Waiting to Write

Like any writer I dream of being awarded a life-altering grant or winning the state lottery, or at the very least, the heart of some word-loving benefactor, a silver-haired sugar mama or daddy who’ll rescue me from hard labor, no strings attached, simply for the satisfaction of seeing my words released into the universe. Centuries ago artists and writers had patrons. Some still do. The British had the dole.

In his essays “Sacked” and “On the Roof,” Geoff Dyer remembers living on the dole as a golden age when the safety net of Britain’s welfare state allowed Housing Benefit to pay his rent and Social Security to provide him money to live on.  The first twenty-five years of his life were cushioned by “free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a full maintenance grant and then – the icing on the cake—the dole!” The relative economic freedom Dyer and his “doley” friends experienced nurtured a whole generation of aspiring actors, dancers, writers, and musicians. Dyer calls the dole “the equivalent of waiting tables in New York.”

For the time being I’ve chosen the employment Dyer mentions to support my writing, that is, the life of waiting tables. My decision five years ago to leave a steady office job worried family and friends, but the gifts of a service industry job continue to do me good. In the right place with the right establishment, a writer can make good money on a flexible schedule, her mind left free to ruminate without too much responsibility.

Waiting tables, however, is not like living on the dole. Besides sleeping with a pillow under jammed knees and forever scrutinizing the tableside manners and tipping habits of friends, working dinner services leaves a writer in NYC unable to attend readings and events that help establish friendships and beneficial connections. Most significantly, restaurant serving, like all other work that pays the bills, diminishes time at my desk. But we all must grind, and this is the ages-old challenge of being an artist: how to survive and create in a society that values its art and culture, to a great extent, in terms of economic viability and success?Continue Reading

In the Colectivo

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In Havana, the collective taxis near the capitol line up on the street that juts out from the Hotel Inglaterra, around the corner from its big patio café with its striped awning and wicker chairs, across from the Parque Central, down a small alley that leads off into the confusion of Centro Habana. There’s sometimes a man there expediting, and he looks at you impatiently, asking, “¿Pa’onde va?”

And you tell him Linea or Dieciocho and he points you to the right car. Or if the man’s not there, you walk from car to car, asking “¿Linea?” until a driver nods and points to his seat. There are always more cars for Dieciocho. That’s how it was on this particular night, and it seemed like I had to ask twelve drivers before I found one heading in the direction of Calzada and F, where I had my room. But a driver did finally nod, and since I was the first passenger, I slid onto the upholstered front bench and asked to be let off at Linea and G.

The thing about a colectivo is that the driver makes money by keeping it full. So if you’re the first customer, you wait until three or four more people pop their heads into the cab and ask “¿Linea?” Tonight it was taking time. Eventually, the driver got out to light a cigarette, leaving me alone in his car. This was normal.Continue Reading

The Contemporary Epic

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I promised you Lonesome Dove, but we’re going to start with Derek Walcott’s Omeros, because this is a family of contemporary epics. Giant, sprawling books, full of gods and families, generations and cycles, books that seem like they go on forever and seem like they should. And where better to begin than a retelling of the Odyssey?

Omeros is a poem, or a novel in poetry. It is the only one of these books that takes the form of a classical epic, and it is full of Greek myth and Greek references, but not exclusively. Look at how Walcott does thunderstorms: “For the gods aren’t men, they get on well together, / holding a hurricane-party in their cloud-house, / and what brings the gods close is the thunderous weather, / where Ogun can fire one with his partner Zeus.” Greek and African myth in one stanza, and over the course of the book there are several kinds of Christianity, some ancient Egypt, a canoe that’s a tree-god, and more. Walcott jams the history of three continents onto one tiny Caribbean island—and of course, that’s exactly the point.

Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a different kind of epic. No poetry, and no gods, either. No references. If Omeros is about fullness (over-fullness), Lonesome Dove is about emptiness. It’s the story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, full of death and terror and machismo. But goddamn, is it beautiful. I have never read a fuller evocation of the American landscape, and bear in mind here that I am a sucker for Steinbeck. Lonesome Dove does it best.

Put these two books together, and you get three very different results. First there’s Eleanor Catton’s Booker winner The Luminaries, about a mining town in New Zealand governed by the zodiac, or else about the zodiac as enacted by the inhabitants of a mining town in New Zealand. If you prefer Old World to New, there’s Graham Swift’s Waterland, in which he makes a small town in East Anglia the center of a generational saga that he uses to question the nature of time and history, and in which he somehow makes eels a metaphor for everything.

And then there are Roberto Bolaño’s two monsters, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, which I will break down like this: 2666 is about death and The Savage Detectives is about poetry, but Bolaño handles them the same way. He overwhelms the reader with deaths and with poets. There are too many to remember. We’re back to over-fullness, to references upon references, note the re- in reference and remember. To me, is one of the main characteristics of the contemporary epic. All these books circle back. There are always more myths in Omeros, more eels in Waterland, more murdered women in 2666. Time blurs. Characters blur. These stories are bigger than we can understand.Continue Reading

How to Avoid Homelessness and Starvation As a Writer

2357395211_d874e4a566As the MFA vs. NYC book launches, as Emily Gould’s essay from said book makes the rounds, and as the bookternet explodes over the latest publishing controversy, I can’t help but be bored by the whole school vs. experience argument. I mean, forget all that. We’ve been arguing that one to death for eons. What really pops out to me in Gould’s essay is the financial hole she eventually found herself in—being somewhat familiar with financial holes myself.

Full disclosure: I never went to grad school, and have always been happy with where my autodidacticism has gotten me. I happen to learn more effectively by diving into experiences with only a moderate level of preparedness vs. sitting in a classroom and taking notes.

Still, I believe that no matter which path you take as a writer, you will sometimes feel like a success, you will sometimes feel like a failure, and you will always have to work hard to maintain self-sufficiency.

With that being said, here are my own tips for avoiding homelessness and starvation as a writer, influenced heavily by my own experiences.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why “Do What You Love” Is Bad Advice

find a job you loveIn 2005, Steve Jobs gave a now-famous graduation speech at Stanford University. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he said.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

“Yes! This is the Truth about careering!” Said everyone, ever.

Or okay, most of us. Who read or heard it.
And who also are privileged enough to have lives in which such an admonition has any chance of being follow-able.

Oh darn.Continue Reading