Fran Lebowitz popped up on the international radar with Metropolitan Life in 1978. I know. I reviewed it for the Fleet Street rag I was working for at the time. I wondered then whether she’d have a following outside New York – I wasn’t sure how many people outside Manhattan would find such lines as “There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness and death” to be funny. She seems to have found an audience nonetheless, though her books have been few. She complains of “writer’s blockade.” A few days ago I noted how The Paris Review always asks about writers’ working habits. Well, here’s how she responded in the famous journal when, in 1993, she was asked how she writes:
Lebowitz: A Bic pen. I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself. I think if there were no such thing as men, there would be no word processors. Male writers like them because they have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession. This is why you have so much idiotic behavior among male writers. There are more male writers who own guns than any other profession except police officers. They like machines because it makes them seem more masculine. Well, I work on a machine. It’s almost as good as being a mechanic.
I have a real aversion to machines. I write with a pen. Then I read it to someone who writes it onto the computer. What are those computer letters made of anyway? Light? Too insubstantial. Paper, you can feel it. A pen. There’s a connection. A pen goes exactly at your speed, whereas that machine jumps. And then, that machine is waiting for you, just humming “uh-huh, yes?”
It reminds me of when a choreographer I know was creating a ballet. He was stuck, and he asked me to come help.
I said, How could I help you choreograph a ballet?
He said, I’d like you to come and sit there while I’m doing it. You’re so judgmental I would find it helpful.
So I went to his studio several times while he was making the ballet. I saw the only job that was worse than writing. My idea of pure hell. The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.
Plus they are paid by the minute. And a piano player is sitting there as well. Twenty-five people sitting in the room staring at you while you are thinking. I can’t believe anyone has ever made a ballet.
Interviewer: Were you expected to criticize what was going on?
Lebowitz: I was expected to sneer. I did sit there several afternoons in a row, kind of sneering. I don’t know why he needed me, because the dancers were doing that. They were finding it hard to mask their contempt, which was: why is it taking so long for him to think this up? Now, whenever I sit at the desk, I imagine the words sitting there sulking against the wall, waiting for me to think something up. He gave me such admiration for choreographers you can’t imagine. It’s just like the way I write a sentence. I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways. He has to do that with living people. Human contact at its absolute worst. When people say certain choreographers are mean to their dancers, I think, Not mean enough! If I were a choreographer the thing I would most need would be a gun. Every time someone gave you one of those looks, you could just shoot them..
Read the rest here.
Not all of us have been tortured by watching choreography in the making, but in an interview this month over at PaperMag here (in case you haven’t figured it out, this brand-new interview, not the 20-year-old one, is the reason for today’s musings), she explained a problem many Book Haven readers can relate to more readily:
I have made one bad real estate decision after another my entire life. Knowing this, I made a lot of effort to consult people who I believe to be intelligent in real estate. It made no difference. I made the worst decision of my life. Even if you’re moving to an apartment that turns out being OK, like last time, which was only four years ago, if you have 10,000 books, it’s a difficult undertaking. The more that you mention this to people, even if people know about it, the more you are criticized for having 10,000 books. I finally said to somebody the other day, “You know what? They are books. It’s not like I am running an opium den for children. There’s nothing wrong with that – you may not want to have that, you may think that’s crazy, but you cannot have a moral objection to this.” Even real estate agents would say to me, “If you got rid of the books, you wouldn’t need such a big apartment.” And I would say, “Yes that’s true, but what if I had four children? Would you say, ‘Why don’t you put them in storage, because you can’t really afford an apartment for them?’” Basically my whole life, I’ve paid for these books. Buying them is nothing, but housing them is hard because they need a giant apartment. People say, “Why do you need such a big apartment – do you throw a lot of parties?” No. It’s for the books. I believe books to be the perfect companion. They’re very good-looking, they’re there when you need them, but it’s not just the books. It’s where they live, which is in bookcases with glass doors. I only put them in cases with glass doors because dust is very bad for books.