Writing Through the SootBy Seth Pollins
March 01, 2011
Hello, my name is Seth Pollins and I am a writer. I say this, today, not as a fist-pumping gesture. I say this in the spirit of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I admit defeat. I’m addicted. I do not always feel this way, that my impulse to write is actually governed by uncontrollable compulsion, but today, an otherwise cheery, bright day in Ambler, I do.
I am a married man, childless, creeping towards my mid-thirties, and I’m currently working on my–I’m embarrassed to say this–sixth novel. I’d like to think that the time I spend writing is productive–that I write not because I expect my work to take me somewhere, but because I believe that perseverance just might. But I have to admit, writing often feels like a compulsion to me; and my writing life does share a certain affinity with the life of an addict.
Right now, I divide my time between two types of work: work that makes money; and work (my writing) that makes no money. Although I do enjoy my moneymaking work, I often feel “unpleasant symptoms” when I am engaged in it. In reality, I’m suffering withdrawal from my writing. At work, I tell myself: I am not doing what I want to be doing. I am not doing what I am meant to do. It depresses me, creates anxiety. I often have this urge: to just quit my job, to go home and write. That wouldn’t be very responsible, would it? And yet, I think about it all the time.
How many writers, successful and not, believe this is so: Writing is what your meant to do?
I think of the seemingly delusional contestant on “American Idol”, the contestant who struts into his tryout with absolute certainty: I am the next American Idol. Even before he sings it’s obvious: this guy will fail; this guy will torture (or delight, depending on your perversity) in some serious way. Then he opens his mouth and your fear/glee is confirmed: he is terrible. How could he not know? He’s twenty-eight! How could he have made it this far not knowing how bad he really is? He had tried for so many years, but it’s obvious: all along he had been failing. Day after day, year after year, he had been failing. I sometimes wonder if these contestants really have worked so hard. And yet, what if they have? It certainly throws the value of perseverance into question. Yet, without perseverance, what does he have?
Recently, I posted a letter from my uncle, a poet, on my blog. In the letter, written to me when I was twenty-one, my uncle tried to offer a realistic portrait of what it takes to be a successful writer:
“But one thing that won’t just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you’ll never become the writer you want to become. And there’s a funny thing about that, too…You’ll never become the writer you want to become. You’ll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good.”
If you aren’t any good, though, what’s the use of spending all that time “teaching yourself to write well”? Without talent, perseverance begins to look a lot like compulsion.
Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in a furious 18-month burst. He tells of the hardships of this time in the wonderful book The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez:
“You already know how much lunacy of this sort Mercedes [his wife] has had to put up with…She took charge of the situation. I’d bought a car a few months earlier so I pawned it and gave her the money. I reckoned that we could live on it for six months, but it took me a year and a half to write the book. When the money ran out she never said a word. I don’t know how she did it, but she got the butcher to give us credit for the meat, the baker for his bread, and the landlord to wait nine months for the rent.”
García Márquez had already published a few books, and yet he knew this was his make-or-break moment. “Either this book will be my break-though,” he said, “Or I’ll blow my brains out.”
Of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to become one of the most famous novels of all time. But what if he had failed? He had two children at the time, a wife. How might we look at his compulsive behavior if it led not to worldwide fame, but suicide? Two children. To abandon your responsibilities as a care-giver for eighteen months! Was García Márquez selfish? Do you have to be selfish to write a masterpiece?
Children. Since adolescence, I’ve associated the writing-life with the images borne towards me from my uncle’s life. My uncle introduced me to many of his poet friends–truly genuine, loving, funny people. One thing I noticed as a teen and young adult, without ever thinking too much about it, was that many of these poets did not have children. So it seemed to me, growing up, that a life of poetry might not be compatible with parenthood. Of course, this is an egregious generalization. And, of course, people have and do not have children for any number of reasons–reasons that need not be explained to anyone. But I often truly do wonder: is the writing life compatible with parenthood?
I’m speaking specifically of a writer at the beginning of their career: the unpublished, the hopeful, the compulsive–me. Because, obviously, many successful writers have successfully raised children. No, I wonder, more specifically, of the writer I soon hope to be: the writer trying to break into the business who is also raising a child–or two, or three, or more.
For me, just now, this question of the writer-parenthood paradigm is important. My wife and I, we are trying to get pregnant. If we are blessed with a child, well, then, I will need to make more money. It’s not merely a question of my wife not being able to work. She will go back to work; she will continue to make money. That’s her preference. And, of course, I will spend time at home with my child, feasibly writing. No, it’s a question of the way I feel about my role. I want to provide for my wife and my child. I want to contribute meaningfully to our financial situation in a way that will enable us to move out of our apartment, buy a house, perhaps buy a second car–basically ease the burden that is now primarily on my wife, a successful lawyer. I am frantically searching for teaching jobs. I am frantically applying to writing fellowships. I am frantically trying to finish my third rewrite of my novel.
All of this strikes me as productive.
On most days, too, the time I spend writing strikes me as worthwhile and productive.
But at what point in the near future will the time I spend writing begin to compromise my ability to meet my responsibilities as a husband, a father? How long can I continue to spend my time writing (without making money) before the ballooning financial responsibilities of adulthood swallow more and more of my time–the time I had previously set aside for writing? It seems I’m confronting a make-or-break moment.
Obviously the people who become successful writers are the ones who do it. Perseverance, finally, is more important than talent. You can’t just write when inspiration puts your head in the furnace. And the more you write, the more you discover: inspiration comes later in the process. You have to work through the soot. You have to spend weeks looking into the twilight just to see the twinkle in the first star. Writers do this. Writers write, frantically.
And yet, when you make no money, this frantic activity seems a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?
I do not believe I have an addiction. But really, what is the difference between addiction and perseverance? What is the difference between Gabriel García Márquez writing furiously for 18 months, and, say the terrible “American Idol” contestant singing furiously for 18 months? Talent, obviously. Talent is important too. How do you know if you got any? At what point do you decide that you’ve tried hard enough–that you’re just not talented enough, that your wife, and your potential child, need you more than you need your writing?
I’ve found the best thing to do is to not think about these things. The best thing to do is to simply write. And that’s not hard for me: I’m addicted.
You’re insane, but at least you found the asylum.
It’s not so bad here. It’s Hitchcock night every Wednesday, and the institution gives us all the orange drink we want.
Did you bring any cigarettes?
navel, meet gaze.
what kind of beer is that? Anyone seen the bottle opener?
The only problem with having a lawyer wife, is that she most likely wrote the prenup.
Yikes Seth, welcome to the word of trollish comments.
I identified (another AAism) a lot with what you wrote about kids because, yes, having a child will change everything. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop writing. You’ll just have less time is all. Make the best of what time you do have. Stephen King wrote his first novel at night after he put his baby to sleep and while his wife worked the night shift at Dunkin’ Donuts. He eventually threw it in the trash. She fished it out and forced him to send it to publishers. It eventually made him enough money to allow him to quit his HS English teaching (!) job forever and just write.
I always think about whether I would produce more writing if I didn’t decide to start a family when I did (age 25) but then again I think’s that’s shit. If I want to write bad enough then I will, just like I find time to do anything else I want to do outside of the ridiculously demanding life of a parent & teacher.
You’ll always write and if you do it enough and pay attention to all the right things, then you’ll eventually earn the validation you seek. Writing is its own reason for being.
I recently read a rare interview with Cormac McCarthy where he said: “My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.” As curmudgeonly as it (he) sounds, if that comment resonates with you then that’s the idea.
trollish, perhaps, but good-natured.
I decided deliberately NOT to be grandmotherish in my vague encouragement, because I knew you’d be along. And you do it much better than I ever could.
One gotta know one’s strengths, and when it’s time to pass the ball.
Ultimately, the writer here is not asking us HOW to do it, how to juggle it. He’s not asking whether he should or not. He’s navel gazing. He’s wondering what to call himself, what label to use.
Books and Babies MUST occur concurrently, or we’d have neither!
My word of advice to the writer: Taking care of a baby for the first 6 months is very much like taking care of a car. It’s all about putting gas in and changing the oil, and listening for incongruous sounds. It’s not like you have to worry about whether your car feels ENRICHED by the route you choose to drive to the grocery store…or whether the car gets hurt feelings if you decide to take the bicycle instead.
…of course, it tends to go downhill fast from there.
I know one guy who was (is?) clearly a real writer and gave it up when he had children. I think he got “Microsoft Certified,” whatever that is. I can’t say it’s turned out great for him.
It’s part of you. That fact won’t solve all of your problems, but knowing it, the three of you can at least work with and around it and hopefully somehow make it work for you.
Lorrie Moore said something like:
Try to do anything else, and if you can’t, then get down here in the muck with the rest of us.
Good luck, Seth. I hope it works out.
bravo, and seconded.
“Microsoft Certified” essentially means being so indoctrinated in mediocrity that you can no longer recognize it as such. The crayzee, fucked-up way you’re solving the problem doesn’t tickle your gag reflex the way it would in a “normal” person.
If it’s any perspective…I work full time as a software architect, I run a farm (which means I do the shovel work), I administer several websites (which means I do the shovel work), I have eight kids in various stages of development, and I’m 75k words in to a novel that I hope to complete (first draft) by June. I’m also building a house myself and about to get involved in a sailboat.
So no whining. allowed. here.
and welcome, Seth, and good luck!
Thanks, guys, for your comments, and sorry I’ve held off on commenting back. I’ve just been trying to figure out the tone of the venue. I didn’t want to misinterpret your intentions. When writing, say, “You’re insane” or “Navel, meet gaze” it seemed to me, to be honest, that you were both trying to be relatively welcoming and kindhearted. Then again, I wanted to make sure you didn’t hate my guts.
I hope my post doesn’t come off as whining–that was not my intention at all. I’m simply trying to express my thoughts. My hope, in expressing myself, is that others might find some connection–that connection hopefully redeeming the piece from mere “navel-gazing”.
I must admit, I don’t entirely understand the navel-gazing comment. In this piece I feel that I am working within a genre, the memoir/blog genre, and isn’t part of the very definition of that genre, for better or worse, navel-gazing? Perhaps I don’t fully understand. If what defines this piece as excessively self-absorbed in a negative way is the inward question–well, then, that’s a failure on my part. I had meant for many of my questions to be addressed to myself and the reader.
When I write about having a child I write about the unimaginable. I’m thankful for all the comments here, and elsewhere (my friend Amy left a particularly helpful comment on facebook), but, really, I do realize that I’ll only know when it hopefully happens. It’s scary for me–the uninitiated, and part of this has to do, yes, with the examples I’ve seen in my life: my uncle and his peers.
The tone of this venue is basically full-on suck-uppery. It’s almost treacly in it’s cloying positiveness. Which should not be taken as a criticism of TNB, because, well, there’s about a million other places on the web where you can get your heaping helping of abuse, and so on a global scale, it’s a little bit of welcome balance. But that doesn’t stop us from having a little whack at the newbies now and again!
So, my father is a writer. Published. Knopf, some years ago. He was NEVER able to support us on his book royalties.
As a matter of statistics, how many of the “novelists who write with intent to publish for gainful employment” are able to sustain a comfortable “middle class” life on that publishing income?
Is that even a good goal? You’ve implied this sort of standard suburbia life of comfort as being some kind of goal or touchpoint. I would submit that such a thing would kill any and all of the muses that deign to visit you when you have pen in hand. You’d end up sitting in a comfortable den with absolutely nothing to write about.
I tend, I have found (if my own example is worth anything…debatable) to inadvertently invite chaos and calamity into my life, or it chases me, or somehow it’s always knocking. In some ways, this keeps me off-balance and incapable of really striking at my goals, but it also keeps me from becoming COMPLACENT and settled, which I think, for me, would be certain death to my writing muse.
As if I actually HAVE a writing muse. But let’s just pretend for the sake of argument.
The thing is, I was actually genuinely excited when I read your piece! “Here’s another one like the rest of us.” And then I replied with this sort of Cuckoo’s Nest metaphor that really means to me, “I think we’re the only sane ones in this world.” It was my awkward way of trying to build camaraderie, but how the hell would you know that?
Know that TNB is full of eloquent posters who will see you best intentions most of the time.
…by the way…on the topic of child bearing/rearing being unfathomable…
I got a much better user manual when I brought home a damn refrigerator, which had exactly one knob and one plug to adjust, than when I brought home my new infant.
The user manuals are all but useless.
In fact, the ONLY useful advice I can give you, is to avoid baby/parenting magazines like the fucking plague. They’re WORSE than useless. If you see your wife reading one, leap across the room and snatch it out of her hands, and burn it or tear it to shreds instantly.
The only purpose of those “manuals” is to make you nervous about diseases you don’t have, desiring of products you don’t need, and guilty about all the ways that you fail to devote your life to the sole task of turning that little lump of squirming flesh into a future president of the united states or olympic-gold-medalist.
Seth! Welcome to TNB! There are so many moments in this essay when I found myself nodding enthusiastically as I read. The comparison to the delusional who flock to the American Idol tryout for our cruel, cruel amusement, for example. I’ll say, “Meh. That guy can’t accept he sucks because his mama has spent his entire life telling him what a phenomenal singer he is. His mother said so! It has to be true!” Then it occurs to me that my mom has told me what a phenomenal writer I am just as often.
And I *did* go to grad school, have a great job, and quit it because it got in the way of writing. I feel like I should type that last bit in all caps it’s so crazy. But also I had a baby at the same time so I just blamed it on her. And then the whole question of whether it’s worth it if it doesn’t make much money to support the family and so forth. Ay ay ay.
I don’t know. But this is what I’m sticking with: I am absolutely doing the right thing because my mother says so; therefore, it has to be true.
Yeah, it’s a hard choice. And unfortunately, too often the definition is not up to us. Although it is nice to have the moment of looking back at previous work and recognising the strength of a line, a phrase – if you’re lucky, a paragraph.
I remember the days of MySpace and some of the fiction I used to encounter there.
Anyhow, welcome aboard, Seth! Here’s to clarity of vision.