“Though I have doubted my talent, I’ve never doubted my conviction that this was the path I had to be on. Writing is like my Siamese twin: freakish, alive, weighty, uncanny. Were we to be separated, I doubt that I could survive it.”
At a certain point, the writer asks herself, How do I keep doing this? It’s book three, maybe book four or five, and the question is a not unkind whisper, a murmur, a constant hum. How do I keep doing this?
You might think, well, James. Bergman. Duras. O’Keeffe. Bob Dylan. Sure. Okay. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been quite successful, more or less successful, a disaster, a frantic player, a surly underdog. I know a lot of writers. This is what we all say to ourselves, once we’re past the life-or-death Rocky-esque movie of the first book or so: How do I keep doing this?
And the related question, Why? Not the easy, self-loathing, adolescent why? but the why? of the artist who knows only too well when she is telling the truth in her work and when she is lying, however beautifully or with what technical finesse. Why go there, why put myself through that? Wasn’t it painful enough the first few times around? The contempt one has, early on, for the “made” writers who phone it in while happily cashing the checks changes over time to a rueful sympathy: It’s very hard to keep doing this. And to do it for real, to write from the marrow? Only a college student would self-righteously insist on that sort of purity. Even Tina Turner still sings “Proud Mary.”
But how does the writer make the long haul? As I go on through the gates of novel three, novel four, I find that I am increasingly interested in this question. Something changes. Something shifts: How do I keep doing this? I don’t suffer from an excess of self-confidence, nor rage, nor purity of spirit. Doors have opened for me, but other doors have remained closed. I have had as many reasons to stop as I have had to continue. Yet I always chose the latter, without hesitation. This may be a matter of temperament, astrological alignments, a warp in my DNA, psychology, race, class, the weather on a certain day in 1974—who knows? But, though I have certainly doubted my talent and my ability to pull off what I am trying to do, I have never doubted my conviction that the pursuit itself, the vocation, was the path I had to be on. This business of making sentences, images, scenes—it is so constitutive of my being that I hardly know who I would be without it. Writing is like my Siamese twin: freakish, alive, weighty, uncanny. Were we to be separated, I doubt that I could survive it.
Still, will only takes you so far; faith only takes you so far, for that matter. I have begun asking other artists—dancers, filmmakers, photographers, composers—how they do it, how they keep doing it. No one says: Because I know I am a genius. Even the ones who I suspect secretly think that they are geniuses do not seem especially sustained by this knowledge. A dancer I met recently, whose body is beginning to move him out of performing and into choreography, said, “Well, I think you just have to accept that the spark will come and go.” A filmmaker friend said, “It’s how I know I’m alive.” Another friend, a photographer, continually pushes herself into uncharted territory in a battle not to collapse into a prettiness, a commercial appeal, that comes all too easily to her. Lorca tells us, “The true fight is with the duende”; everything else is wallpaper, more or less.
Over the long haul, the writer draws on these qualities—the fickleness of eros, the steep and exhilarating drop of risk, demons that can be relied upon to put up a fight—but I have also begun to believe that the writer who continues to write, and to write well, to write deeply, often finds that she quietly, year by year, constructs a system of values that is by nature resistant. It’s not that one sets out to do this, exactly; but it happens, it accretes, as the choices the world offers inevitably arise. It may begin as an uncomfortable awareness, a prickling, even a sinking feeling. But you know it. You see the deal. You hesitate, almost wishing you didn’t know what you know, which is something along these lines: You cannot continue to write well if you believe that money is the measure of a person’s worth. You cannot continue to write well if you believe that critical consensus is the measure of an artist’s worth. You cannot continue to write well if you are protecting your family, your children, your community, or your social position. You cannot continue to write well if you don’t believe in the value of art as such—as itself—not in the service of some greater cause or system or set of beliefs, whether those beliefs fall to the right or the left or rise to the more spiritual realms above. You can write well without money, without praise, without social or political approval—you might not be that happy or look that great, but you can do it—but if your writing is essentially obedient to any of these powerful forces, its light will slowly flicker and then go out.
Does this sound harsh? Did you think I was going to say that the secret to the long haul is a loving partner, a great agent, a meditation practice, a reasonable publishing climate, a vital overall artistic culture, eating right? All true, of course. I wish them for myself, I wish them for all my fellow writers and artists. I take my fish oil every day. But over nearly twenty years of doing this, writing about it, observing other writers, and now teaching, what I see in the people who make it over the long haul—though many of us are past masters at concealing it—is an obdurate, willful, sometimes contrary set of values that insists, silently or loudly, on the importance of doing this strange and wayward thing.
It helps if you’re already outside the social norms for whatever reason and have some experience making a path where there isn’t one. John F. Kennedy, Jr., say, probably wouldn’t have been a very interesting writer. James Baldwin was a great one. We don’t teach this to our students—we can’t. What would we say? Be a freak, or at least have the courage of one? I mean, sometimes we do say that… but since we usually say it while standing in a university classroom—and the university is the patron of the arts of our time; we’d be toast without it—the context tends to belie the message: Be a freak, but meet with my institutionally validated approval.
Nevertheless, this is what I see. Over the long haul, whether you ever intended to or not, you find yourself building a system of values that supports your art as much as, if not more than, any of your grants, publishers, prizes, editors, or good reviews. And to see this is also to see that what I have created over the years is a sort of double life, split between two communities. There is my public community at the university where I work, at all the universities and other institutions where I’ve worked. But there is also a more fluid, polyglot, polymorphous, rambling, private community of writers, artists, rent boys, intellectuals, musicians, dancers, activists, and freaks of various stripes which is where I live, and who are part of that mysterious community in my mind of the living and the dead, friends, lovers, and admired strangers, to whom I write. Michael and Maud and Chris and Alice are in there, along with Elizabeth Bowen, and Joni Mitchell, and every man or woman I’ve ever loved. My public community is where I speak, where I listen, and where, hopefully, I create an environment in which people can learn how to make good prose. My private community is where I dream, where I feel most deeply that I can be known, where I am bowled over, where I am changed, where I break down, where I break through; it’s where I sweat, and who I sweat with.
It seems to me no accident that this community, a community of outsiders in one way or another, has sustained me over the long haul. But both of these communities, the public one and the private one, share the belief that to make art, to make something new in this world any which way you can, rewarded or not, is of transcendent value. I need them both and feel lucky to have them. Without them, and without the values that we share, I would have gone under a long time ago. I’m brave enough, but I’m not bulletproof.
Let me just be clear that I am describing—not, as we are warned not to do in workshop, prescribing. Some people don’t need much community of any kind, don’t need to feel that their values are shared with more than one or two others, or anyone else at all. They would rather be on their own. I’m always struck by how the Dadas, for instance, were not only few in number but also often geographically distant from one another. They seem to have been connected by a galactic vibe more than by daily interaction. Some people are quite well-nourished by leading conventional lives; their art thrives. For me, the gently unconventional path, and access to various unconventional worlds, have been crucial to my work as well as to my life. I don’t know why, honestly. But somehow they’re linked, they flow into one another. I need one side of the box to remain open. And, of course, this is who I seem to have been most interested in writing about: the folks who live a little (or more than a little) outside, the artists, the wannabe artists, the queers, the dreamers, the thieves, the in-betweeners, the modern restless ones. I light to that. I find it heroic, even when it doesn’t work out. I suppose I am more interested in freedom than in greatness; the story of what people do with their freedom compels me more than whether they win or lose the big game. I’m sure that gender, for one thing, has something to do with this. Female freedom still generally comes at a price. We write the stories we both wish for and fear.
Or maybe I just like having company, as a dear writer friend once said. I always want to know: How do you do it? And how about you? How do you keep doing it? In seeking out people of whom to ask this question, I seem to have built myself a life. This is the long haul, it ends up. It is rare, and precious.