The Place Where I Write: Brian Doyle

Or: The Tail of the Tale by the Teeth

The place where I write? It’s a little bookish hole so crammed with stacks of papers, so adorned with photographs and paintings and drawings and maps and notes and letters pinned up actually no kidding in layers, so agog with posters and prints and masks and puppets that my kids made when they were little, that you can hardly find the desk, which itself is so mounded with teetering piles of important stuff and things to read and reminders of tasks to be done immediately (some of them several years old) that you have to basically echolocate for the actual writer, who will emerge after a while from the middle of it all, probably snarling at having been interrupted for god’s sake just when he finally got the tail of the tale by the teeth, god help me, it’s not like writing is hard, I have no patience at all for people who moan and gnash their gums about the angst and agony of art, but writing real is hard, writing something piercing and honest and loopy and naked and unadorned and muscular and pithy is hard, and the hardest thing of all is to write something that’s big in heart but small in size; any old doofus can wax on for weeks, but to write something big in a small space, that’s hard. That’s a craft.

It has nothing to do with talent. Somehow it has everything to do with a relatively small ego. The less cool you think you are, the better a writer you are. You have to have enough ego to sit your butt in the chair and try to say or shout or witness or transmit or report something, but not so much ego that you cross the line into rant or sermon or homily or advice or counsel or instruction; those are the lesser apostles, suitable only for politicriminal and religiodious people who are after your wallet and flaunt and flounce their importance because deep down they are terrified they are not important at all. Also good writing has something to do with persistence and diligence and showing up at the desk every day, if you can find an hour. Also it has to do with listening; I am a thousand times better a writer now that I am older than I was when I was younger because I listen a thousand times more carefully than I did when I thought I was the center of the known universe.

Also it has something deeply and confusingly to do with love. I think many writers, maybe most, write because they have some deep sweet muddled urge to connect; not just writer to reader, but readers to readers. Stories bind us; and the more we are bound, the more we connect and hold hands, the greater the chance we will build a world of peace and joy.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of many books, including a novel, Mink River.


  1. Brian,
    Reading this provided one of those “I wish I had written this” moments. It’s as if you were peering into my life. There is one reasonably stark difference; you can write.

    Keep going.

  2. “The less cool you think you are, the better a writer you are.”

    Excellent insight — and now I’ll abandon the attempt to find something cool to say in this comment.

  3. Thank you. Thank you. For calling the ego out and calling the writer in. I want to sit down and listen.

  4. I love this, both the description of the writing process as well as the effort to understand what drives the writer. I think you have it exactly. Thanks.

  5. There it is again. The notion of something vast and microscopic all at the same once. Writers write. If we can get out of our own way, whatever it is has a chance.

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