by Hannah Roveto
"It's fine for writing teachers to talk in self-help jargon about how their lives require 'balance' and 'shifting gears' between teaching and writing, but below that civil language lurks the uncomfortable fact that the creation of literature requires a degree of monomania...It's hard throw your whole self into something when that self has another job." -- David Gessner, "Those Who Write, Teach," The New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2008
Mon-o-ma-ni-a: an excessive interest in or enthusiasm for some one thing. (Definition two: a mental disorder characterized by irrational preoccupation with one subject.)
How many of you are independently wealthy? How many of you have no families or friends, no homes save the hotel with staff who serve up each meal and deliver your laundry neatly folded? If only we could make our entire living by writing. How simple and glorious life would become. Hallie Ephron once announced in a class I took with her that she'd recently realized her entire income came from the literary life, at last. She taught, wrote bylined articles, wrote her wonderful mysteries. No more "other job." Those of us around the table sighed happily on her behalf and dreamed the whole way home of reaching that goal.
Into this comes Mr. Gessner's article in the New York Times, asking whether "an artist can survive success in the academy." I saved his article for dead last this week, hesitant to read it. Turned out, for good reason. He quotes Mike Magnuson as saying, "What teaching has done for me is make me not want to read anything, written by anybody, for the rest of my life." Holy cow. Now what am I supposed to do when I grow up?
I thought of my own day job in public relations. I can't count the moments when I grind my teeth against the compulsion to get back to my fiction. At least once a week I finish my PR checklist and pull up my work-in-progress and the phone rings and I gaze longingly at the screen before admitting defeat, because it will be a good hour before I can attend to it. Of course, at that time the kids will come home, and crazy me pulls up the WIP again as though that will make them instantly dive into homework without a fuss or cross word to each other. (The faint laughter you hear from my corner of the world at that point is, well, monomaniacal...)
Gessner's article made me think of my mother, who is an artist, who went back to school when I was young to get her master's degree in library science. She chose a job that had nothing to do with her art, on purpose. The work was satisfying, concrete and produced a paycheck. Most important, she would say, was the fact that she literally left her job behind her when she'd put in her time and could focus on her weaving or jewelry with every ounce of her creative soul intact.
Gessner also is making me rethink my day job to some degree. Have I given up my glowing vision of a fully writerly life, whatever that may be? Not a chance. However, I appreciate what I do have a little more, thanks to him. I am paid to write, first and foremost, and to think strategically and creatively in a way that does not fill my head with fiction other than my own or what I choose to read. Between us, I even love the rush when a television producer or newspaper editor agrees to interview my client.
Maybe the writerly life doesn't have to be fiction 24/7. Maybe there are day jobs that make writing possible on a financial level, and help keep it fresh on the artistic level. The answers, therefore, have to come from proportion and determination when it comes to the writing itself. Maybe someday a little less PR, a little more fiction could be a personal ideal in my particular case; who knows? After all, if we're really being honest, everything interferes with writing at one point or another. Showers and meals, everything and everyone. Which may be bad news for our WIPs, but it's not bad news for us. We are writers. We are monomaniacal. Which is what it takes to get the job done.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
by Hannah Roveto