In 2011, I was excited to see the New York Times‘s announcement that a regular column by the writer Geoff Dyer called “Reading Life” would be appearing in their weekend Book Review. I was even more intrigued and, somehow, encouraged, when eventually it appeared only three times.
I had followed Dyer since James Wood’s New Yorker piece on his 2009 novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Like Wood, I found the elegant Englishman fascinating: Apparently he’d made a career out of jumping from one subject to another, exploring a new specialty with every book. He’d written a book about jazz, one on photography, one on D.H. Lawrence. Ohhhh, I thought. You mean you can have a career as a writer that doesn’t make sense? This was great news for me.
But Dyer also wrote fiction—as playfully and winningly as he roamed through genres and subjects. Jeff in Venice is unorthodox—in form, it’s two novels back to back, one about a dashing, erudite, entertainingly self-loathing author attending the Vienna Biennale, and the other about someone very similar going to the sacred site of Varanasi in India and transforming into a dhoti-wearing mystic, while never losing his self-awareness. The combination of genuine questing combined with witty self-mockery charmed me, and led me to Dyer’s essay collection, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. That collection includes an essay about Dyer going to Detroit to cover the rave scene there and collapsing in a fit of depression in his hotel, unable to face the crowds. I liked this vulnerability, his honesty in writing about it, and the fact he worked on not succumbing to it. (He did eventually emerge from his hotel.)
But mostly, it was the jaunty flitting from subject to subject that caught my attention. So it was possible to be a writer who plumbed one area of a subject, and no more was asked of you? That spoke to me, as an aspiring fiction writer who seemed to always find myself writing something else. Like many, I’d believed going through an MFA program would transform me into a proper fiction writer, like raw material squished into a sausage casing. But the elusive writerly brilliance didn’t alight on me any more in my Michigan grad school than it had in any other locale. Instead, I started playing in a rock band—forget fiction! All I wanted to do was write songs, play songs, write about other people’s songs, and read the rock press about other musicians’ songs. I decided I’d be a rock journalist, but I was obsessively focused on just a few musicians. I didn’t know who Primus was, and I didn’t want to learn. I’d never listened to Husker Du, a crime for anyone with a pretense to caring about American rock music. I wanted to write about just my obsessions: Pavement, the Silver Jews, Cat Power, and Palace Brothers/Will Oldham. These artists spoke deeply to me—most other music didn’t interest me.
What kind of rock journalist feels like that, though? When I described my interests to a man I met at a rock show in New York, he suggested “groupie” might be a better word for me. The comment stung. Of course, by then I’d realized rock journalists had a wide and thorough knowledge of music. It didn’t occur to me I could accept this particularist streak of mine and go with it—I was too impressed by the completists I knew. If only I had heard of Geoff Dyer at that point. He embraced his inclinations and did exactly what he wanted.
But I was more easily intimidated. I decided, with regret, that I didn’t have the proper breadth needed to be a serious rock journalist. By this time I had moved to New York, and in my rent-stabilized apartment building, the proximity of early-retiring, close-at-hand neighbors transformed me from a rock guitarist to a soft singer-songwriter composing only on my acoustic. Pavement had broken up and I was now trying to write a novel. It was going terribly. Was I not a fiction writer, period? Roaming my Brooklyn neighborhood on days I didn’t have work (I was fitfully employed during these years), I sometimes got ideas for journalism. There were two businesses in nearby streets that had never gotten off the ground. One was a cheerful-looking place called Jessie’s Kitchen, on Smith Street. I often peered in the windows—it had a bright, Mediterranean-influenced decor and an appealing menu. But it never opened. Why? I wondered. Was the Jessie of Jessie’s Kitchen afflicted with doubts, unable to seize the reins? Similarly, way down on Court St., an establishment called “Leo’s Corner” had its windows permanently shrouded in brown paper, never emerging to become what its owner must have visualized. For months I kept an eye on both businesses, wondering what was happening. Were Jessie and Leo in their apartments with their heads on their kitchen tables, wailing: “I don’t know why! I just can’t do it!”? Did they unlock their unfinished establishments, let themselves in and wander around limply, saying, “I don’t think I have what it takes after all.”? I wondered if I could contact them and write about their stories for a local Brooklyn paper. If there’s anything that fascinates me, it’s inability, paralysis.
So when Geoff Dyer’s column was announced by the New York Times, and then almost never appeared, my interest was piqued. What had happened? Every so often, I would check online—where was Geoff ’s column? Did he decide he didn’t enjoy writing it? Was he somewhere going “Enh—I didn’t know what was involved.”? Or was he like, “I can’t think of ideas! I can’t think of an idea every month!” I had no way of knowing. But the fact that he wasn’t writing his column made me like him even more. Again, he wasn’t doing what was expected of him.
If you read Sylvia Plath’s journals, you see she tormented herself about writing fiction, even while poems poured out of her with relative ease. She didn’t want to be “just a poet,” and she did produce a novel worth reading. But it’s poetry that was her calling, the source of her genius. It’s fascinating to read, in her journals, the record of her persistent and painful effort to call forth the fiction writer she was sure was within her.
The reason I mention Plath is that her journals always remind me that the wish to be a writer, and the will to be one, solve nothing about how you will live, and don’t even solve anything about how you will write. You have given yourself the vaguest designation. And you may spend your life searching for your actual destination.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.