Writing as profession: torture, a Mayan curse, or a profoundly luxurious act?

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Here’s the good news: the Book Haven has gone international again! Our interview with Philip Roth, whose book The Ghost Writer is the focus of next Tuesday’s Another Look book club event, was published in London’s Guardian here and in the Los Angeles Times here. French speakers might want to read Le Monde‘s republication here – and an excerpted version of the interview also appeared in Germany’s Die Welt here (although Die Welt is a little cheesy in tricking it out to look like its own interview, with a tiny anonymous little credit to Stanford at the bottom).

Tepper

A waiter no more…

Meanwhile, while we were gloating, a controversy about Roth was swirling softly ’round our dreaming head. It started at the Paris Review Daily, when Julian Tepper published an article describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli. Tepper, a waiter, nervously presented Roth with his newly published first novel, Balls. Did he receive writerly encouragement from the elder, much-honored writer? Yes and no. Roth warmly congratulated Tepper on his achievement. Then he told him to quit writing.  His words: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”  Roth took his own advice. He quit writing shortly afterwards – and according to my interview, he hasn’t had a change of heart since.

The controversy:  Is it really that dreadful to be a writer? Compared to, oh, say a coal miner working 12 hours a day underground in dangerous conditions for a pittance to feed his family of twelve? Or worse than taxi driving, installing drywall, or working at the receiving end of a diaper service? Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the popular Eat, Pray, Love, entered the fray, over at Bookish:

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“Just torture.” (Photo: N. Crampton)

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege. What’s more, you have no boss to speak of. You’re not exposed to any sexual abuse or toxic chemicals on the job site (unless you’re sexually abusing yourself, or eating Doritos while you type). You don’t have to wear a nametag, and – unless you are exceptionally clumsy – you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.”

She continues: “To choose to be a mere writer in this tearful world, then (either for pleasure, or for a living) is a profoundly luxurious act. Because let’s keep it in perspective, writers: Our books don’t exactly feed the hungry. We ain’t saving the planet here, people. But even more than being a luxurious act, writing is a voluntary act. Becoming a novelist, then, is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity.”

Then Avi Steinberg weighed in over at the New Yorker:

I’m trying to agree with Gilbert when she celebrates writing for the way it allows you “get to live within the realm of your own mind.” But I know plenty of writers for whom living in their own mind is a far from pleasant experience. Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight. That is why, for instance, Elizabeth Gilbert herself sat down to write her Roth call-out, and it’s why I’m writing this. … And it’s why Roth, like a recovering addict, is taking it day by day, trying hard not to write anything at all. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog—reclining on a couch at the end of that book, finally recovering from his fiendish letter-writing addiction—Roth has “no messages for anyone.” Except that he does.

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“It’s f*cking great.” (Photo: Erik Charlton)

Why was Roth so cranky? According to Steinberg, “maybe Roth sized up this waiter-writer as someone who might publish a creepily detailed account of his breakfast order on the blog of the Paris Review, as he indeed did. Roth was being cagey with the guy.” Tepper took all this to heart. He wrote a hand-wringing apology to Roth over at the Daily Beast:

“In the two weeks that followed our exchange, I’ve mentally replayed the moment again and again. And the conclusion I’ve most often drawn was that if I hadn’t been drugged…by the fact that he was actually engaging me in a conversation about writing, I would have asked him not whether he would have traded in all the celebrity, the money, and the sex to have lived the more plain existence of, say, an insurance agent. No, I would have asked him about boredom. And though I have only one novel published—and experienced none of the success of Roth—I still feel strongly that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him after huge advances and Hollywood adaptations, is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer. For he can always lose himself in the act of writing and make time vanish. After which, he actually has something to show for his efforts. Not bad. Very good, in fact.”

Avi-Steinberg

“Constantly discontented.”

Tepper wrote an article, Gilbert riffed on the article, Tepper apologized for the article, Steinberg riffed on the controversy – all of them are worth a read. And now I’m riffing on all of them.  As for Humble Moi, I side with Gilbert in content, Steinberg in style – and I suspect only a writer would make that distinction. All my life, I’ve earned a living – sometimes threadbare, sometimes decent – with my ten fingers on a keyboard. On days when an editor does more harm than good, when a payment doesn’t come through because the magazine has gone belly-up, when you haven’t seen friends for weeks and you are still in your pajamas, still facing another half-filled screen against a tight deadline (and when you’re convinced most of what you’ve written so far – for your whole life, really – is crap), when I tell myself I could have had a successful career as a dog trainer or a Verizon sales rep … I remind myself that most of the world would love to do what I do for a living, and get paid for it.

The world of a writer offers infinite possibilities for the vice of all vices, envy.  What other profession offers you the exquisite torture of reading, say, J.M. Coetzee, or Krzysztof Michalski, and being filled simultaneously with perfect delight at a breathtaking passage or line, while at the same time you want to die and die and die again because you didn’t write it yourself? Every time you see a thoughtful phrase or a brilliant metaphor, or read all those people you know you’ll never come close to matching, but you know you’ll keep trying to, again and again…even the self-deprecation involved in writing a mere blog post, as you rush off to do necessary errands. Then you read folks like Steinberg, Tepper, and others coming up behind, a generation later.  Yes, for all the uncertainty, and for all the envy, both giving and receiving (and the latter can be especially deadly) … even on my worst days, I know I’m a luckiest girl in the world.

And now, must fetch more Tramadol for the dog…

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