Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Supporting Your Writing Habit

I liked this piece by Ann Bauer about how her writing, as an essayist and novelist, is supported by her husband's office job. In particular, I thought the argument for honesty, rather than attributing success in writing/publication falsely is important:
Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.

All that disclosure is crass, I know. I’m sorry. Because in this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why? I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.

There’s a special version of this masquerade that we writers put on. Two examples:

I attended a packed reading (I’m talking 300+ people) about a year and a half ago. The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards. He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.

None of this takes away from his brilliance. Yet, when an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask him how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by. I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.

Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

As we were discussing recently in regards to whether one is "rich", the subject of being well off in some sense can be a sensitive one, but there's something particularly disturbing about someone who has been able to devote more time or get more connections in the world of writing due to family wealth or personal connections attributing that success to some completely other thing when giving advice to aspiring young writers. If some other woman wanting to imitate Example #2's success resolves not to have children, will that give her parents with deep connections in the New York literary world? No. And it's far better to simply admit the connections than send people running off on some self destructive path to disappointment due to trying to imitate things which were not in fact instrumental to success.

Also, as someone who's now trying to take a fairly serious shot at novel writing, I couldn't agree more with the point about writing being a much more peaceful process if you're not trying to rely on it to pay the bills. Sure, I would love it if I could spend my daytime hours quietly researching and writing. I was just a tiny bit envious of the writing routine outlined in this piece on how to write a book in six weeks, which in some ways is not that different from what Bauer describes her husband's job as making possible for her. Me, my writing time is from 9:30 or 10:00PM till as late as I go, hopefully midnight, but sometimes one or two in the morning. That can be a little rough, given that I have to be back at my desk the next morning by 8:30AM and functional throughout the day. But honestly, I'm just happier living that way that dealing with the uncertainty of trying to write as a main job. (And while I don't have someone else to pay the bills for me, the support of a stable spouse who can shoulder a lot of the weight of household chores and kid stuff so that I can write at nights is key -- I could never write like this if I was a single parent.)

This is one of the reasons why I'm always inspired by seeing pieces about writers who kept themselves going by other means. Anthony Trollope had a successful career in the British post office, which occasionally comes into his novels in delightful descriptions of how letters essential to the plot either make their way to their destination on time or become misdirected. T. S. Elliot was a successful bank clerk.

T.S. Eliot worked in the foreign transactions department at Lloyd’s bank from 1917 until 1925 (from the age of 29 until he was 37). He punched in Monday through Friday (plus one Saturday a month) from 9:15 am to 5:30 pm. Like many Americans today, he only qualified for two weeks of vacation a year.

Historian Russell Kirk ,in his essential book on Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971), writes that the publication and success of The Waste Land both changed, and didn’t change Eliot’s circumstances: “Like other poets before him, Eliot woke to find himself famous; but still he labored in the cellars of Lloyd’s bank.” And by referring to the cellar here, Kirk is not being metaphorical. The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.”

I find that oddly inspiring. Doing financial and pricing analysis is not exactly what most people would think of as a creative career, but it is definitely interesting and challenging in an office-y sort of way. I am happy to be the most bank clerky of all bank clerks if that provides the means to be a novelist in the background without worrying about the heating bill.

If you want a brief feel for Bauer's writing, and a window into when her life was not so calm, she has a well written and moving piece reflecting on watching her youngest child graduate high school.


Jenny said...

I wonder if there is a cultural difference between writing and music because it was a common trope among the music majors that the non-music major future spouse would be supporting the music habit.

I remember once asking my father why so many famous people were the children of famous people. There really are advantages that some people have that others don't. I don't know why this fact is seen to diminish the hard work of the ones who have the advantages.

To write well or perform well requires a lot of hard work. Generally speaking those with connections don't succeed if they are terrible--see Chelsea Clinton on TV--but connected people *do* get chances that others don't.

Literacy-chic said...

Jenny - Maybe writers are seen as "loners" more often than musicians? Except that the trope of the musician waiting tables to support the music habit is alive and kicking in Austin and New Orleans, for certain. When I was in college, an English major was treated to the "want fries with that" joke--a lot. Because everyone knows an English B.A. is not employable. Sometimes we did it to ourselves. It was never assumed that someone else would be supporting the writers in my circle (and I was a creative writer back then). These days, it is apparent that the writers of my acquaintance do have someone supporting them or acting as a helpmeet, or what have you. I did just run across an essay by some kind of "took of on a journey of self-discovery to write my novel" guy and was thoroughly disgusted. Even when I was young and idealistic, I did think I would have a real job to support my writing habit. But poets don't make money, so that's different, too.

Lauren said...

Back when I was a creative writing major in college, the department paid lip service to the idea that we were all employable in publishing. They talked up some publishing summer training program where we would then be hired as entry level editors/lackeys. When I actually spoke seriously with my advisor about this option, he (a successful Southern author of humble origin) said, "You could do that, but you'll need someone to pay the dry cleaning bill." While my parents might support me in graduate school, they certainly wouldn't support some Sex in the City adventure in Manhattan. Sugar daddy was nonexistent. So I scrapped that plan and went to library school. The money has been rolling in ever since. Hahaha.

John Farrell said...

And don't forget Tolkien, whose routine still staggers me: up for Mass every morning; breakfast with the family; off to teach; lunch with the Inklings et al, afternoon tutoring with grad students; dinner at home, or out; then finally, settling into his garage office to write by hand into the wee hours…..

Jenny said...

"Back when I was a creative writing major in college, the department paid lip service to the idea that we were all employable in publishing. They talked up some publishing summer training program where we would then be hired as entry level editors/lackeys."

This is what bothers me about majoring in arts or humanities. More departments than some would like to admit exaggerate how directly employable their graduates are. Instead of teaching them how to use their degree to market themselves in other areas, they sell them a bill of goods. Then the graduates (and their families) are dumbfounded at their severely limited prospects. There is some degree of naivete at play because the families should do independent research outside of the college propaganda, but they didn't know they couldn't trust these people to tell the truth.

mandamum said...

I think Dr. Ralph McInerny (Fr. Dowling etc etc) had a similar schedule to Tolkien's, at least when his children were small. And he has written an amazing number of nonfiction works as well. He said once, when we asked him, that when his kids were small he would go down to the basement after they went to bed and write for 4hrs. And then, as Darwin says, get up and do it all over again.

MDiskin said...

I'm a writer, and when I was 9 months pregnant I showed up to talk to a class of journalism students. (Fun -- you could see their jaws drop as I and my 10-lb baby in utero walked in.) The question they all want to ask is the How to Succeed one. My answer:
-marry someone with a rock-solid job and benefits
- be 101% reliable with deadlines & word counts
- track your money like an accountant (or hire one)
- don't rely on your genius with the turn of phrase to take you more than the last quarter-mile of a 20-mile writing journey
- oh, and that I got up every day at 4:30am to write for 3 hours, until my other kids woke up.

They didn't really want to hear it -- too negative! Everyone wants to think that it's all about good writing for about an hour a day, with lots of drinking and interesting lunches inbetween. Lots of PONDERING LIFE, etc.

Sad that a childless life was seen by one author as bearing more literary fruit. The deepest love, the most agonizing worries, the funniest moments have all come from my kids. (And a lot of writing inspiration, of course.)

Abigail said...

These are really good thoughts. Thank you!

Literacy-chic said...

I guess you have to look at what jobs liberal arts professors have held to explain the phenomenon Jenny is mentioning. Hmmm.... Hmmm.... I guess some might have worked a summer job. Maybe. I actually know one full Professor who did hold another kind of professional job (banking? maybe?) and managed to get back in... But in a profession that considers those unfit who have accepted full-time professional jobs rather than wait and adjunct and leapfrog from one exploitative Asst Prof or Visiting Asst Prof or Lecturer or Postdoc gig to another until the ideal job miraculously surfaces (as apparently they always do for the well-deserving), how can you really expect realistic advice on job search strategies for undergrads OR grad students? I do believe that liberal arts degrees are excellent, in many ways preferable, and certainly employable. But faculty are not equipped to discuss the realities of making that happen, no.

Darwin said...


Yeah. I admire Tolkien's schedule and try to imitate it. I just wish my results were as worthy.


Thank you for providing those points. That's really helpful, and I think a far more realistic view of the writing life than what one often hears.


Yeah, the experience point is probably key. I've heard too many liberal arts majors say that if they can't make it in academia or a creative field, their only options are working at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, which I think basically occur because retail is obvious and they spend time in Starbucks and Barnes & Noble as it is. But there's a ton of other stuff you can do, if you think of trying.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd prefer a job at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble to being in academia.