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Saturday, May 27, 2017

To make or not to make--

This post is especially for Tim Davis, a retired professor who often visits here, and who just wrote a post about why writers write. He also linked to a Huffington Post article about the same. I started to answer him on his post and then realized my response was not a comment but a post itself and probably could be a book, though luckily I have no desire to write a book about the subject. Out this post goes with best wishes to him for better health.

Of course, I don't know why the group called writers write. I only know why I write, and why I did not stop when having my third book come out at FSG within two weeks after 9-11 destroyed my so-important "numbers," or why I didn't stop when various editors orphaned my books by leaving FSG or LSU or Godine before pub date, or why I'm still writing today. Those things don't make me special; every published writer has a collection of such stumbles and pieces of ill luck, and plenty of us have made wrong choices along the way.

So here it is: my plain truth. No varnish. No trim.

* * *

Making is joy.

Playing with words can feel like joy streaming through the body.

There is little that is stranger, wilder, and more thrilling than to go to what feels like a fount and to bring back a pail brimming with golden water.

The call is to bring a shaped thing out of the welter of things and names: to create using the materials of Creation.

A strange part of all this leaning toward shapeliness is that a writer is also made, enlarged, changed and transformed. She may fly into ethereal realms or trudge through the underworld, may die on the phoenix pyre many times. She experiences redemption, loss, debasement, courage, all wax and wane--a whole gamut of ways of being. She loves the unloveable as well as the much-loved. Like a fantasy object, a writer becomes bigger on the inside through making poems and narratives.

Giving a made thing away in the form of a book and having it be received is also fine. And lovely. And makes a writer pleased and glad. But when the book goes out from the writer, it is just that: gone out. Whatever flame it has may continue to burn elsewhere. Something new needs to be born. Yeats's Wandering Aengus chases his silvery trout lady until he is an old man; he will go on till times and time are done.

You ask about money and writers. Expecting to be rewarded financially for art in our current times is dangerous to the self: see all those annoying studies on black swans for evidence! Almost nobody is rewarded with a consistent living wage; as in many arts fields, a few (and often not the best) take home the main financial reward. I know people who were deeply harmed by not understanding this brute fact. Expectation of financial reward broke them. Expectation of easy publication broke them. Expectation that others would support their work out of love broke them. (Publication is, of course, easier now, with so many new modes, but writers of my generation did not have so many choices. Having many choices presents new problems and unintended consequences, but that's a different rabbit hole to be explored.)

In the comments, you question whether art or "readers and filthy lucre" matter most to the writer. One writer is not all writers, but maybe the life of one writer can shed light on your question. Earlier, you mentioned Hawthorne and Melville; the latter is an especially instructive example. Melville suffered mightily from the withdrawal of readership and encouragement over time, and he lived so very long without it. In the face of people who thought him nigh-mad, in the no-face face of being ignored and forgotten, he kept on making art, writing poems and fiction. He persisted. He died with Billy Budd in the papers on his writing desk. That's courage. Despite whatever flaws a biographer might gleefully unearth, that's human nobility. That's deep-diving devotion to beauty, truth, goodness, and creation.


  1. Your need to create using combinations of words, and structures that are reassuring and deserving brings a lot of pleasure to your readers as well as to you.
    Win/win, Marly.

    1. You are a kind soul! Maker of many useful and beautiful things, you are...

  2. Lovely words on the subject.
    I write for the same reason I read. I want to connect with others, and with my most inner self. I want to find out what others think and feel, and how they see the world, and how I see.

  3. Replies
    1. I'm dragging out the kids' catapult to send a "thanks for coming by" all the way to Alaska... Glad you liked it.

    2. Oh, I see--you came because John/Sean posted and tagged you. Sweet of him! Thanks again for dropping by.

  4. The reference to "filthy lucre" made me smile. When I published my Charlemagne book, the most common question I heard was, "So, when do you quit your day job?" Ten years later, although the book is still selling, I haven't earned the equivalent of even one year's pay! I doubt there are more than a couple hundred people in the United States who are making an impressive living as writers in mainstream publishing—yet for some reason, this myth of the wealthy writer persists.

    Your warnings in the penultimate paragraph are wise, and every aspiring writer would benefit from hearing them.

    1. I had two years where I could have lived on my earnings, but they came long ago.

      It's wonderful the way a book from long ago can now trickle on, despite the usual 3-month window for bookstore appearance--something that was long impossible. I'm always particularly surprised that "Thaliad" keeps drip-dropping into the world. A long poem!

      Was just talking about your Charlemagne book to someone yesterday...

  5. A brother-in-law's email about borrowing a book from the library versus buying it led to me to recall that Robertson Davies once discovered that his hometown library had made more off one of his novels in fines for late return than he had made in royalties. At that point, Davies started to agitate for an arrangement by which libraries would compensate authors. I don't think his attempt went anywhere. Was it Sir Walter Scott who said that literature is a good staff but a bad crutch?

    I remember reading an interview once with James Gosling, best known now as the developer of the Java programming language, in which he spoke of his lifelong interest in building things--writing programs for one example, cooking meals for another. Certainly I understand the pleasure of programming: both the intellectual challenge of doing something correctly, and in a way that can be seen to be correct and can be understood when it must be changed; and that will be used again and again. And I now and then find my old copy editor's attitude come up when I look at somebody else's code--hand me that red pencil! I don't place programming on the same level as the writing of poetry or fiction. On the other hand, it tends to be well compensated.

    1. Oh, that's amusing. I had a Davies passion, once upon a time, but have not read him in years.

      Yes, it's good to have a day job! In my former life as an assistant and associate professor, I did that. Or else to invest in a reliable spouse's education. (Yep, did that also, which allowed me to quit teaching. I felt that the academy was becoming the wrong place for writers.)

  6. O, so so fascinating, Marly, and your Melville comment deserves more from me, but more must wait for a bit more sunshine here.

    1. Hope things are getting better!

    2. Yes, thank you, Marly. I wonder a lot about Melville (and I recall a comparison between Melville and Hardy with respect to abandonment of prose and pursuit of poetry), but I need to learn so much more before I can speak sensibly about either his production or motivation. Generally, though, I wonder if there isn't some scientifically discoverable God-given (DNA?) difference between writers' brains and the brains of lesser mortals; in other words, writer are not made but born, and they cannot, dare not avoid their fates (which sounds so trite and foolish in that phrase, but there it is). Yep, I wonder.

    3. Well, lots of people think so and would agree with you. But there is this: we now know that things we do or things that happen to us can change our brains. And I find it strange that so many writers have had something tragic happen (death of a parent, say) in childhood.

  7. Once, during an interview for a journalistic job, I was put down for being too high-flown. Journalism, I was told, was a craft not an art. I didn't get the job.

    Art: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

    Craft: "An activity involving skill in making things by hand." is unexceptional. But I rather like: "Skill used in deceiving others."

    Yes, I know they're two different meanings; but isn't all fiction deception?

    As to "art" I doubt I've aspired to it, let alone achieved it. I'm aware that one may find sermons in stones but my tendency is to write about the stone.

    1. I like stones!

      The well-made thing turns out to be what it turns out to be, no matter what the maker intended. Sometimes things meant for minor purposes turn out to last.

      My aspirations are high, but really nothing ever matches the dream in the head. I'm just a handmaiden in the temple of art. Hand-maiden. Surely all art is "making things by hand" but sometimes rises to something else.

      Interesting that the art-definition does not talk about truth. Deception? Lots of sleight-of-hand in the arts. But yet somehow they tell us more essential truths than we would expect.


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.