Why I Didn't Write
For a long time I was on the lam.
My crime? Well, not to frustrate your gun lust, to deprive you of your quota of gangsters and graft, but it wasn’t a crime in the conventional sense. More a spiritual than criminal offense. Something akin to sin. When I say “spiritual,” I don’t mean the old-time-religion racket—I mean that I caused no observable physical, monetary, or property damage.
I was a writer who didn’t write; instead I played the part of Author to an easy crowd of family and friends. I dropped loud, heavy hints to others (coworkers, college pals, contemporaries in general) that I was in the middle of a novel. To myself I whispered that I was gathering material. But in my heart, and on the page, I hadn’t written a syllable. A crime against myself. A case for what one of Charles Baxter’s characters calls “the fraud police.”
There’s a certain kind of writer who is drawn to analogies between the criminal and the writing life. Not hard to see why underworld figures appeal here. They give the quiet vocation of writing a glint of ruggedness. They make it sound dangerous, consequential. Almost threatening. Hell, they make films, supremely successful American films, about crime; what movies do they make about writing? (Besides cinematic freaks such as Adaptation and Barton Fink, I mean.) The analogies confirm for the writer what the rest of the world has forgotten, or never quite knew: that he is not just an outsider, but a potentially threatening outsider. I suspect that our crime-minded writers think this way not to pump up their own self-image but to revenge themselves on a public that hardly recognizes their existence. It is not easy to be so full of yourself, as writers usually are, when the rest of the world is so empty of you.
“Not writing is more of a psychological problem than a writing problem. All the time I’m not writing I feel like a criminal. Actually, I suppose that’s probably an outmoded phrase, because I don’t think criminals feel like criminals anymore. I feel like criminals used to feel when they felt guilty about being criminals, when they regretted their crimes. It’s horrible to feel felonious every second of the day.”—Fran Lebowitz
I didn’t write; I hid. That’s what I did. Call it an unauthorized vacation. In my imagination I set my crime at a resort hotel—warm white sand and cool blue water—a thick book in my left hand; in my right, a gun.
It’s good to be back. Who’d have thought getting pinched could be so profitable? Between you and me, it wasn’t easy being on a procrastination vacation. I mean, how much can you enjoy your book when you’re always looking over a suntanned shoulder?
When I talk about hiding out from literature I mean writing literature, or, more modestly, more accurately, trying to. Though I did write during this period—articles about the electronic nose and escalators and architect Michael Graves for a technology education magazine—I produced nothing that I was truly proud of. Nothing to write home about.
So what did I do during my vacation? Well, I read. A lot. I read seriously. Voraciously. I read like I convict. Five, six books at a time. A constant reader. A dedicated rereader. Reading and thinking and talking about literature are very serious affairs with me. I spend much of my free time, and most of my slim income, on books. My natural habitat is the second hand bookstore, the remainder rack. Few activities thrill me as much as picking up some book that’s been absurdly passed over by the cable-ready public.
The situation was neither cute nor clever. I felt, whenever I thought about it, guilty. It reminded me that I was weak. A non-writer. An unliterary American who couldn’t complete the essential task, who wouldn’t dare risk the rejection. It shamed me but—and this is important—not enough to get back to work. I could live with the feeling. I would from time to time feel a shiver of remorse, mope over my sloth, and then reach for yet another book or the phone.
One night, as I was snorting my way through Fran Lebowitz’s Paris Review interview, I found following sentence: “It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.” Fran Lebowitz, in case you’ve forgotten, is a woman with an overdeveloped sense of irony and a public case of writer’s block. She was describing the way she’d wasted a decade of her life not writing, and halfway through she noticed that her solipsism was showing (not writing is quite easy, for example, if one isn’t a writer). That is, she caught herself being unconsciously serious, of wearing her unprotected psyche down and out in public. An unseemly act for a professional humorist. She tried to cover it up with a dash and an objectivity-restoring clause but, sadly, it didn’t work. She had crossed the line. She wasn’t anywhere near funny.
Then I reread the sentence. It’s the sort of sentence one needs to reread to understand. Please, would you take another look at it? Thank you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing. Hear the sentence. Say it slowly.
It’s very psychically wearing not to write—
I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.
It’s a grave sentence, no? An unsentimental sentence. A work-threatening sentence for writers who take such things seriously. The first half is a pitying caress (You’re not alone in your suffering); the second (Christ!), a quick shot to the skull.
I haven’t been able to get it out of my head: who is supposed to be writing?
We have no idea who is supposed to write. That will be decided by the future. If there are readers in the future. If there is a future. This uncertainty is lodged the heart of the remark. (As Louise Glück puts it, “‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation.”) For those readers with eyes to hear, the sentence is not just a painful dose of truth. Dr. Lebowitz pulls the plunger, soaks up 600 cc’s of literary doubt, and injects it into the skin of fifteen otherwise harmless English words. To me it suggests something far greater—far worse—than missed deadlines, unfulfilled book contracts, incomplete homework, or unanswered correspondence. It questions the wisdom of engaging in the slow difficult painful uncertain art of writing—of the overwhelming possibility that we writers have wasted, or are in the process of wasting, our lives.
No wonder Ms. Lebowitz took the decade off.
Actually, the interview was published in 1993; it is now, according to my calendar, 2006, and we still haven’t seen the novel!
“One last thing,” says Donald Hall to T. S. Eliot in an old issue of the Paris Review. “Seventeen years ago you said, ‘No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.’ Do you feel the same now, at seventy?”
Eliot responds: “There may be honest poets who do feel sure. I don’t.”
As the Eliot quote suggests, it’s not just blocked humorists who feel this way. I speak here to the condition of all living writers, of everyone busy cranking out the future’s store of unsolicited manuscripts—from the meanest bullies on the bestseller block to the National Book Award champs to the multitudes of wretched poets clogging up the Internet. I’m thinking, simply, of every writer of ambition, the folks who, if only to themselves, spell “literature” with a capital L.
The people I’m thinking of understand the why the words in the following paragraph, from Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, are both seductive and agitating:
The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.
Intellectually, you can’t disagree with Mr. Connolly: the essential thing in the life of a writer should be the production of masterpieces. Sure, sure: acclaim is nice, as is fame, but they are not essential. We know this. Absolutely. You bet. William Faulkner, the essential William Faulkner, says as much when he declares his desire “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” Jean-Paul Sartre, to throw one more dead writer onto the fire, asserts something similar (though he asserted it originally en Français): “There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust is the sum of Proust’s works; the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Outside of that, there is nothing.” Together, this international trio harmonizes a little tune called “Don’t Take it Personally.” And you can see the point. I can. Think of writing, not the writer.
Emotionally, however, the above should sound, to a sane person, rather like bullshit. Or, at least, as radically incomplete. What kind of life would such a writer have? Cynthia Ozick, discussing the long failure of her thirties, sums it up perfectly: “I lived only to read and write. I lived for nothing else; I had no other ‘goals,’ ‘motivations,’ ‘interests’—these shallowness pointing to what the babblers of the hour call psychological health . . . . What I wanted was access to the narrowest possibilities of my own time and prime; I wanted to bore a chink. I wanted a sliver of the apron of a literary platform. I wanted to use what I was, to be what I was born to be—not to have a ‘career,’ but to be that straightforward obvious unmistakable animal, a writer.” This moves me very much. It speaks to my own ambition, my own failure. I like the anger and dedication. You know that Cynthia Ozick is going to be a writer or she’s going to die trying. You feel the heat of her monomania. You can taste the craziness. Ozick longs to be an artist, but does not balk at the necessary sacrifices (to mutilate a line from Manhattan). But the description of her life, her monumental dedication, her admirably monastic master building, is precisely what I think Eliot had in mind when he used the phrase “messed up.”
W.H. Auden says something interesting about wanting to write: “How often one hears a young man with no talent say when asked what he intends to do, ‘I want to write.’ What he really means is, ‘I don’t want to