January 27, 2005

Working Writers

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Recently, I’ve been reading and enjoying Gene Wolfe‘s Castle of Days. The first section of the book is a collection of short stories, each one tied to a special day on the calendar. The second section is a collection of essays related to Wolfe’s wonderful The Book of the New Sun, currently published in two volumes as Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel. The third section is a collection of essays relating (mainly) to writing.

Here’s a snippet of one essay. Wolfe has been asked how he was able to write such a long and great book as The Book of the New Sun. He responds:

I have a job. In one of his books, Jack Woodford notes that what most people who say they want to write really want is to quit work. I don’t think that situation has changed at all since Woodford wrote, and I have more than a little sympathy for the people who feel that way — an appalling number of jobs absolutely stink; I am extremely fortunate in that I have fallen into one of the few good ones. 

Nevertheless, a tolerable job can be an immense advantage for the writer who hopes to produce something better than ordinary commercial yardgoods. Our society often — though not always — pays for quality; but it does so only after the work is done, and generally long after. In the meantime, the writer must have some support for himself and his family (assuming he has one). I didn’t marry money, and I wanted my wife at home to take care of my children. My parents could not and would not have supported me and my family if I had asked them, for which I do not blame them in the least. There are no grants or other philanthropic props for my kind of writer.

My experience at conventions has shown me that fans are somewhat contemptuous, for the most part, of writers who do not support themselves exclusively by writing. Fans can afford that luxury, but I’m not sure writers can. If it means that quality can be measured in dollars, writers ought to reject it out of hand; they must if they hope to remain writers, because it will soon lead them away from writing altogether.

If it means that a writer should produce as much work as he can, and that a writer who does nothing but write should produce more than one who also hoes beans or hawks vacuum cleaners, then I sympathize with it; but it is still fundamentally mistaken. I would be willing to bet that Anthony Trollope, who was an official of the British Post Office, produced more work than any other 19th Century writer of his stature. Many full-time writers have told me that I produce as much or more copy than they do, although I normally write for only an hour or two a day.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a writer who does nothing but write. (Proust, an invalid who could do little else, came close — but only after decades during which he had neither worked nor written.) Dickens lectured; so did Mark Twain. Poe was a working journalist whenever he could get a job. Fitzgerald was an army officer when he wrote his first novel (on Saturday afternoons in the officers’ club) and afterwards made a career of heavy drinking. Hemingway (who also drank heavily) wrote only two pages a day during his most productive periods and took long vacations for travel, hunting, and fishing. Nabokov was primarily a teacher (at one time a boxing teacher!) until Lolita made enough money for him to retire (pp. 219-220).

Wolfe goes on to note that having a job will get the writer out of the house, make the writer’s writing time precious to him so that he doesn’t procrastinate, and support him so that he can take all the time he needs to finish large projects: “By a paradox G. K. Chesterton (another journalist) would have savored, the job confers freedom. I used the freedom mine gave me to write The Book of the New Sun (pp. 221-222).

Posted by John Barach @ 7:22 pm | Discuss (0)

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