Saturday, August 30, 2008

living: the literary life

It's a beautiful Saturday here in the midwest, a lovely, hurricane- and locust-free day.  The tomatoes are exploding out in the garden, the kids are done with their morning soccer, and the lunch dishes are in the washing machine.  Dogs are a-barking, cicadas are a-thrilling.  All suggesting that it is the perfect time for some semi-coherent musings on a topic near and dear to my heart.  Hey, it's my dime, I can muse semi-coherently if I want.

The question is: what does it mean to "live a literary life"?

For some it's writing 1,000 words and one "charming note" a day, five days a week, for the rest of your life.  That's a pretty good start; I'm a big fan of the sprit behind the charming note, a concept introduced by Carolyn See. 

For others it's being part of a community of creative people, some of whom are striving to make a living being literary.  This goes nicely with the above.

For some of us it's a hobby, for others it's a matter of life and/or death.  My mental image of Hemmingway huddled up in a shabby Paris cafe while his young wife waited with their baby in a nearby garret (as described in A Moveable Feast) is not a charming thought, it's a haunting one.  But gosh, he was a writer.  Even if I despise him as an adulterer.

I've commented in the past about "rules for writing", first of which was "if you're going to be a writer, write", which was about as useful a statement as "if you're going to go, then go" or "if you're going to eat that, then eat that".

A better source for such "rules for writing" for me has been. . . actual writers.  I've been impressed by those "real" writers I've met at book signings, at conventions and through friends, as much for their balls (a gender-neutral expression of praise) as for their tenacity.   I was especially intrigued by something Jim Butcher (author of the Dresden Files and the Codex Alera) said in response to the question "do you have a muse":

"No, I have a mortgage."

Is his "art" diminished in any way by the fact that it's his job?  I don't think so.  He's still a writer.  He just understands why he's doing it.  He's under no illusions that his job is anything other than to write books that will sell.  It's obvious he's having a good time doing it.  He's living the literary life.

It's how he lives his literary life that I find compelling.  I think there's something very clarifying and motivating about putting yourself on the clock, about setting yourself to a discrete goal that must be achieved if you want to, say, keep the lights on.  It certainly shines a new light on the rejection letter - it's the equivalent of an "at bat", where you the batter fail to reach base.  You will walk away from the plate with your bat in your hand far more often than you'll toss it idly aside as you begin your home run trot.  Rejection isn't an indictment of the essential you or your worth as a writer.  It's part of the process, and you can either embrace it or let it crush you.  He's a creative person who knows how to get s__t done.

I just finished Carolyn See's book Making a Literary Life for the first time after reading it in bursts a number of years ago.  She makes this point very clearly and with great elan - and even recommends a bit of aikido when she suggests sending "thank you" notes to the folks who reject your stories, who write bad reviews, or who otherwise crap on your dream.  I like her ideas for how to transform your life into a literary one, if you are so inclined and if you are prepared for it.  She's another creative person who knows how to get s__t done.

Living the literary life is more than having a big stack of books on your nightstand.  It's a commitment to putting your thoughts down on paper with the ultimate goal of getting paid for them, knowing full well that the journey is not easy and will as likely as not be littered with repeated episodes of rejection and confusion.  If you're not committed to getting paid, that's not a literary life - it's a literary hobby.

Which shines a bit of an odd light on this whole blogging thing, doesn't it.  We may think we're living the literary life, but are we?  You can hang some AdSense ads on your blog, scramble for some sponsors, but is that the same thing as living a literary life?  Or is it just being the bright light that lures insects to the zapper?

Is this the new "literary life" in an age where the traditional mechanisms of publishing are being demolished in the same way that the music industry has been?

If so, it seems somewhat less. . . literary.

1 comment:

A. said...

Hey Bob,

I do enjoy living the literary life - albeit vicariously.

i'm the guy with a night stand full of books that I love to read, discuss and if I can take to the next step.

Thanks for the reference to See's book. I will add it to my list. If you like See, look at adding "If You Want to Write" to your reading list. Like See, it's not just a book about writing, it's about how to get things done. It's one of those rare gems that acts as a good advice from a trusted friend. Some of my favorite quotes:
- you do not know what is in you - an inexhaustible fountain of ideas
- "he whose face gives no light shall never become a star" - William Blake.

Anyways, I just wanted to say thanks for keeping this blog going. I read it every chance I get. I find it informative, amusing and thoughtful. Please keep it up.

All my best.