A Patience With Your Own Crap: Philip Roth on Writing

David Remnick: Is there a sense of mastery at some point that you might not have had at 40?—

Philip Roth: There’s patience.

Remnick:—What did age give you?—

Roth: Patience.

Remnick:—What did experience give you?

Roth: Patience. That is, the patience to outlast your frustration. The confidence that if you just stay with it you’ll master it, you know? But that doesn’t mean tomorrow necessarily but that I think it gives you confidence in your instincts….You don’t feel like such a gambler, such a risk taker, in laying down the first ten or twenty or fifty pages. So I guess age and experience give you patience, confidence. Though the confidence can be shattered at the end of a first draft. Probably any work where you start with nothing on a page and you have to fill the page is accompanied by a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. Fear that simply you can’t do it. And frustration as you’re doing it because what comes is very crude. But over the years I think what you develop is a tolerance for your very crudeness. And patience, patience with your own crap, really. And a kind of belief in your crap, which is: just stay with your crap and it’ll get better if you just stay with it. And then come back every day and keep going.

3 Comments

  1. Joel in Oakland November 1, 2015 at 5:21 pm | #

    Kinda reminiscent of how Paul Krugman feels about doing his part these last 15 years to help counter right wing mendacity (a different kind of crap than what Roth speaks of, but crap nonetheless). “Things are never going as well as you think they are; never as bad as you think they are; so you keep your head down, and you keep working.”

  2. jonnybutter November 1, 2015 at 8:44 pm | #

    I’m not implying a level of achievement for myself as high as Roth’s, but I know what he’s talking about. I write music rather than words, but it’s the same starting point: nothing. Empty page. I am getting towards 60 and finally developing patience with my own crap, and the ability to make myself (usually) just stick with it. You have to slog *through* the crap.

    And I know what he means by having ‘shattered confidence at the end of a first draft’. You sometimes think you’re so smart and sophisticated and confident; you have indeed calmly stuck with something, only to find that, after a fair amount of work, you’ve created an elaborate piece of very personal garbage that you have to forget about, throw away. THEN you have to start over and have confidence again.

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