Sunday, October 4, 2009

How much of your life should writing take up?

I was going to talk about this in the comments of the last post, where reader Mark was talking about the consistent quality and prolificity of Philip Roth's work, but thought it was worth a post of its own. I believe the reason Roth can be so good, and produce good work so often, is simple. It's the same reason Toni Morrison gave this past week at Cornell, when an audience member at her talk asked how she could be so productive, even while being an editor and teacher, as she has often been.

I don't really consider Morrison especially prolific, but I certainly do think she produces work of great worth. And her answer was, "Because I don't do anything else. I read books, I teach books, and I write books. That's it." She said that she doesn't go on vacations, really, or "go skiing." She just lives the work. As far as I know, so does Roth--he lives in a small town in, I believe, Connecticut, doesn't indulge in many extraliterary pursuits, and just goes at it like a madman.

I'm not like that. I'm too easily distracted. Some of my distractions, particularly the creative ones, I find useful to my writing, but others of them (posting on internet forums, re-watching the entire "Mr. Show" DVD set, drinking bourbon) are of no particular value other than pleasure. I do think I need to cut down on these things--most of us do, really. (Though it's OK to watch "Druggachusetts" one more time, you have my permission.)

The other night, as I was trying to digest her quite excellent comments on my novel manuscript, Rhian told me that I don't take myself, and my work, seriously enough. If it isn't good enough, that's probably why. I'll never be the artists Roth and Morrison are, but if I want to be more like them, perhaps I should listen to her.

But what do you think? How much seriousness can a writer take? Is the kind of singleness of purpose necessary to create Nobel-worthy work (and where, might I ask, is Roth's Nobel?) even achievable by any but a handful of people? For the rest of us, I'd imagine there is a point beyond which we begin to get diminishing returns--the work will be fully realized, but the joy will have gone out of it.

I think I have a ways to go before I'm there, though, and I really ought to do as the Mrs. says. Meanwhile, enjoy that photo there--it's Toni Morrison talking with my colleagues Ken McClane and Margo Crawford. Morrison turns out to be an incredibly cool lady, as well as an artist of the first rank, and it was a major, major pleasure to get to meet her. (Rhian can tell you about nearly knocking her flat in the cloak room after the reading.)

24 comments:

Stephen said...

As I sit here on a Sunday night trying to get out the first sketch of the first act of an outline for an episode which starts shooting in a few weeks, and for which there is not yet really a full concept for a story, I am fairly certain that if I had spent a little less time today reading every word of the L.A. Times travel section right down to the exchange rate on the Euro and browsing through Zagat for just the right pub-style Japanese restaurant for next Saturday night before August: Osage County, I might be a little farther along in the writing...

Louis said...

I think the answer is . . . however much you want it to. What's the point in writing if you do it so much that you don't give time to things that make you happy -- wife -- kids? If a lack of Nobel is making you miserable, you might want to work on writing more. Or if your job depends on it, and you need the job to support your family and feel worthwhile. But if you're enjoying yourself and you don't feel terrible about your writing, I'm not sure what you'd gain by pushing yourself away from activities that give you joy. You only live once, and the Nobel is just a bunch of Swedish guys and obnoxious publicity.

jrlennon said...

Well--I'm certainly not shooting for a Nobel. But I do want to be better at writing.

That said, the LA Times travel section is beckoning...;-)

christianbauman said...

When I was young (I mean really young...because 39 certainly is still young. Right, JRL? Right? Please?) I very much wanted to be a remarkable artist. That is no longer the goal. The goal now is to lead a remarkable life, by my own definition and to no one else's notice, and that includes many things, high among them how I steer my children and what I can do to enrich the life of my wife and the few others in the world I love. I am still a writer and still have an ego and I still strive, but I guess it's just been a reshuffling of priorities. Back to your previous post, JRL, I am a slower writer than I thought I would be and probably should be (we are the same page, I have 3 published novels, you have double that...but grass greener,you fear you output should be double).

Ultimately, though, I don't think any of this is a decision: how we write, that is. Like you, I'm guessing, I know a handful of writers. I've read about more. And what I see, combined with my own experience, is this: writers write as they are programmed to write, and that's that. It's not a decision. There is something inside that pushes all of us to this insane practice of fiction writing, and it is dialed up or dialed down differently in different bodies.

Or, as has been said: You get what you get and you don't get upset. Turns out I'm someone who publishes a novel about every three years. I'm okay with that. There are negatives to it, and positives, but in the end it doesn't matter one way or another. It's how I write.

christianbauman said...

And that would be "we are the same age" not the "same page".
Not that I mind sharing a page with ya.

jrlennon said...

Eh...I dunno, Christian, I think talent is there to be shaped, probed, and stretched. I don't necessarily disagree that you've got what you've got, and that's that--but at any given time I think we're using maybe five percent of what we've got, and the other 95% remains invisible to us. It should be ferreted out, its limits tested.

I'm with you about living life, though. Five hundred years from now we and everything we have ever done will be nothing but dust, so we ought to live it right while we have it.

sjwoo said...

All I know is this: I'll never be Mozart, so I'll do my best to be Salieri. And frankly, I'm probably delusional in comparing myself to Salieri. I'm more like that guy you never heard about who lived and died having written a couple of tunes in 1787.

I have to be frank -- sometimes I do wonder if anything I do is worth it. I'm a year younger than you, Christian, but man, half of our life is gone, never to come back. It reminds me of a Matt Groening "Life in Hell" cartoon -- for like 20 cells, he has his strange bunny-looking guy saying, "Nothing's happening" and "Nothing's still happening." And getting a little older each time.

And at the end, when he's an old man, he says:

"What happened?"

christianbauman said...

Well said, JRL. Could be I'm justifying my slow creep.

rmellis said...

People come first, writing is second. I had a boyfriend once who said that, if we ever got married, writing would come before everything, even me or a kid. Well, that didn't last.

jrlennon said...

I can't believe you said that, he is totally lurking here! ;-)

Pete said...

Rhian, without knowing either one of you personally, after reading that ex-boyfriend's comment it's safe to say that you're infinitely better off with JRL and his occasional bourbon.

zoe said...

Rhian, do you think that's one of the reasons that society (as a whole - not somewhere like this) has lots of "great" male writers and very few "great" female writers? That "great" male writers (again, of course none of the guys that frequent this lovely place) give themselves over entirely to being a writer and that women give it a different level of importance? Probably "give" is too deliberate a word. Now, I'm not only banging the drum of God-I've-got-so-much-laundry-to-do-I've-no-time-(or-energy)-to-write-the-great-modern-novel here, I'm also wondering whether there's a slightly different level of priority for some writers and whether it's totally okay to be fine with that.

I completely agree John, that you have to hone your skill and there's always an opportunity to improve, but there's also the argument that one shouldn't strive for someone else's agenda/output/whatever.

rmellis said...

Pete: I certainly think so! :)

Zoe: Yes, I do think that's at least part of it. I know that when I had kids, writing instantly became less important -- I just couldn't feel all life and death about it anymore. Even though we share kid duties, it has always loomed larger for me. JR can put the kids out of his mind for a few hours; I can't. It is partly just a personality thing. John is more focused -- I am not focused at all. But part of it could be gender, or hormones, or something. Even socialization...

That whole Where Are the Great Women Writers thing is something I'm kind of obsessed with... I count female names versus male names on the flaps of anthologies and in tables of contents (in the most prestigious, it's 70% male, pretty consistently).

Sasha said...

As the daughter of artists who put family first, I say: screw that! Selfishness is a way of looking out for oneself-- so other people won't have to. I'd give anything for my mother and father to have put me second more often and spent more time and energy pursuing their dreams, because now they’re bitter, dissatisfied, and deeply unhappy—I don’t want the responsibility of acting as “proof” that their lives have been meaningful, and the large-scale talent squandering is shameful. Personally, I believe you’re fooling yourself if you think making your domestic life a priority over the health of your soul is best for anybody in the long run.

Selfishness is not the same as self-indulgence.

zoe said...

It's possible, I think, to reach a balance between being a good parent, partner, whatever and being an artist (in whatever form). I think it's important that you do something that's wholly you as well as taking care of business in other ways.

Possibly a lot of this comes down to being focussed when you have time to be creative.

jrlennon said...

We are very happy around here, and won't require our kids to prove anything for us, ever. You'd be delighted to see how distracted we are from them. And for the most part, they have learned that that's how we roll in this house, and they have developed their own obsessions and distractions, from which they are difficult to tear away, just like mom and dad.

rmellis said...

It's true that nobody loves a martyr, but fortunately, you hardly ever have to make a choice between your art and your people. But if you ever do... I don't know, but I still think people come first. Relationships with people are more valuable than personal gratification. That doesn't mean you should give up your art in order to loom over your children 24-7. Of course. But love will always trump art, for me.

Not sure I would have said that when I was 20, though...

jrlennon said...

You do not need to choose between art and family--it's a fallacy. You have to budget your time better and perhaps compartmentalize your brain if you have children, but it's totally doable.

*refills shot glass*

zoe said...

Hear, hear JRL. It's all about time management and slightly different sides of your self. Sure, I'd love to be able to mooch around sidewalk cafes in Paris writinf furiously, but actually, I'd have nothing to write about and very little impetus to get on with it. Having children has given me the understanding that you have to squeeze what you need out of your time.

Saying that you can't write becaus eof your kids is an excuse, I think. You might (well, probably definitely) have less time and energy, but if it's really important to you, you'll do it. I am quite a lazy sort of person and I also have a job and I have three small children, but, because it's really important to me, I write for an hour or two a week and have managed to write a couple of books that way. It it do-able.

jrlennon said...

It's true, I think that some writers use their children as an excuse not to do the hard work. Obviously, some parents have it tough, and honestly don't have time. But most of us can make it happen.

There are advantages to having kids for the artist, as well--they require you to think a great deal about human beings, how they develop, why they're the way they are...if you're like me, kids make you obsess about your own mortality and theirs, and all that good stuff. You don't need kids to learn all this, of course, but it's possible to treat your family as an artistic opportunity, rather than as an impediment.

Sasha said...

I've been thinking about my comment, and I'm sorry if I sounded harsh or judgmental:

It’s not that I think a domestic or private life is impossible to maintain as an artist or writer. God forbid writers should have to give up love as well as money in order to be socially accepted.

I just think a lot of people-- especially women and "co-"parents-- feel guilty putting boundaries on their time or energy. I think a lot of people have been trained to think that not being on call 24-7 for others means they're being selfish-- and I disagree. Maybe I'm just dealing with issues or coming to revelations that are a huge DUH! to everyone else (probably, lol). But I think it's necessary to be "selfish" in setting boundaries and fulfilling personal needs... which took a lot of practice and thought for me, personally.

Self-indulgence on the other hand (to me) is using people or things as an excuse for not taking responsibility for one's own happiness. Not being self-indulgent may mean eschewing navel-gazing Paris-wandering, but it may also mean saying "no" to your kids or husband or wife, or to having a "respectable" image to the world at large. And that's healthy for everyone-- because if you don't look out for yourself, the burden only shifts to somebody else-- it doesn't go away.

My point *really* is, please don't feel guilty for showing your kids that their happiness is their responsibility, that the soul doesn't vanish during adulthood, that they aren't the center of the universe (or even *your* universe)-- I think they'll thank you for your artistic "selfishness" as adults (I certainly would have).

Sorry again if this comment is a study in obviousness! I just wanted to clarify, because I really don't want anyone to feel attacked, and because, looking back, I feel as though I wasn't as articulate as I should have been :)

jrlennon said...

Sasha, well put--I agree completely.

rmellis said...

I agree too, Z and S!

Yetsuh said...

I was once nearby when Robert Pinsky was asked how he managed to be so prolific while at the same time being such a busy, busy dude: teaching, speaking, poet laureat-ing, etc. His answer was basically that he taught himself to write in all those places that we traditionally consider it impossible to do so- on airplanes, in the passenger seat, at breakfast (my examples.)

The discussion of writing/creating vs. kids is an interesting one because I actually found that having children totally transformed my work and work habits for the better. I am a far deeper person as a result of their presence in my life (at the risk of sounding like they are house guests.) I'd like to think we are engaged and involved parents without being overbearing and I write much more than I ever did. In fact- I am often astonished at how much I get done relative to the pre-kid years. What the hell was I doing with myself in my late-20's?

At the same time, it seems to me that successful writing and other creative pursuits are mostly about establishing deep emotional connections and while more time might help in the revision phase of things it is not entirely clear to me that more time equals more connection to that deep, powerful stuff. That said- you've got to be writing to be getting better. No amount of thinking and reflection can replace those drafts. I guess it's more of a conundrum than a puzzle.