“The struggle with writing is over.”
That message, written on a Post-It note and affixed to his computer, brings the novelist Philip Roth great relief and contentment these days, according to a profile published earlier this week in the New York Times. At the age of 79, the author of more than 31 acclaimed books says he is finished with writing, and he couldn’t be happier. “I look at that note every morning,” he told Times reporter Charles McGrath, “and it gives me such strength.”
Fans of Roth’s books—which include Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral—may be surprised to learn that he regarded writing as a struggle at all.
His words flowed so easily on the page, and his books arrived with such frequency in the stores: at times, close to one every year. But behind that proficiency and productivity was arduous, unrelenting work. Roth told his interviewer that he’d enjoyed spending time with friends at his house in Connecticut this past summer: “In the old days I couldn’t have people in the house all the time. When they came for the weekend, I couldn’t get out to write.”
Americans have a complicated relationship with this kind of relentless striving. We extol the virtues of hard work even as we idolize the “natural,” the star who effortlessly achieves, who wins the race without breaking a sweat. The writer Malcolm Gladwell has called this tendency “the naturalness bias,” and notes that we bring it to bear on individuals ranging from athletes to artists to “gifted” children. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology last year, Harvard
psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Chia-Jung Tsay applied a scientific lens to the phenomenon, gathering a group of professional musicians as subjects. The experimenters first asked the musicians their opinion on the source of musical achievement: Was "effortful" training more important, they inquired, or innate ability? The former, the musicians replied, expressing “the strong belief that strivers will achieve over naturals.”