Those of us who write, either for income or pleasure, are constantly asked about where we get our motivation and determination. Writing, of course, is a discipline that requires an output of product on a regular basis to achieve a final vision. William Styron was quoted more than a few times claiming that he wrote just a paragraph a day because it was the only technique he knew for perfecting his work. This explains, perhaps, why it took him ten years to complete The Confessions of Nat Turner.
My favorite story about motivation for writing comes from a little cafeteria at the foot of the Franklin Mountains in the desert of West Texas. Cormac McCarthy moved to El Paso from Tennessee to concentrate his work on the American West. In the UK, he was already widely known as a man of great talent for his books like Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, and others but in the U.S. his work sold only to a core group of readers who appreciated his ornate prose and vivid descriptions. Blood Meridian is probably the truest depiction of the American west during Manifest destiny that has ever been written, but it did not change McCarthy’s relative literary obscurity.
Then, however, he won the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses.
Famous for being reclusive, McCarthy never spoke with journalists. The fact that he was finally ascendant in his native country, however, prompted an editor of a London newspaper to dispatch a reporter to Texas to seek an interview and do a profile of the author.
I’d had a slightly less ambitious goal for many years as a fan of his books. Blood Meridian had changed my romantic view of U.S. western history and I devoured every word McCarthy had ever committed to narrative. As a TV news correspondent, I was frequently assigned to do reports in El Paso and had heard McCarthy hung out at a particular pool hall at the end of his writing day, and always took his lunch alone at the Luby’s Cafeteria on Mesa Avenue. As hard as it was for me to see him sitting at a table for one eating square fish or the LuAnn Platter, I still stuck my head into Luby’s whenever I got a chance, hoping to see the great man in physical form. I never did and I considered that chasing him down at his neighborhood pool hall was a bit too much of an invasion.
The British reporter, who apparently hung out at Luby’s long enough to encounter McCarthy, is said to have walked up to the author’s table to request an interview. Although the journalist was polite and sought forgiveness for the interruption, McCarthy was non-responsive. The reporter, as reporters will, persisted until McCarthy told him, “I don’t do interviews.” Undaunted, the young man explained how he had traveled across an ocean and spent thousands of dollars to try to find McCarthy and that his editor was pressuring him to deliver. The author was unmoved, and did not speak. Hell, I can see him there scooping up his peas and moving forkfuls of his square fish into the pile of tartar on his plate, acting as if the intruder were not even alive, much less standing next to his table.
The reporter was silent until he came up with a new idea. Perhaps, he assumed, McCarthy would at least offer some advice on the topic of writing. According to the story I was told by a friend of McCarthy’s, the dogged journalist begged for words of wisdom on the craft.
“Mr. McCarthy,” he pleaded, “can’t you at least just give me some advice on writing? People would love to hear anything you have to say about it.”
McCarthy was silent but had suddenly made a decision to speak, though he didn’t put down his fork or stop eating. His insight, though, ought to be hanging over the desk of every wannabe author or columnist.
“As far as writing goes,” McCarthy said without looking up, “If you don’t have to write, then don’t.”
Nobody has ever said anything more illuminating about writing. You know if you have to write. If you don’t, go find something to do that is more lucrative, and that’s a pretty long list of endeavors. Writing is often as painful as it is joyous and the rewards are rarely monetary.
And now, if I may be so bold, I’d like to offer Mr. McCarthy some advice. You, sir, are horrible in TV interviews. You were right not to answer questions about your art. Never explain what you do or where your great voice originates. Don’t ever again bother with questions from journalists.
And for god’s sake, please stay off of Oprah.