“Freedom lies in being bold.” – Robert Frost
When I tell people I’m a writer, they get very excited. I’m not sure what they imagine when I tell them about my profession, but the reactions I’ve received imply something really dreamy – as if my days are filled with the kind of exhilaration also known by Arctic explorers and trapeze artists.
The truth is, when I am actually writing my days do sometimes feel bound only to creativity and adventure. When I am plowing fields of words or walking uncharted terrain with a new character, life really could not be better. But given the way most of my days shape up – the query letters, mostly bound for rejection, the internal and external land mines I must navigate, the “writing jobs” that pay only $10/hour – I find these strangers’ enthusiasms mystifying.
I wonder if I have somehow missed out on the hidden magic that lies within a writer’s life. I envy those who think for me a life of full-time reading, creativity, bliss. I wonder if it wouldn’t just be better to imagine myself a writer, and this edges me closer to the other side: the side that believes in practicality; the side that heralds the decision to become a bank teller, a Jeanie, or a dog walker. (I have considered, at one point or another, all three.)
Yet, if there is truth to Robert Frost’s quote, above, then I am on a path to freedom, allbeit crooked and kind of muddy. Claiming space for myself as a writer – despite what the world would like to tell me about other, more practical, “worthwhile” professions – is one of the boldest things I’ve ever done.
I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Writer’s Life and have been so encouraged to learn of the land minds she, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, navigates as she writes. She must have a room without a view; she questions the accessibility of her work. She wonders why she spends her time doing something that she dislikes so often, and why she didn’t choose to be a ferry operator or a wood splitter instead.
I haven’t made it all the way through Dillard’s book to know her answer yet, but I think it must have something to do with Robert Frost. There is freedom in being bold, in taking the risk on oneself — just as there is freedom to be found in the knowledge one pulls from themselves or from their subjects as they’re writing.
Donald Hall has said, “Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing,” and I think he could not be more right. The people who make it at this job today have a mental and emotional toughness I am only just now coming to realize. The industry demands that writers have it, demands that they be able to maintain artistic integrity AND sell out the shelves at Barnes and Noble.
While on a recent road trip, Andrew and I popped Thoreau’s Walden into the tape player and listened as his beautiful language rolled past. I began to wonder what his book proposal – had he written one – would have looked like, what sort of marketing spin he could have offered to an agent, how he would have convinced him or her that at least ten or twenty thousand people would want to buy his book, if not more. The sad truth of the matter is that beautiful writing and timeless, overarching themes (alone) don’t appear to sell books anymore, and I wonder how many Thoreaus the world is missing out on.
This, in practice, is not a very good thing to think about, and I do not encourage it. However, it’s worth mentioning in a public forum because I want to urge people – not just other writers or teachers, etc. but regular American people – to look beyond the bestseller list, to explore a book or (!) a literary journal (!) or a magazine that might be intriguing and/or delightful, but just slightly off the beaten path.
Oh, does everything come back to Robert Frost? Go take the road less traveled by …
2 thoughts on “The Writing Life”
I happened across your blog a few months ago, but just put two and two together: you are married to an old classmate of mine from college! I confirmed this with Martha Bosworth, who is one of my dearest friends.
Anyway, just wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your writing. Also, have you read Dillard’s The Maytrees? I’m still thinking about her prose six months after reading this recent novel of hers.
Best of luck to you! And hello to AK – he will remember my husband Edwin.