“I hate writing. I love having written.” — Dorothy Parker

To The Writer

When it’s fun, when it isn’t, and all the rest

This morning when I was getting contracts done at the notary public, a very old man came in with his wife’s death certificate. His daughter smiled gamely and explained what they needed. She had donned a mantle of cheer that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Her father was not in the mood to make small talk with strangers. He seemed bewildered, but not in the way that old people with dementia sometimes do.

“We had 57 years,” he said to no one in particular. “57 years. And we had so much fun!”

He didn’t sound sad or angry. He just sounded…amazed. 57 years, and now it was over, and here he was at the notary public in Burbank at 10:37 a.m. on a Tuesday, getting something or other stamped and signed by a man he didn’t know, all because she was gone.

Death takes, sure, but it also gives: depression, sadness, rage, numbness, relief, and, in this case at least, a kind of hushed wonder. And we had so much fun! Can you believe it? Isn’t that something?

I took my receipt and I hurried away, feeling as if I were intruding on a private moment. But really, it wasn’t private at all. It wasn’t even particularly special. She had died, like we all do, eventually. There was paperwork to be done. The transaction would be marked in the notary’s record. The man, or his daughter, would pay a fee. And then it would be over, and they’d walk out into the Southern California sunshine, and do whatever it is people do after whatever it is these people were doing when my path happened to cross with theirs. Maybe they got groceries. Maybe they got coffee. Maybe the daughter brought the father home for a nap.

And me, I came to my usual breakfast place, paid too much for short ribs and eggs, and set down to write about what I’d just seen. Because writers live once, like everybody else; and then we live again, when we write it all down. We are a greedy lot, writers. We want to feel and see and do and smell and taste everything — twice, at the very least.

Sometimes we steal other people’s moments and live them, too. We spin stories out of thin air and imagination and computer screens and paper and ink. It’s tough, at times, on the brain and on the heart and on the spirit. We get sad and angry and depressed and anxious and all the rest of the tough feelings. We’re often alone, which is not necessarily a bad thing but often feels like a bad thing. We’re often underpaid and almost always overworked, particularly if we’ve made the foolish decision to do this thing for a living.

And yet — when we lose ourselves in the work and stop thinking so damn hard about everything; when we get into that oft-elusive flow; when we fall in love with our fictional characters as if they were real people — that’s when it’s great.

So now I return to the wonderful terrible work of it all, to the characters that will not behave the way I want them to, to the plot that keeps changing in ways large and small even though we agreed — me and God and the muse and my editor — that it would all go one certain way, and to the little aches and creaks and strain that inevitably arise when one spends several consecutive hours hunched over a computer.

These are not complaints; they are statements of fact. This is the way it is.

And it’s so much fun.

Author’s note: thanks to reader Greg Lee of North Carolina for reminding me in 2017 that I posted this on Facebook in 2013. I find I often write out lessons I need to re-learn in future, and this is no exception. — S.B.