“[S]eriously--is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally--but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or--for that matter--pretty much anything else that people do?
Not really, right?"