Monday, August 20, 2007

The Imaginary Writer

What do you think of when you hear the word "writer"? I'll tell you what I think of: a guy (always a guy) in a white tee-shirt sitting in front of a manual typewriter, in an attic office, balling up paper and throwing it away. What a stupid cliche -- I must have got from movies or teevee shows or, and most probably, the 1960's How-To-Write guides I got out of the library when I was a kid. That writer is probably Ray Bradbury, even though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in a library basement, not an attic, and he had to stuff quarters into the typewriter.

But it was a very long time before I could comfortably substitute a woman in this scene. Even though I knew of and loved many women writers as a kid, I didn't know anything about them, and couldn't easily picture a "woman writer." Did she sit at the typewriter in makeup and heels? Could she be married? Was she a slob, or did she set a vase of flowers next to the typewriter? In any event, I couldn't take her very seriously.

My romantic vision of writers was what made me want to be a writer, but I had to entirely throw away that vision before I could make the slightest progress toward becoming one. I am, after all, a woman.

Another romantic idea that some people have about writers is that they're born that way. This leads to a lot of gnashing of teeth and sleepless nights: Was I meant to write? Do I have what it takes? Am I a real writer? The older I get the more absurd this all seems. A writer is just a person who writes, and a good writer is most likely one who's done it a lot -- an awful lot. I've never met a "naturally gifted" writer. Every single good writer I know has taught him or herself, through copious reading and careful observation and plain old trial and error.

Anyway, I'm not sure why I'm thinking about this tonight. After a long summer of moving and kid wrangling my own writing energies are at low ebb. The writing life seems very far away and even imaginary.

14 comments:

jrlennon said...

Ha! I think you got that balling-up-paper attic dude from Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," or maybe "Pages From A Cold Island." And the attic is his mom's. And he can't write for shit.

Then again...maybe you could have got it from anywhere at all.

moonlight ambulette said...

I recently had a conversation about this very thing, or something like it: a friend and I were trying to think of good and at least semi-prolific female writers who had also had working marriages and kids and all of it. It was really surprisingly hard to think of many at all, which made us sad and anxious and a little angry. There are many reasons for this dearth, I'm sure, but still -- it makes you feel like you have to make a choice at some point, and maybe you do. I guess I'll find out... uh, any advice?

jrlennon said...

Did anyone see the piece in the Arts section of the Times this weekend about Donald Hall's house? It was a near-flawless model of the Imaginary Writer's domain--a rambling house in the country packed with books and art, with Hall in the middle of it, sitting at his desk in a shaft of sunlight.

More power to him, of course--it's exactly the life we at W6 aspire to. Indeed, many writers could easily masturbate to those pictures. But if we ever get famous enough for somebody to want to do a spread on our place, I think we should insist on including photographs of, say, the split cardboard box at the top of the stairs overflowing with broken plastic toys, or the capless, irregularly squeezed tube of toothpaste in the kids' bathroom, or the dead sparrow the cat left behind the radiator. After all, that's the stuff that ends up making it into our writing, not the hella nice view.

bigscarygiraffe said...

Moonlight-
I do believe I'm writing about this very topic for my always dreaded, but now appreciated college honor's thesis. What I've found in my limited life is: no one has "working marriages and kids and all of it." Not one family in the entire universe is normal. I'm sure we all know that here.., but I believe that writers are not untouchable deities. This is a recent revelation of mine, and it is taking longer than I thought to untangle writer-as-god and writer-as-messed-up-human. Perhaps one of the reasons we can't find "semi-prolific female writers" is because we aren't ready to find them. We love our fantasy worlds.. I know I love mine. In conclusion, I appreciate Elizabeth Bishop more than ever recently.

theindividualvoice said...

Well, Donald Hall shared that house full of books with his beloved wife Jane Kenyon who died not that long ago after a long battle with cancer. So I'm sure half those books are hers and he'd still love to be sharing the space with her. It is our connections that feed us as writers. All the myths are bullshit. I wrote a doctoral dissertation a hundred years ago on the professional identities of male versus female artists, and all the women talked about having to balance things in their lives, their multiple roles, and the men, well, they had images of themselves as much more isolated and reclusive than in fact any one of them were when you started to count all the people in their lives supportive of their work. I think art is about telling the truths of our lives in however disguised form we want. You can do that whatever situation you are in, though, with parenting, you might be less prolific for awhile, but they really do grow up and go off to college and then there is a ton of time.

jrlennon said...

It is true, the ghost of Jane Kenyon is all over those photos.

zoe said...

This issue is one that I am currently considering. I don't want to have to put everything off until my children are at school, but it seems that this might be the only solution. I just can't face getting up at 5 in the morning and I'm knackered after teaching. What's a busy mother of two to do?

I commented on an earlier post about Kirsty Gunn and her latest book moving towards a new form of literature. I don't know if it's out in America or not, but it certainly raises some interesting points about being a writer and mother. Incidentally, she has just won the $50,000 Scottish book prize for her novella "The Boy and the Sea".

Maybe novellas are the way forward.

rmellis said...

A woman who went to my grad school just after me (Amanda Ward) has three novels and two kids. Wha!!?? It can be done. I should ask her how, but I'm afraid the answer is something like "Just Do It."

The main difference I've found between men and women writers is that men are more confident and women are harder on themselves. (MANY exceptions both ways, of course.) I've known several terrific writers who flat out quit writing -- all women. This might deserve another post.

Hey, bub, I kind of like Fred Exley.

moonlight ambulette said...

This is all very interesting. BSG, funny you should write "Not one family in the entire universe is normal" -- I'm not even thinking of a family as being "normal" or "not normal" (whatever that means). It's more, okay, I just managed to write a book, shoe-horning the time at yes, sorry, 5 am in the morning before work, balancing writing and working and teaching and a significant other and friends...and it was hard. And now it's like, crap, what happens when (still-hypothetical) kids get thrown into that mix?! Does it all fall down? (The answer, I suspect, is: only if you let it?)

And I love what people are writing here about the archetypal Writer, or whoever. Have any of you seen the great/terrible movie Stranger Than Fiction? Emma Thompson plays the most ridiculous writer -- always pale and distraught and nibbling at her nails and tugging at her hair and stubbing out cigarettes and crumpling up papers -- and supposedly she's writing the goofy story of Will Ferrell's life (I didn't explain that well, but he plays a man who realizes he's a character in her novel). It's just funny -- how writers are supposed to (still!) be all wraithy and about to lose their minds all the time. When most of the writers I know are, well, a little more grounded than that. You know, they have jobs, and they go to the gym and stuff.

But I guess that's not as sexy...

—T. said...

I've never seen Stranger Than Fiction but I too, see an overflowing ashtray on an old wooden desk, a man sitting, his back to the door, leaning over a yellow legal pad and white-knuckling a pencil sharpened down to its eraser. I, I'll say jot, in longhand and I got some small comfort when I read JK Rowling does it as well . . . don't remember when or where I read this. An older writer friend of mine said writing should be treated like a 9-5 job and do it loyally, but it's hard when you have a 9-5 job, etc. So the only thing I can do is admire those who do it, and like Rhian said copious reading to figure out what's/who's good and what sinks. That's why I enjoy your site, many thanks.

ed said...

Donald Hall's house...Donald House's hall...Fred Exley's davenport. The city of Davenport...

Another image of the comfy writer working in some facsimile of his wandering mind was the opening sequence to the Ray Bradbury tv show, which my brother Pete gave us for Christmas a few years ago: a dark place with lots of dust motes, stacks of old books, things metal and wood. And disheveled apparel, and a few months overdue for a haircut.

That view's always seemed like a trap to me. I just got rid of my desk (which itself was a piece of patio furniture my grandparents served triscuits and martinis on in Bethesda, MD in the 1970s) and trundled in an old mangler table just big enough for the laptop and the printer. In college this table, for a year, was used by Todd Gish to support his aquarium in which lived a flathead catfish he'd caught at Pott County Lake #2. And I brought in a chair I rescued from the dorm; it's not very comfortable, though the cat thinks so. The cat killed a chipmunk this morning.

zoe said...

My picture of a writer is some cool hipster who hangs out with other cool people and is actually too clever for me to talk to. This still lingers after meeting several writers who are in no way like that.
In reality, I agree with what Rhian has said: it's bloody hard work! Maybe we like to carry on with the false image so that we can feel okay about not being "proper" writers. It's that old "I'm not worthy" thing, perhaps.
Incidentally, before you have children you can't imagine how exhausting the whole thing is. It isn't even the hard grind that is so debilitating. It's being the centre of somebody else's universe all day and night. It takes great effort and perserverance to carry on being yourself, never mind making up pretend people with interesting lives and minds.

However, I think what Rhian said about just getting on with it is true. Possibly I should spend less time reading blogs.

rmellis said...

No! Don't stop reading blogs! ;)

I think what's required is that writing is a priority. Not before your children, and not before your lovers, but maybe third place. Before housework, before your friends. You have to wake up thinking about your work, and see everything all day through the lens of your work.

Anyway, that's how I did it, when I did do it...

Writer, Rejected said...

My idea of a writer is someone who devotes an entire life to just writing, some crazy, wire-haired person who sits in a room until insanity finally settles in....but the work is a masterpiece, so who cares about life. Thank God It's only an idea and not my reality. In truth a good writing life is balanced with a lot of other activities, including blogging.