Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Best of jobs, the blurst of jobs...

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! NEW WRITER FEUD!

Today, ladies and gents, we have Elizabeth Gilbert taking on Philip Roth. We also have the fallout, which you can see here, and here, and here.

Nothing like a little drah-ma to liven up Life After The Snowstorm, wouldn't you say?

The thing that gets me about feuds like these--particularly feuds with writers, it would seem--is that usually, they inevitably come down to Point A versus Point B, with nary a moment to consider the lovely bumpy ground in between. Philip Roth says that writing is an awful field. Elizabeth Gilbert says, by contrast, that it's actually a pretty fucking great job. There's a little bit of acknowledgment on both sides, I think, that it's maybe not always awful, not all the time--you can't help but hear the joke in Philip Roth's words, even as he says them--nor is it always fucking great, not all the time, but by and large the positions are pretty set. Philip Roth = eternal curmudgeon. Elizabeth Gilbert = eternal optimist. Yadda yadda. Etc.

The problem with debates like this is that the impassioned defenses, when they inevitably arise, only serve to further entrench each idea of The Writing Life. And as someone who has found her own particular Writing Life (whatever the heck that means) to be endlessly varied and filled with surprises of both the good and bad kind, I think it's worthwhile, every now and again, to step back and try one's best to look at all aspects of the issue. Because let's face it: the reality of the matter is that for most people, writing is not "fucking great". Not all of the time. As my father once oh-so-astutely pointed out, "You do an awful lot of work for not an awful lot of money." Also, you're caught in this vicious cycle of putting little babies out into the world and getting them rejected on a constant basis. You live for those all-too-few moments when the babies get picked up and fawned over by someone else. For some of us, it rarely ever happens. (Remember when I broke down my success-to-failure ratio? Yeah. That. Like I said: if I was a doctor and had that same rate of success, I'd have been sued for malpractice ten times over by now.) Also, even when the babies do get accepted, there inevitably comes the moment when you see them in print -- what you've waited for! All this time! -- and suddenly feel yourself cringing. I could have used a different word there. I should have tightened that scene -- that would have made it so much better. You live, constantly, in the shadow of your own imperfection. You are never as good as you hope that you could be. You are always, on some level, failing. This is true.

But every now and then you get moments. You know. Those ones. That moment when a literary journal writes to you and says Congratulations! We loved your essay. We'd be honoured to publish it. That moment when your agent gets back to you and says Great news! We have a book contract! And YOU'LL EVEN GET PAID FOR IT!  Maybe it's the fact that these little successes come in the face of overwhelming rejection that makes them shine all the brighter. Whatever the reason, these moments do shine, and sometimes they shine brightly enough to make a writer think that, yes, writing is pretty fucking great. Even if only for a little while.

Besides--as Gilbert so rightly points out, the fact that writing requires comparatively little physical anguish when compared to slugging two-by-fours or working the night shift at a diner or holding possibility of someone's life right under your scalpel makes me wary of trumpeting how much writing might make one suffer. Don't get me wrong--writing is all about mental anguish. The worry of not measuring up. The constant fear that your past successes have only been flukes, that you won't ever write anything as good ever again, that you might have managed to publish a novel but look at Writer X who's ten years younger than you are and has already published TWO novels and won PRIZES and ACCLAIM and you can't even land a teaching job, and in the mean time you have to slog away waiting tables or selling people crap that they don't need or even, say, work as an admissions clerk at a hospital. Sure, that's a tough thing to juggle. On the one hand.

On the other hand? We need to grow up, guys. We need to get over ourselves.

Again, don't mistake me. I worry and fret and put myself through all kinds of mental torture as a result of my writing, or my not-writing, or my potential inability to ever say anything of any consequence. I worry a great deal about, as Gilbert says, the "marvelous pointlessness" of the writing activity. You sweat and bleed and cry over these pages, and maybe the novel gets published or maybe it doesn't, but you still have every chance of fading into obscurity, published novel or no. And is a published novel going to save someone's life? Really truly? Again, there's a chance that it might. (God knows, plenty of published novels have saved mine.) But there's also an equal chance that it won't. Even the novels that win prizes and acclaim in our time are likely destined for humbler endings. Maybe they get lucky enough to be that novel that schoolchildren are forced to read (and will probably vehemently dislike, if my own exposure to curriculum staples in high school is any indication) fifty years down the road. But people. Come on. How many contemporaries of Shakespeare are spoken about and remembered in the same way today? Christopher Marlowe? Anyone else?

And even when you do manage to reach that one reader, how much of an impact can you really be said to have in their world as it continues to unfold? Most likely, your book will get relegated to their shelves. You can win prizes and acclaim and all of that, but once the parties and the glitz dies down, your novel will get put on a shelf, and it will stay there. Maybe that reader will look back over it once or twice and smile, and remember how great it was to read it for the first time. Maybe. (Or maybe it will end up on the shelf of a used bookstore, instead.) But will your little book have a huge impact on the world? Will the novels of Philip Roth, as gigantic as he is and has been throughout his career, have a huge impact on the world overall? Will Elizabeth Gilbert's novels do the same? Probably not. Not in the same way that, say, discovering a cure for cancer might do. Not in the same way that the people who build our houses and give us water and pave our streets and decide things in our governments do little things, every day, to make our world smoother.

We writers love to torture ourselves because we think, somehow, that our mental anguish leads to Art That Changes The World. That the suffering and the worry and the neuroses we endure for our Art is somehow the price that we pay for Making That Art in the first place. When the fact of the matter is, simply, that most of the time writing will eventually turn into nothing. It might change the world for a little while, but no one knows who gets to be Shakespeare five hundred years from now. Writers put words out into the universe, and most of the time they just get sucked into the ether. This, really, is actually what happens. Newsflash: writing is marvelously pointless. And if you manage to somehow carve out a life for yourself that allows you to do this marvelously pointless thing, and even get paid for it every now and then, you maybe need to make some room for self-awareness in your complaining.

No doubt I sound like the largest of hypocrites right now. Am I not, in fact, doing the very act that I've so loudly dismissed in the paragraphs above? Am I not writing to reach an audience, and hoping in some small part of my soul that my words get out to someone in such a way as to change their world? Of course I am. Writers are terrible narcissists -- we self-deprecate and laugh and play down our work, all the while secretly thinking that yes, damn it, I really do have something important to say. Something that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Everyone does it. Philip Roth does it. Elizabeth Gilbert does it. (Why continue to be such a curmudgeon if you weren't, in fact, hurt that your efforts to say important things were rebuffed, or not taken as seriously as perhaps you think they should? Why be such a sunny optimist if you didn't truly believe that your thoughts and words would have some impact on how things turned out?) I do think more writers than not are, in fact, very aware of how ridiculous and yet how blessed they are to be doing what they do.

Because honestly? Here I am, in front of my sun-filled window, writing. I have tea. I have an almost-finished manuscript in front of me. This is work that I carry with me all of the time. This is work that I've thought about and worried over and cried about for the past two years. Sure there's anguish involved. But I would so much rather be doing this than waiting tables (which is not to disparage waiting tables, understand -- I'm just a terrible waitress). And on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being perfect, I'd have to say that a day spent writing usually, for me, clocks in roughly round a seven.

This despite the mental anguish. This despite the fact that the labours of one day might be completely eradicated by a day spent editing some months in the future. This despite the whole two steps forward, four steps back nature of writing progress. This despite the inevitable howling of the critics. Writing is a good life, guys. When you consider the work that some people have no choice (really, actually have no choice) but to do elsewhere in the world, getting to spend your day (or parts of it, anyway) in front of a computer screen putting stuff from your head down onto the page is a downright privilege. 

I wouldn't say it's "fucking great". I wouldn't say that it's "torture", either. Writing as a profession occupies that lovely, bumpy middle ground. It is what it is. Sometimes it's fantastic. Sometimes it gets you downright depressed. But if you manage to slog through those rejections and get those one or two points of joy -- an acceptance from a journal, or a website, or even having someone you respect read your work and say You know, you might be onto something here -- it somehow all seems worth it. And that, I think, is all that anyone can really ask of a profession. You do what you do, and when those moments of joy come, you cradle them, give thanks, and move on.

Like Lauren Davis says in her own response to the brouhaha: "It's in writing anyway, because you MUST, that the pearl resides--underneath the oyster slime." Writing has moments of joy and moments of heartbreak like anything else. Writers say that they do it because they know that they can't do anything else, yes. But the very fact that you know you can't do anything else does, in a strange way, mean that you write because you want to do it.

Writing is ultimately a choice for every writer. It is maybe not fucking great, not all the time, but it is nonetheless a calling that you choose to follow because you know that you do not want to wait tables, or slug two-by-fours, or work in a cubicle job, or run a hospital, or any of the other professions that Gilbert cites, and any of the other hundreds of thousands or jobs that people do to feed themselves and get them through another day. The people who manage to make a career for themselves as writers -- whether through also holding teaching jobs, or working at some other job during the day and scribbling by night, or whatever, and putting up with the criticism and the rejection all in the midst of it  -- put in all that hard work because they want to do it. Because they recognize that those moments of joy are worth the rest of the trouble. This does not sound like torture to me. Nor do these actions sound like the actions of a person who has no choice in the matter.

So let's get over ourselves, folks. Let's celebrate writing for what it is:  that sometimes crappy, sometimes wonderful privilege that we all find satisfying on some level, even if that satisfaction is buried under mountains of neuroses and ego and hurt. It is the marvelously pointless profession that we all choose because somehow, the act of doing it brings us those small moments of incandescent joy. We can only hope that it also manages to reach a reader and bring them a moment of joy too.

In the meantime? I chose this. So did you. So let's get back to the words, and quit complaining.*

*Quitting complaining is also marvelously pointless, especially for writers. Oh well. 

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