Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The House of Words (no. 2): To persist or not to persist

2. To Persist or Not to Persist

Hey, there’s a reason that most books are not about writers! Oh, there may be a coming-of-age novel now and then—covering that period of a writer’s life when he or she is not yet a writer, and therefore packed with homely and interesting non-writer events. Often these are events (or people--parents, often--those people who love us and attempt to save us from the garret)that get in the writer-protagonist's way and stand as mighty obstacles that must be opposed or crossed or circled in order to go forward.

Once the heroic act of evading or battling these opponents is past, writers spend a lot of time sitting in the corner and typing. Many of them spend hours in the corner clutching their respective malfunctioning heads and wasting perfectly good afternoons of sun and frolic.

Is this interesting from the outside? I shall tell you.

No, it isn’t.

No matter how absorbing the work is, the act of making it is probably not what we as readers want to read about. So books about writers tend to stop where the writer catches a glimpse of the promised city of garrets glimmering in the distance. Soon he or she will be sitting in his or her own poky corner and scribbling away--or perhaps clutching the recalcitrant head. And that ending, combined with the thought of the many books writers make that are not about writers, may possibly suggest to you that there is a world packed with lively pursuits, out there.

So if you decide to quit the word trade and do something else entirely, never feel bad about it. Life awaits you.

After Ghosts, Marsha Parker left the world of publishing despite the fact that she had a fancy agent and was touted as extraordinarily promising, and then she built a very different world for herself. Now she had met some setbacks, but all writers meet setbacks of some sort. Why did she take her toys and march away to the West? She wasn’t crazy about the publishing scene. Not crazy about it in the least, in fact. It occurs to me that she probably wasn't crazy about the fact that a movie appears to have been made (roughly based on the book and with the same title) without any mention of the fact to her--and therefore without any author royalties. And she certainly wasn’t fond of what people said she needed to add to her books.

What did she do?

She and her then-husband built the marvelous Smoke Ham Farm (with restored Finnish and Scandinavian outbuildings, full of charm and character and history.) Marsha raised obscure, finicky breeds of sheep that were always trying in the most exciting manner to flop over and die or to give birth in the middle of the night, and she established a regular menagerie of other animals (and peacocks! I want some!) She started a business that allowed her to travel, write, and use her creativity in ways that would have surprised her younger self. She runs an online site called The Scarlet Letter where she sells, among other curious and interesting things, her own museum reproduction needlework samplers based on work from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, books, and antique European and American needlework samplers. I admire the fact that she didn’t like the publishing scene and therefore just strode away; I admire what she has done since.

That admiration doesn’t keep me from respecting and admiring friends who made another choice. In fact, I know people who wrote book after book before the first—or sometimes the second—came along. Those are brave, persistent souls with a touch of the Mad Hatter that allows them to stay on at the great Tea Party, moving round and round until they find a small or large piece of buttered luck.

At many points I could see three choices in front of most of the other young writers I knew—persist and take joy in the work, be a bit of a melancholic looney (the worst choice but often taken, depression being one of the substances swirling in the writer's magic ink bottle), or give up and do something else.

Why did I persist?

Let's ignore my raging obsessiveness for a moment. Let's ignore a rather mad ability to dream while in the middle of mayhem, quite helpful to a writer-mother of three. Those slightly abnormal qualities assist, but they don't explain. Let's also ignore the fact that I'm not irreplaceable in any of my working capacities except as the writer of my particular books and as the mother of my particular children. And in both of those areas, perhaps I could do better. In fact, I hope to do so.

Why did I persist?

Because I am in love with playing with words and learning to make (for a writer is always starting over) stories and poems. Very simple.

***

Illustration: Sampler by Susan Singleton, kit for sale at The Scarlet Letter. "Designed after a mid-eighteenth century New Hampshire sampler, this piece is delightfully naive with its oversized animals, insects, and birds. Around 1760, the New-Hampshire Gazette began publishing advertisements for girls' schools, placed by female instructresses, emphasizing a curriculum of practical as well as decorative needlework. While this sampler is atypical of most of the recognizable schools of New Hampshire (i.e. the bird and basket designs of Canterbury, the dark green linsey-woolsey grounds on samplers of Dover, and the house and barn samplers of Portsmouth), it is significantly stylized to suggest that it was taught by a particular teacher, who could have been advertising for more pupils at that time. Stitches used in the sampler are cross, back, and satin. Stitched on 35 count linen, it will measure approximately 15" x 22-1/4", and is recommended for intermediate level needleworkers."

20 comments:

  1. Marly,
    While it is true that from our perspective, a writer's life is pretty boring, it is also true that she who writes the history gets to decide what is interesting, and that is why there have been so many wonderful and vital books that feature writers, though it is true it is not the writing they focus on. As Borges noted, there is another me that lives in me, with me, beside me, but is not me. I guess though that because of the fact that our bodies and brains are remaking themselves all the time, perhaps this is true of every aspect of ourselves anyhow. And what does it mean to be interesting anyhow? Is a plumber's life or a businessperson's life intrinsically more interesting than a writer's life? I think not. Perhaps only if you are an astronaut or a bungee cord jumper (and that could get old quickly too!), nothing is intrinsically interesting. Or everything is. Depends how one looks at it.

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  2. Robbi, I tend to define "interesting" as "providing fodder for writing," and for many of us, I think that fodder comes from the time before we chained ourselves to our desks more or less full-time. I think of Philip Levine, who spent a few years working in a steel plant, and then the next few decades writing poems about it.

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  3. Hmm, don't think I need to add to that little discussion. I will just say, "Very interesting!"

    Although I must add that I don't think that I would ever become accustomed to life at the end of a bungee cord...

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  4. I believe that most artists (in all genres) have a need to communicate and that that need is a far more essential component in the creative process than many like to admit.
    How to communicate to the widest possible audience? And eat whist doing so? Well, that explains publishers, galleries, and Sony.
    It is the broadcasting that throws such a heavy shadow over creativity sometimes, I would think. Just because you create the discus does not mean you necessarily want to be the one to throw it!
    "How many carrots do you need for your ideas?" is what it all amounts to. Note the 'need' rather than the 'want'. Rather soul destroying.
    And yet, we have troopers like you, Marly, and others too.
    I'm glad you don't center on the 'grid lines'. Nothing worse than taking in artwork where, "Let them see how I did this" is included in the work as a central element.
    On the other hand, a series of poems based on 'Writer's Torments' could be dramatically Byronic! Just remember - the longest journeys can involve an awful lot of sitting. But what is it you are looking at out of the window?

    I am not a writer, so I feel no qualms about popping this short poem here. It centers on some of the things you write about here, Marly -


    (Scribblers and scribes,
    Musicians and muses.
    Artists have
    Unreliable fuses.)


    If what is written cannot be read,
    And what one paints cannot be seen,
    If the dancer and the dance move silently
    And the light of life has been.
    Lay down your pens,
    Your brushes,
    Your strings,
    Allow yourself the rest.
    For you'll lock back
    Into the rhythm of life,
    And then produce your best.

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  5. "Is a plumber's life or a businessperson's life intrinsically more interesting than a writer's life?"

    I posit that a writer's life is a Venn diagram of roles. A plumber and a businessperson and role XYZ and a writer can all intersect quite successfully. If you decide that you are "only a writer" and have no other life, I argue that you have less a chance of being a good writer than if you actually live and work while writing.

    This perspective changes a bit, even for me, if you define "writer" as someone who is paid to write. But even then there is controversy.

    I have been paid to write since age 21 but my byline only appears in a dozen or so magazine articles (mostly policy and technical). I have written and been paid for scripts, ghost writing, white papers, speeches, technical manuals, marketing materials, entertaining presentations to numerous to count, and research papers. I have also written (unpaid) position pieces, editorials, and hundreds of interesting and important private letters and emails and posts that I believe -- or at least hope -- have changed the world just a little bit.

    Yet, I have been told, quite seriously, by some serious writers that I am not a "serious writer." I was told that again pretty much verbatim only recently. Can't imagine how I would feel hearing that at 21. Oh, wait, yes I can.

    Flashing back to Marly's graduate level creative writing course in Potsdam when a peer student (a poet far better than I ever would be or try to be because a poet I am *not*) declared that "found" poetry was not poetry at all. I argued that it was. She insisted that it wasn't. I still say it is. And that same woman (name long forgotten) demeaning a peer in a review session in a harsh way that made the woman being reviewed cry in public. I stood up for the peer and Marly stood up for me. (So everyone learned, and that, by the way is what a teacher is. Thanks Marly you are a teacher and a writer and a mother and wife and other things I suspect.)

    The peer whose prose was not so good was also a writer.

    So, why do I persist? Well, I enjoy the topics I write about, the roles I play in work and at home that require words, and -- neener neener neener to a few certain folks but not others -- I've made a living at it.

    Oh, and I still think that someday I'll publish a successful book and be a real writer.

    Gary

    P.S. I am pretty sure that with my luck, the woman in Marly's class I mention above reads this blog and follows her on facebook. So, in advance, I want to say, I am sure you have matured much since 1987 as have I.

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  6. Paul,

    Okay, so we shall say you are a composer-photographer-bespoke-framemaker who occasionally writes a poem? Or is a writer simply a person writing? And then we get into the writer vs. author business, etc. Thank you for that! And I think the thought is right as well.

    A lot of artists need the carrot of encouragement. Maybe all writers. That is, they need the carrot of audience. And the carrot of older, respected artists showing a little admiration.

    Yes, the throwing of the discus... that is an issue that plagues artists, maybe particularly writers.

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  7. Gary,

    Agreed! Think I'm going to have to end this series with a "Best of comments" post or two...

    That was enlightening--and of course I don't remember that moment in class or even who did what. I do remember that aside from one in particular, my best students were not the graduate students but the advanced English majors. I'm glad that I still get to play teacher now and then, though I doubt that I would ever again put my writing after my teaching in any longterm way. Somebody would have to manifest on my doorstep and offer me the perfect job. So that means only short gigs for me!

    The whole business of what a writer is seems complicated to many people. Is a writer a human being writing? Is a writer a human being writing whose work has been declared to fit a certain category? To be "serious," does one have to fulfill certain requirements? If so, what? Is an author a different thing from a writer (came up on facebook yesterday, so people do think about it)?

    I don't really worry about it--just do the work and let the labels take care of themselves. In fact, I don't worry about lots of things that I could--just do the work and forget about the rest.

    As for Mr. Gary Dietz, he is an unusually capable person, a wordsmith and also an extraordinarily fine father--one who has met great demands with grace. Grace with a big "G." And some day I will be proud to own that book with his name on the title page. In the mean time, I'm quite pleased with what he is doing with his life!

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  8. You know the neatest people Marly. I will have to check out her website.

    All I seem to do is keep my diary and produce academic articles and even doing that requires persistance. I have three things that some of my research has illuminated. I uncovered a murder of a Civil Rights leader in my city and in the 1960s and all this cool stuff about integration. People always think that integration went so smooth in Huntsville just becuase we didnt have any boss hogs turning the fire hoses on people, so I need to dig down deep and find the persistance to do my little article for that. And I also want to turen in an article to the Library Journal about our librarys black history month month programming--but there again, just sitting down and getting started is the hardest thing.

    Well, you keep churning out your poetry and stories. I think you are really a hub netowrk unto your self. One day we should have a Marly at 2 reunion somewhere

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  9. Susanna,

    Yes, she is a very interesting person. (So are you, Miss Lively Unspeller-Historian-Librarian.) I e-met her after she carried "Catherwood" in her catalogue. Some day I would like to meet everybody I know in this way at a big, splendid party.

    The things you have been finding are a gift to your city. Good work!

    Hah, hah! I prefer not to describe my output as "churning," dear Susanna. Just a steady flood from the fount will do nicely!

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  10. Nice to know that everyone is out there, thinking, writing, and doing what they do.

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  11. And that's just the ones who paused to leave a note... All over the world, people were reading, and no doubt some of them were perfectly fascinating! Mysteries all. One of the intriguing things about the web, looking at the stats and wondering.

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  12. Marly, I read this with great delight. I often bemoan my inability to write well, with that certain extra touch that good writers like you have, yet with an unique voice. Wehn I read this kind of thing about writers I tend to substitute 'visual artist' for 'writer' in my mind. This time it didn't always work for I suppose it's true that having something visual to show to observers seems to show some kind of tangible results compared to notes written or typed out that may or may not end up in a published book. I appreciate how you've opened my eyes on this, and with your always delightful and whimsical humour.

    I shall visit your interesting and independent sounding friend's site - just the mention of anything Finnish and Scandinavian of course catches my attentio, but also anything that is handmade.

    Anyway, it's great to be irreplaceable in two very important ways! Keep on doing so.

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  13. marja-leena,

    Just yesterday I made a resolution to go by your blog more often!

    Yes, I think that to some extent when one talks about the issues in one sort of art it applies to all. But the nitty-gritty of distribution and such things is often different, particularly when the thing must be packaged in some way.

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  14. Drat, that was NOT JIN! That was me, MARLY! And so is this. So confusing having so many people popping about the house and computer and so on... but fun.

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  15. i became very happy "giving in" to "just" being a garden writer for our little local daily. And yes, it is wonderful meeting people who read my stuff and are (gasp) fans. The job brought other little jobs that pay a few more peanuts.

    i would add one other little bit of counsel to If/when giving up: steel yourself for the "I told you so" type of comments from those who simply cannot resist.

    i have often escaped into needlework. Love the sampler on this post. Very tempting, if i didn't have a closet full of projects it will take another lifetime to complete. i always travel with needlework. a la Miss Marple, i guess. Cross stitch and knitting have been passions. Now it is needlepoint (easier on my old eyes). Just when it seems to be going out of fashion and only the precious and expensive hand painted canvases are appealing. Created one of my own a few years ago, (a la Grandma Moses) to celebrate a friend's cat who kept me company when i helped my friend create a garden. i'm sure you saw picture of it on my blog.

    The funny thing is, i always get up from the needlework feeling refreshed of spirit--or, you could say, i suppose--freshly naive again about continuing to attempt to live off the creative life. Ha. incurable.

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  16. zephyr,

    An interesting set of congruences there, zephyr! And I am glad to know that a zephyr would not only waft over a garden but also write about it!

    I come from needleworkers (and my mother also has a brand new 4-harness loom that she is happily using.) So I have a lot of sympathy for that form of creativity--it has been an outlet for women for hundreds and hundreds of years, after all.

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  17. Yes, Marly...every time i sit down by my nice, bright lamp i think of all my women ancestors who did that incredible work with tiny stitches or tatting or crochet hooks with gossamer threads by candle or firelight in winter...or sitting on the front stoop in summer. It is the strongest tie i feel with them...this love of working threads.

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  18. Yes, it is an interesting form of craft work because it beautifies the world but has a shelf life and won't last forever... That is, won't last as long as many things. I suppose even mountains and La Gioconda will become dust, after all.

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  19. the object, may last generations before crumbling. but when mother teaches daughter who in turn teaches daughter or cousin or niece or friend of a friend who in turn shows another...it lasts forever and ever.

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  20. Yes, I like that idea. And I also like the idea that women lavished so much care and attention on things that were, ultimately, ephemeral--meant for use or the glorification of the ordinary, a gift that would embrace family.

    We still have a few women here who do church needlework as well, and I like that idea,too--glorification by the needle.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.