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The Hard Part: Guest Post by David Whitton

"It’s not the sentences you write, not the launches you attend or the readings that you give or the rejection you endure, although all of those things can be fantastically difficult."

Book Cover the Reverse Cowgirl Whitton

I was standing in M’s kitchen, surrounded by cardboard boxes and mouse shit and memories. M, my friend of many years, was leaning against the counter, pensive. He was telling me about a woman he’d dated five years earlier, about what had gone wrong. He’d found a letter from her that morning as he’d been packing up his stuff.

It was a late afternoon in late August. M was three days from hopping on a plane and moving to Newfoundland.

He pointed to some pages sitting on a corrugated moving box. “You can read it if you want.”

I am a writer: of course I wanted to read it. I picked up and pored over this intimate document that I had no business touching, much less reading. It was two typewritten pages; dated but not signed. The paper was yellowed, stained from one thing or another. Mistreated. Forgotten about.

The girlfriend—we’ll call her X—had noticed lately that M had seemed distant. Was this real, she wondered, or her imagination? She couldn’t say. But she blamed herself. She hadn’t been declarative enough—that was the problem—and she’d meant this letter to correct all of that. She wanted him to know, before it was too late, that the night they went to Walmart was the greatest in her memory. She wanted him to know that she was jealous of his friends. She wanted him to know that, in any future she could imagine, he was right there with her, looming large.

All of that life. All of that love, and loss, and hope, and ambition, and disappointment, in two yellowed pages.

Over the previous days and nights, M and I had boxed up his life. And boy, was there a lot of life to box. Fifteen years of it. There was the couch another girlfriend had given him: a couch he’d slept on, ate on, had sex on. There were army dog tags, rugby souvenirs, his black belt in Chinese Kenpo. There were dust-covered stuffed animals whose presence he couldn’t explain. There were remnants of old roommates—grungy bottles of liquor, an untouched can that said “Charlotte’s soup—do not touch!!!” Exhaust trails of all the people who had passed through those rooms. Reminders of all the fun that they’d had, and the boredom they’d endured, and the ennui, and the laughter. And, and, and.


The process of moving is often one of painful self-discovery. Of collecting all of the stuff that has somehow attached itself to you, and then thinking about it, and then dealing with it: good gear in this corner, garbage in that. Much, it seems to me, like writing. As M sifted through his crap, he was in a certain sense, I think, composing an outline for the next phase of his existence. What, he was forced to ask himself, in this huge accumulation of life-matter, has value? His judgments wouldn’t have been mine, the ones I would’ve made in his position. Those cracked and chipped dinner plates? Gone. The crusty plush toy my deceased cat had played with? Well, it would be coming with me. It would be buried with me.

But, of course, this was the personal part, and the hard part. Dealing with it. This was the part that inspired the weeks and months of procrastination. This was the ripping open of the chest, the severing of the veins, the exposure of nerves to air. Because the human mind assigns meaning to objects that are devoid of meaning. That urinal is just a porcelain thingy that men pee into, until Marcel Duchamp hangs it in a gallery. Green is just one of an infinitude of colours, unless it’s also the colour of the light that pulses on Daisy Buchanan’s dock. And M’s cracked and chipped dinner plates are just a bunch of useless junk unless they’re also the salvers upon which he served his friends their Sunday night NFL dinners.


Years before Hoarders, there was a British TV program called The Life Laundry. It was hosted by a “home consultant” named Dawna Walter, who helped homeowners—generally sweet and haunted nebbishes with debilitating domestic organization issues—not only to clear their clutter, but to deal with the constellation of emotions that underlay it. In episode after episode, we watched these poor souls realize that their horrible inundations were only the most trivial of problems, easily dealt with; that the real troubles lay in their pasts. Their pasts, usually unhappy, which mysteriously infected every object in their homes until every broken Barbie, every moth-eaten sweater, took on mind-boggling significance. The state of your home, Dawna Walters taught us in The Life Laundry, is the state of your mind. Just as, we might add, the state of your prose is the state of your thinking. Clutter, be it a mound of crumpled bank statements from 1992 or a bloated story full of overreaching similes and overflowing details, is a product of confusion and of indecision.


In the movie version of Wonder Boys, writing student Hannah Green famously reminds her professor, the once young and wondrous Grady Tripp, that “writers make choices,” and that the sprawling mess that is Tripp’s latest manuscript is the result of making no choices at all. These words echoed loudly through M’s place as we waded through his stuff. There was fifteen years’ worth of deferred decisions in that apartment. Slowly, though, slowly, as M began to edit—good gear in this corner, garbage in that—he got his mind right. He made choices. He decided who he was and what he valued.

Just because you’ve written a book, doesn’t mean you’re a writer. And just because you haven’t written a book, doesn’t mean you’re not. To me, my buddy M is and always has been a writer. He’s a maximalist, a bullshitter, a David Foster Wallace. And he’s done the hard part.

The hard part? The hard part about being a writer?

This is the hard part. It’s not the sentences you write, not the launches you attend or the readings that you give or the rejection you endure, although all of those things can be fantastically difficult. It’s waking up every morning, lurching to your desk, and sorting through your crap—the girlfriend who pleaded for your love, the roommate who left you, the long-gone cat you desperately miss—and just dealing with it. It’s about boxing things up and moving to Newfoundland. Day after day after day after day.

David Whitton is the author of The Reverse Cowgirl (Freehand Books). He lives in Toronto.

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