Blood, Sweat, and Words

Joseph Epstein | Posted on 03/01/09

Grit, the overcoming of serious obstacles through determined effort, is most impressively on public display on the battlefield, in athletics, in every sort of comeback in the larger game of life, with its all-too-frequent peripeteias. To watch someone showing grit, winning through against impressive odds, is always a grand, exhilarating experience.

Where grit must always be hidden, though, is in art. Art is by nature about hiding the struggle: the wrestle with words for the writer, with time and sound for the composer and performer, with the stubborn materials in the hands of the visual artist. Art is about emerging from that struggle victorious and showing not the least sign of strain, which is to say grit, for having done so. The artist in effect says, Look, Ma — you, too, World, look! — No hands! Art is about making things seem effortless, or so at the least is the art I most enjoy.

Do my two previous paragraphs seem effortless to you? Do you suppose I revised and reworked them several times, or did they just roll out, like the barrel in the famous barroom song? And whence did that roll-out-the-barrel simile derive? Did it come from the same place where notes of music go, or was it the result of deep struggle, emerging only after bullets of sweat formed on my forehead, allowing me to force it into life? If I may say so, it’s none of your damn business.

Some writers like to make a show of their struggle, thereby demonstrating just how great their own grit is. Perhaps the most famous among them was Gustave Flaubert, who wrote letter after letter to his mistress Louise Colet, groaning about the difficulties he encountered in composition: struggling all day over a paragraph, achieving no more than a single page after a full week at his desk. Would, one wonders, a wife have put up with so much complaining?

What Flaubert is doing here is making it look hard, which for him it truly was. In doing so he has earned his place as one of the founders of the Sturm und Drang school of literary production. The S & D school holds that there is no good writing without vast internal storm and stress. To a somewhat lesser extent, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were of the S & D school, always dramatizing the wretched difficulties entailed in producing their art. That both were drinking men couldn’t have made the job easier.

My own preference is for those artists who try to make it all look easy. Maurice Ravel, who said that he got more for his art out of a few hours of joy than out of a month of suffering, is exemplary in this regard. William Faulkner was one of the few serious writers who worked in Hollywood — strictly for the money, which, having to support two families, his brother’s and his own, he much needed — without ever complaining about its vulgarity, the wrench on his integrity, and the rest of it. Grit must have been involved on Faulkner’s part not in the work but in keeping dignifiedly quiet about it.

I recently wrote a book about Fred Astaire, than whom no one worked harder at his craft. Astaire was a perfectionist, which is to say a great worrier. His only difficulty with the studios for which he worked was his constant demand for more and yet more rehearsal time before his dance numbers were finally filmed. He wanted everything he did to look effortless, which on film it indubitably does, and so he put in the maximum effort to ensure that it did. For Astaire all grit entailed was properly left in the studio rehearsal halls; the seemingly effortless, lilting, unforgettable beauty went into the movie.

I have never liked to suggest that writing is grinding, let alone brave work. H. L. Mencken used to say that any scribbler who found writing too arduous ought to take a week off to work on an assembly line, where he will discover what work is really like. The old boy, as they say, got that right. To be able to sit home and put words together in what one hopes are charming or otherwise striking sentences is, no matter how much tussle may be involved, lucky work, a privileged job. The only true grit connected with it ought to arrive when, thinking to complain about how hard it is to write, one is smart enough to shut up and silently grit one’s teeth.