Friday, October 5, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 6

One thing that’s vital in sustaining your career as a writer is to keep a balance between your engagement with the world, and your distance from it. Virginia Woolf famously argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” By that I think Woolf meant that a writer needs solitude and time to create, two things that are extremely difficult without money and space. 

                                           Virginia Woolf

Solitude and time are often hard to come by in a world filled with jobs, debts, searching for jobs, crowded housing, children, aging parents, problematic relationships, health challenges, and so many other important things to pay attention to. Giving yourself and getting the time to work on your writing is sometimes a matter of complex negotiation with your boss, or your loved ones, or yourself—sometimes the most difficult person to work out a deal with. We risk being accused of selfishness if we demand time for our writing, at the expense of any of our other commitments. There is no easy way to cross this narrow log over the rushing stream. You just have to keep your footing and look straight ahead at the opposite bank.
But distance from the world is not the only thing important to a writer. Immersion in the world is equally important for an author. The things that may be pulling you away from your writing today will be the material for your work in a few years, whether it’s the ones you love, or used to love, or would like to love if only they’d realize how much they need you. It could also be a political cause, your students, or the neighbor you shop for occasionally—all the ways you are knotted to the world are important, both on their own and for your soul as a writer. As Ezra Pound says in ABC of Reading, “More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.” And he should know, right? Pound was notorious for being a great stylist with a feeble sense of humanity. Any engagement with the world that builds your character and your soul can ultimately be good for your writing, even if it takes away from your writing time in the short run. 

It is possible to go too far into the room of one’s own, to become so involved in one’s own thoughts and struggles that engagement from the world is weakened. Writers are seekers, aren’t we? Seekers of truth and beauty. But not all seekers are writers, not by a long shot. We’ve all known writers and/or seekers, talented and sensitive souls, whose knots to the world become unraveled because they have gone too deeply into their own thoughts, and their own internal worlds. It’s a real danger, particularly for writers who are among the most visionary and daring, since their minds crave that solitary and unique undersea world of the imagination. It’s best to dive into that world for limited times, to come up for air occasionally, and not resurface too quickly. There is such a thing as getting the bends from a literary standpoint, or having your lifeline cut, and humans can’t live long in the domain of chameleon squids and bioluminescent fish.
That balance between immersion in the world and distance looks different for each person. The Japanese poet Yosano Akiko raised eleven children and helped found a school for girls, but she was still able to write more than 20,000 tanka poems and eleven books of prose, not to mention translate the classic Tale of Genji into contemporary Japanese. For Yosano Akiko, deep immersion in the world was what she needed to harvest the material for her writing. 

                        Yosano Akiko (holding baby) and her family

The poet Frank O’Hara was known for writing his poems in crowded cafes, surrounded by chattering friends. 

                                             Frank O'Hara (left) and friends

For a writer such as the French novelist Marcel Proust, the opposite was true. Proust had only a passing involvement with other people, though he avidly attended Paris salons and entertained guests at the Ritz Hotel, where he lived. He seemed unconnected to people and superficial to many, even to the perceptive. This seemed to be so true of Proust that when he submitted the first volume of his novel, Swann’s Way, the great novelist André Gide rejected the book out of hand for the publisher la Nouvelle Revue Française. Gide just assumed that the Marcel Proust he knew socially could never write a serious book. 

                                         Marcel Proust

Ultimately, Proust lived primarily for his writing, even to the point of befriending people because he thought they would make good characters for his novel In Search of Lost Time, which he spent his whole life writing. The human being Proust may have been closest to was his housekeeper.
From what I’ve heard about him, the Alaskan writer John Haines was most at home as a writer when he lived in a cabin on a homestead far from any city or town. 

                                 John Haines outside his cabin in Alaska

On the other hand, Haines also found time to marry five different women, so he did achieve a counterpoint of his own sort between solitude and engagement.
The balance looks different for each writer, but you have to find that balance for yourself, the one that allows you to be at home both on land and in the kelp forests. Emulate the sea otter, which swims like a fish but breathes the sweet sea air.

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