Sunday, November 12, 2006

Giddyup! Writing the Hobby Horse

Whenever people refer to writing as a hobby, I cringe. I hear hobby, and I see a jig-saw puzzle: a yellow wooden gate pieced together bit by bit, and around it, a hot pink bougainvillea. I see dioramas, quilts, civil war memorabilia, stamps in a book.

It’s the casualness of the word that I find disagreeable. Writing, for me, is not something I pick up in the evening like a remote control. Every morning, I drag myself out of bed and wake up half way through my shower. If I’m lucky, I get a couple good hours of writing in before I work a full shift. I come home, eat dinner, clean up, review and revise old work, and prepare to do it again. To call writing a hobby minimizes its hold on my life.

My husband puts together miniature WWII tanks when he’s not working on his thesis. He spends hours hovering over his desk filing, gluing, and painting 1/35 scale parts. He drools over the latest issue of the Fine Scale Modeler and its two-page spread of a Fairey Swordfish floatplane. I just don’t get it. Yet there are others who do. They hold conventions. Give out awards. Critique each other’s work . . . sound familiar?

I admit, though, I may have invested the word hobby with connotations it does not completely deserve. The dictionary tells it straight: an activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation, primarily for pleasure. It comes from Middle English, hobyn, meaning “small horse.”

Everyone has hobbies. Just look at personal ads: reading, line dancing, computers. While most hobbies are a private sort, we point to them hoping to excite someone’s interest in us and create a connection. We are collectors of coins and stamps and plush toys not for our pleasure alone. The wonderment in someone’s eyes when they see the shelf of butt cheek salt and pepper shakers is an opportunity for a story. The puzzle pieces make a picture. The quilt will later keep you warm. It’s pleasure with an end in mind.

William Carlos Williams said, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” In this snappy quote, he almost seems to be advocating a kind of poet-hobbyist point of view. As a physician, Williams wrote in his spare time and scribbled lines on prescription pads. I find his quote both trite and mind-blowing, like a bumper sticker that never fails to make me laugh.

Sometimes, writing’s not fun. I’m alone in my house before anyone else is awake. I have nothing to say and I’m wondering why I’m not in bed. I guess there are dark moments for each serious hobbyist: the stitch that must be pulled out, the fish belly up in the bowl. But there must always be the pleasure. Why do it otherwise?

Writing is what I do outside my 9-to-6 job. In that, it is my hobby. But I prefer the older meaning, the small horse the word came from. Writing is my humble transportation from one village of pleasure to another. It’s a serious business, but I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t give me joy. If writing is my hobby, I will ride this small horse as far as it will take me.