- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.
Before you do anything else, you must acknowledge that you're a writer. This may not be as easy as you think if you've never been published, and it may not even seem that important. Who really cares what you call yourself? But your identity as a writer is essential to the self-respect you'll need to perform well in a workshop, to give and receive criticism with confidence. In his autobiography, the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies declares, "I never became a writer: I was born a writer." When Carlos Fuentes was a child, he wrote, edited, and "published" a magazine, which was limited to a single copy that he also circulated himself. And in an interview, Katherine Anne Porter says, "I really started writing when I was six or seven years old." I suppose that before then she was a mere dilettante.
I started writing when I was a child, too, mostly dreadful poems about being blind, an unwed mother, or a refugee—I hadn't yet been told to write about what I know—and I wrote short fiction during my adolescence and the early years of my marriage. But until I sold my first story, when I was in my mid-thirties, no one ever referred to me as a writer, although a few people allowed that I had an "interesting hobby." Even my own parents, who took a burning interest in almost every other aspect of my life, hardly ever inquired about my progress on the literary front. Writing was something cute and clever I'd done as a kid, and something harmless I was still doing as a grown-up. I kept on writing, ardently and every chance I got, but I was almost as hard-pressed as they were to think of myself as a writer. I even devalued my personal experience. By then I had been advised to write about what I know, and I'd pick up a book at random and read the dust jacket bio: "Lance King is 27 years old. He's been a bush pilot, a molecular biologist, a short-order cook, an Olympic swimmer, and a translator of Sanskrit. This is his fifth novel." Well, no wonder he's so prolific, I'd think—look at all the things he knows. I figured he'd read Thomas Hardy, who said that the real purpose of fiction is "to give pleasure by gratifying the love of the uncommon in human experience." Compared to Lance King, I didn't know anything, or at least anything "uncommon" enough to be transmuted into fiction. If I had only known I was going to take up writing, I certainly would have lived a more interesting life.
Following publication, though, my work, with its modest scope and persistent domestic themes, took on an authenticity it had never had before. After my first short story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (one of the more popular magazines of the time), I received congratulatory notes and phone calls from people I hadn't heard from in years, and a few I'd never even met. Some distant cousins hadn't bothered to read the story; they were just knocked out by seeing my name in print. Well, so was I! I remember going into the bathroom, locking the door, and trying on a series of scarves to see if I looked any different now, more artistic or bohemian—in essence, like a writer. My usually low-keyed father was thoroughly impressed by the authority of publication, too. "The Saturday Evening Post !" he exclaimed when I told him they'd taken the story, "Why, I read that at the dentist's!" The quality of my writing hadn't changed, but my status in the world surely had. I was even able to make a substantial down payment on my first car with the check from the Post—a brand-new 1966 Rambler station wagon—after living in the suburbs for six years without any means of transportation.
It's not surprising that one's unpublished scribbles don't really register with most people as a serious enterprise. After all, would you consider someone an actor if he's never received a callback, or recognize a composer whose work is played only inside his own head? And writing is one of the few professions you can pursue in your bathrobe and slippers, a uniform that doesn't exactly command respect. To make matters worse, almost everyone you meet wants to write, and absolutely everyone has a terrific story to tell. Wherever I go, it seems, someone sidles up like a thief in an alley with hot diamonds to unload and offers to share a best-selling idea based on a true experience. "You just have to write it down," they all say, "and we can split the profits." If they were writers they'd know that there usually aren't any profits, and they'd realize that one doesn't ever simply "write it down." As the fabled sportswriter Walter "Red" Smith once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein."
But the most vital difference between you and those dreamers is that you've actually written something, which you hope to improve before you go on to write something else. It's what you do. You may be a housewife, mother, father, doctor, teacher, or assembly-line worker, but you also fitWebster's Dictionary definition of a writer: "One who writes, esp. as an occupation." Notice that it doesn't say primary occupation. Joining a workshop—which implies that you're working at something—will bring further validation.
Don't give up your day job yet, but don't disparage it, either. To begin with, it will help to support this persistent writing habit of yours—most published writers need a supplemental income. After I sold that first story, which took me about half a day to write and netted me that Rambler wagon, I thought I'd lucked into a veritable cash cow. I couldn't help daydreaming: If I wrote a story a week, or even one a month ... As a friend wryly predicted, I'd have a whole fleet of Ramblers before long. The sorry truth is that I didn't sell another story for more than three years, and that was to a small literary magazine for a fee barely big enough to buy a tankful of gas for my car. When Toni Morrison was asked in an interview what equipment a writer needs, she promptly replied, "Patience and a job." Morrison herself worked for years as an editor at a major publishing house.
There are other reasons, besides money, to dirty your hands with something other than ink and develop muscles beyond those in your fingertips. A job may provide fodder for your fiction as well as food for your table. Think of Melville's travels on a whaling ship and Charlotte Bronte's tenure as a governess. It's safe to say that Dickens's blacking-factory experience contributed to his compassion for the underdog and that Kafka's days spent as a lowly clerk fed his fear and loathing of authority. His most famous short story, "The Metamorphosis," may offer the best excuse ever for not getting to the office on time. Maxine Kumin raises horses; Ralph Ellison was, at various times in his life, a newsboy, a dental assistant, a receptionist, a jazz trumpeter, and a professional photographer; and Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, and Celine were all practicing physicians. I can't help thinking of the oddly lyrical beauty of medical language—membrane, delirium—and the possibilities it presents for metaphor. A doctor palpates for a "thrill" in a patient's pulse and notes the "quickening" of an unborn fetus. And then there's the rippling alliteration of tetany, tendinitis, torticollis! Carpenters have their plumb bobs and caliper rules; physicists study pulsars and quasars and quarks. When I was writing a scene in which the heroine-poet has her horoscope read, I decided to have my own chart done, too, strictly for research. I still don't believe in astrology, but both my character and I were taken by the language of the stargazers—such heavenly words as cusp and constellation. Every profession, it seems, offers the opportunity to enrich one's literary vocabulary.
Norman Mailer once said that writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing. The writer's gestation may more closely resemble an elephant's, but like childbearing, the process is filled with unmistakably human pain and happiness. Much of domestic life has a similar richness for the fiction writer to mine; each unhappy family is still unhappy in its own fascinating way, and the larger political and social picture is reflected, in miniature, in the workings of the household. Jane Austen's novels, for instance, focus on domestic arrangements, particularly on the fate of marriageable young women. No wonder, since women in Georgian England could not inherit from their parents (only their brothers became heirs). They either had to marry, or live off the generosity of a male relative who had inherited, or apprentice themselves in some menial, low-paying trade. The impact of these patriarchal constraints is implicit in Austen's work, even if it's not spelled out; large facts and ideas inscribed on a small canvas.
To the distress of some feminists, among whose numbers I count myself, I used to compare writing stories with cleaning out my closets. In both instances I was trying to make order out of chaos—in one, by discovering and organizing what was in the back of my mind, and in the other, by discovering and rearranging what was on the backs of my shelves. Editing a manuscript to trim its excesses was not unlike plucking out those stray wire hangers and single socks. I confess that now I'm a lot less preoccupied by household chores (or analogies). I haven't made Jell-O in decades, not since a spectacular pink-and-green arrangement I was unmolding for dinner guests slithered down the kitchen drain. Like Dorothy Parker, I decided not to eat anything more nervous than I am. But Jell-O appears in every one of my books, as an homage to my domestic past. And because it's colorful, shimmery, and layered with surprises, it makes a perfect all-purpose metaphor. Whatever you do in your "real" life may also be distilled into fictional material. Despite Hardy's edict about the "uncommon" in fiction, I now believe that all experience is extraordinary in some ways. It's just a matter of recognizing its literary potential.
Like many readers, I particularly enjoy books about' working-class people, which let me in on the otherwise unknowable life of the elusive "other." The domestic staff, laboring "downstairs" in Henry Green's Loving, the gas-meter reader in Chuck Wachtel's Joe, the Engineer, and the baby nurse in Dorothy Parker's short story "Horsey" are all made sympathetic as much by what they do as by who they are. Although I didn't think much of it at the time, I'm glad now that, prior to my marriage and to my life as a writer, I worked in a couple of offices and factories. Aside from gathering information in those places on how the commercial world works, I received some on-the-job training in human psychology and survival. Waiting tables one summer, I learned about the politics of power and about the heft of a loaded tray of dishes. If fiction teaches one how to live, it's conversely true that living teaches one how to write fiction. Those conventional jobs also accustomed me to some healthy work habits. Secretaries and assembly-line workers are compelled to keep regular hours, whereas writers, especially those without deadlines or a publisher in sight, may not be. Someone who's used to getting up at the same time every day, and following a regular schedule of work and play, will be better able to discipline himself when it comes to writing.
It's a good idea to find a private and comfortable place to work, at home if you have the space, and elsewhere if you don't. Gertrude Stein wrote her Cambridge lecture sitting on the fender of a car, but most of us would find that inconvenient. Many large cities have cooperative "writers rooms," where for a modest fee you can rent a cubicle, if not an entire room, of your own, or you might be able to sublet desk space for certain designated hours in an office building. A place to write doesn't have to be fancy or professional looking. Annie Dillard even advises against luxurious accommodations: "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark." She also says: "You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a tool-shed meant for mowers and spades." They both sound a little cramped to me, but at least there's only room for one person in each of those places, so they'd be havens of privacy.
When I began writing, we lived in a small house, and my husband and I typed at opposite ends of the kitchen table—like Ferrante and Teicher at their twin pianos—while the kids and the dog romped noisily around us. I hadn't heard about Proust's cork-lined chamber yet, and I didn't have Colette's Willy to lock me up. I hadn't even begun to develop my subsequent neurotic need for peace and quiet. But a few months after my older child left home, I realized that I didn't have to preserve her room as a shrine to her childhood. I kept some of her posters on the walls, for a while, and I still referred to the place as "Nancy's room," but eventually it became my office. I staked a claim to it by putting in extra bookshelves and a desk and by hanging a Keep Out sign on the door, the way my daughter had as a teenager. I was way past my own adolescence, of course, and even too old to join the literary brat pack, but I'm happy to report that fiction writing isn't an ageist profession. I've sometimes billed myself as "the Great Middle-aged Hope" because I published my first novel when I was in my mid-forties. But compared to Harriet Doerr, who published her first book in her mid-seventies, I was practically a child prodigy. Helen Hooven Santmyer came up with the best-selling And Ladies of the Club when she was in her eighties (and living in a nursing home); Doris Grumbach and Hortense Calisher are still going strong in their eighties; and James Michener was writing right up to the end of a long, exceedingly productive life. You don't need good legs to be a writer, only talent and perseverance.
Once you've allowed that you're a writer, with the right stuff, good work habits, a place to use them, and something to say, it will be much easier to find other closet writers in your neighborhood, perhaps even among your own friends and acquaintances. If you mention writing to your dentist, he may start spouting his latest sonnet while you're lying helpless in his chair, and at least one checker in your supermarket must keep her collected stories stashed under the till. In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, a portly man is staring blankly into a kitchen cabinet jammed with pages. The caption is his matronly looking wife's deadpan remark: "The gin is above the refrigerator. That's my novel."
Try striking up a literary conversation with people you've discussed books and movies and plays with before and whose opinions you respect, even when you don't agree with them. Mention that you've been writing, and other writers might feel comfortable enough to come out, too. Bring up some of the problems of process—how hard it is to find the time and solitude to work, how frustrating it's been to write in a vacuum—and see if a sympathetic discussion evolves. Broach the subject of getting together to exchange work, and ask if anyone happens to know of anyone else in a similar situation. Scout reading clubs, which have become so popular lately; although the inverse isn't necessarily true, most writers are passionate readers.
Articles in Cosmopolitan used to advise single women in search of men to hang out in hardware stores and auto-body shops. Similarly, writers in search of writing soul mates might find them lurking in bookstores or libraries; some libraries even provide desk space for writing. Fiction writers require a surprising amount of factual material for their stories, so you might ask the reference librarian if anyone has confided an interest in joining a workshop. Post a notice in your supermarket, on the library bulletin board, and at a couple of bookstores. Sample: "Fiction writers wanted for self-propelled workshop. Publication not required, but serious commitment is." If necessary, place an ad in a local newspaper. Advertising, of course, is much chancier than inviting people you've already met, sort of the bookish equivalent of a personals ad, and you'll certainly want to avoid deadbeats and serial killers. A brief telephone conversation and a submitted manuscript will usually determine compatibility or the lack of it. You might ask how long the person has been writing, which writers she particularly admires, and if she's participated in other workshops or book-discussion groups. I would be most receptive to candidates who read eclectically, because they are more likely to be knowledgeable and open-minded about writing that's different from their own.
Excerpted from The Company of Writers by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 2001 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 19, 2013