Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Writers Need - A Room With A Door

Virginia Woolf had it almost right when she opined: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

I might update and amend that sentiment to read:

"A writer must have a chunk of money (or an income), a room with a door (and perhaps a good view), and time to write.

So there is usually a balancing act: "time to write" is very, very expensive; shall we say that food and a room with a door and health insurance will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 per annum? That is two hundred dollars a week. I mean -- if you don't own and drive a car.

The time to write -- and I mean the time to have nothing to do but write for a while, at your own speed, without going to work at the dreary dull job or the fascinating job or the just barely pays the rent job -- costs not only the income you forego by not working -- shall we say, $45,000 a year? which is what my last job as a night word processor paid when the miscreant lawyers sacked me in the fall of 2006 -- but also it costs the retirement benefits that you will not accrue. An actuary could tell you what a pension is worth -- say a half pay pension. But a portfolio of ock solid bonds with no risk attached that will pay $10,00 a year tax free or after taxes -- at 3% per annum -- will cost you $300,000.

Most writers don't have that kind of money when they start out. And writing is not a good way to get it, except for the few very lucky ones.

So ... they work a day job or a night job, as I did, with little thought of a career. Or they attend an MFA program in graduate school -- as I did -- because then theoretically your "job" will be to "study" writing and prepare a "creative thesis."

(In neither of the two MFA programs that I attended -- the famous Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University that couldn't hire me to teach writing because I didn't have college degree) -- in NEITHER of these graduate programs did I meet any students who -- on the poetry side -- had read any Ezra Pound beyond what might appear in an anthology (Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, perhaps a Canto or two, and the haiku about the "faces in the metro"); and on the fiction side I never met any fellow students who had even heard of Stendhal, let alone any who had managed to read anything he wrote. None of them had read Flaubert, either, though some had heard his name. Goncharov? Tolstoy? Chekhov? Sholokhov?

Well. They were young sprouts, fresh out of some college that had slaughtered their education. They didn't have the same advantages that I did: they didn't grow up in a literary, nor even in most cases a literate environment. Not that this produces great writers. We don't really know what produces great writers. Just reading a lot, evidently, is not enough -- it's not even a prerequisite. Though often writers do read quite a lot.)

So most people get a day job. And write at the edges. Or around the edges. With a tired mind. Instead of going for a walk. Some fire keeps them going. They might take long periods of time off. Some do manage to publish despite the obstacles.

I did. Michael Crichton would be a better example. I think he must have been smarter than me. About something. Plot, I guess -- mainly. And of course he wrote mostly trash. Highly polished, facile trash.

I've read all of Michael Crichton's books. He was very successful, made a lot of money. Gave up doctoring. Preferred writing. Perhaps the pleasure of the text is the same whether you are writing kitsch or art? Do the creators of kitsch sometimes believe in themselves as artists? I don't know.

William Carlos Williams -- one of the more important (and most American) writers of the 20th century -- never made much more than fifteen dollars a year on his poetry. Of course, one expects poets to make any money. Getting published is enough for a poet.

But fiction writers -- one expects a fiction writer to get published. And make some money. Or give up. Isn't that the whole point of the exercise? Most people -- most non-writers -- probably think so.

But I am not so sure that it is. Roland Barthes writes about "the pleasure of the text," which I take to be the joy of reading, the delightful dreamlike state from which one "returns" to consciousness.

How much more intense the pleasure of the text must be for writers -- is something we can gauge only by the privations they are willing to endure ... the privileges they might be willing to give up -- in order to keep on writing.

It might be important to remember that writing is an "interaction" that happens at "the reading distance." Desmond Morris, in his interesting book The Naked Ape, points out that the reading distance -- 18 inches? from the eye to the crook of the elbow? -- is also the species-specific bonding and imprinting distance for human beings.

Thus -- is it possible that the pleasure of the text -- an interaction that is at its most intense for writers as they are writing -- takes on the importance of an interaction without which human life would end?

Maybe in a writer's mind?

Can it really be true, as Ezra Pound opined -- that "Art is more important than medicine because only Art reveals the soul of Man" ... ?

If the writers stopped writing, where would that leave us? Shadowing shamans? Kowtowing to captains? Wondering about everything?

As E.M. Forster wrote, "How can I know what I think until I see what I write." Are writers the only people who think? ... really?

Or are we just leaving thought to all the politicians?

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