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Writers Versus The World
How Writers are Different from Everyone Else
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Think of any daring, talented and interesting writer—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Didion, Sontag, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Baldwin, Mailer, David Foster Wallace, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ottessa Moshfegh, Zadie Smith, Elif Batuman, etc—and you instantly see that the art stems from an intriguing, even dangerous artist. This is causal: Writers are generally an unusual lot. They are weird, freakish, isolated, individual, “different.” The wild eccentric weirdos who the rest of society seems flummoxed and yet often captivated by.
This doesn’t describe all writers, of course. There are the boring, tried and true stories of cold MFA programs, typical lives lived for typical reasons. But more often than not, writers are the ones who see things in a much deeper, more full way than the average bear (both a blessing and a curse), who are highly sensitive (for both good and ill), who wear their hearts on their sleeves, who have a black smear of self-indulgent narcissism and desire desperately to be “heard and understood,” who are vulnerable and yet simultaneously somehow aloof, who seem to always be documenting everything in their lives. They “see” things in life from different angles, vantage points and perspectives than most people.
Many writers—myself very much included—do not live conventional or typical or “normal” lives. We are in fact not “normal” people. This isn’t to say writers are better than anyone or somehow superior; actually if anything I’d argue that writers are in some ways disastrous failures: We are usually (but not always) deeply wounded and insecure and seek constant inner and outer validation from a society which refuses to give it. Especially today, at a time when books seem to either be read much less often, or else be startlingly ideological.
My point is a neutral one: Writers, by and large, are their own breed. I am almost 13 years sober and even in AA circles people think differently of alcoholic writers versus just general alcoholics. Writers are very commonly alcoholics; it doesn’t take more than a second to conjure up the old familiar names of famous literary drunks: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Kerouac, London, Wallace, King, etc. This of course makes sense: Writers being so hyper self- and other-aware, highly sensitive, how could many of them not be alcoholics? Ditto suicide.
Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear attempts to annihilate this notion I’m presenting, making the claim that just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you have to be tied to the old fashioned and anachronistic and unhealthy idea that you should be mentally or psychologically sick. I like the book. A lot, actually. Everyone should read it. And I don’t necessarily disagree with the basic premise: To be a writer you don’t have to be broken. There is a 20th century myth that in order to be and survive as a writer you must be totally self-destructive, must drink to blackout, must be incredibly wounded and in constant spiritual pain. I do not think this is true.
That said, the history of 20th century writers and writing cannot be ignored, and it is rife with alcoholism, suicide, violence, suffering. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s experience. I don’t encourage mimicry. I encourage all people to live their truest, most authentic lives. Be “who you are,” unless, like the existentialists (say like Sartre and Camus) you don’t believe in any inherent “self.”
I speak personally here. I am one of these broken, wounded writers. Not broken as in unfixable or completely ruined and useless. Broken as in somehow spiritually bent into an inner symbolic shape which is not like most others. Other writers get it. My “breed,” my “tribe.” I come from a writing family. My mother is an author. My maternal uncle. Two cousins.
Things to me have never made sense in life, the things I’m supposed to care about and do. Money, for example. Of course I grasp that we all need money to survive. You’ve got to pay the bills somehow. But acquiring money for its own sake? Becoming “wealthy”? This simply never appealed to me. (Of course this is also because I come from the upper middle-class; money was never something I had to strive for in the way working-class people do.) Ditto work; jobs. I’ve had dozens of jobs over the decades, since I first started working clearing trails in the mountains in Ojai when I was 14. (Click here for my post on my work history.) But I’ve hated every single one. Working for a boss has always felt atrocious and vile to me. Being condescended to, told how to think, what to do, when I can come and go. It feels, to my privileged and sensitive heart, like chains.
This is why I got into book editing a decade ago, so I could work for myself. There are pros and cons involved in working for oneself, but for me the pros outweigh the cons—namely, in my view, freedom, self-respect and integrity. It makes me think of writers like Kerouac and Bukowski, autobiographical fiction writers who worked far too many jobs to list and who also hated them all and eventually found solace solely in writing.
Many writers have famously lived lives of begging for money, asking for help, borrowing, going into debt, paying people off, but never really having to work, or rarely and not for long. One easy example here is Henry Miller, who one could argue was, in a way, the first “Substack writer” way, way, way before Substack (or even the internet) existed. (Click here for my essay on Miller.) Miller famously lived in Big Sur for many years and, in the 50s and 60s, he propositioned patrons, or “subscribers” to pay for his writing and his visual art (watercolor paintings), and largely survived by this method, sometimes gaining wealthy patrons who paid for his existence. Miller—whose books were captivating, meretricious and vulgar, if real and authentic to the core—was the consummate 20th century “artist” intent on doing things his way, DIY, with complete artistic integrity. He refused to bend over and grab his ankles for The Man. He had to retain his essential spirit. He had to be free.
I’ve never understood normalcy, or conventionality, or the typical 9-5 work life. Of course I’m not ignorant or naïve: I recognize that not everyone is, can be or should be a writer. Of course this is obvious. Imagine if everyone were a writer: Society would crumble! In order for our societies to survive, we need the essentials: Doctors and lawyers and builders and politicians, police and courts, etc. This is good and as it should be. But we need to also have space for artists, for writers. For people who are spiritual outsiders, who have the special outsider’s view of society. This is what artists are, and not just writers, but particularly them. They see things from outside of traditional life and experience. They’re just “visitors,” almost like aliens, as a writer friend of mine once quipped.
A huge chunk of being a writer is being an avid reader. Like many writers, I am constantly reading. It serves as both escape, enlightenment and education. Imagine: We can open books and read the thoughts of other thinkers and seers from decades, even hundreds, even thousands of years ago. All the way back to Gilgamesh and The Illiad.
Lately I picked up a book by an author I love and haven’t read enough of, though I have read several of his novels. This is the glorious, refined nonfiction collection There is Simply Too Much to Think About by Saul Bellow (1915 to 2005), a writer of grotesque intelligence and talent who won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the National Medal of Arts, and, incredibly, the National Book Award for Fiction three times (still I believe the only writer to do so). He has a penetrating eye and a deep insightful ability to pull the grains of reality apart and to find The Truth. (Or at least something deeply true.) In this collection I found the inspiration for this essay. He understood the scourge of ideology in literature, and in the notion of writers being different from others in crucial ways that mattered.
Every day my fiancée leaves at 7:30 for work and comes home at 5:30. And every day I do not understand it. I mean I do understand it, of course. But I simultaneously don’t. Just the way I didn’t grasp the morning and evening subway riders going to and returning from work when I lived in Manhattan. The basic routine, the boringness, the sheer ordinariness of it all. On some level this probably speaks to my own immaturity and childishness. Writers are also often caught in a confusing, menacing tangle: Both highly mature (ancient in many ways) and yet deeply childish, being both independent man and waffling child, both rejecting of others and yet profoundly needy at the same time. We want to have our cake and eat it, too. On some level I think most writers genuinely see themselves as “special” or as “unique” or as “different.” And we are. As they say in AA: “You’re different…just like everyone else.”
Writers in many ways have changed the world, of course. What do you think the U.S. Constitution is if not a creative writing document? Ditto the “Rights of Man.” Thomas Jefferson was a writer. Lincoln was a writer. Obama. Many books since the dawn of books have fundamentally altered the state of the world. Think of the Bible, for instance. Or the works of Hobbes, Lock, Bacon, Franklin. Shakespeare gorgeously ravaged both poetry and plays in ways we’re still feeling distinctly today. Governments and corporations are enveloped in both dry and creative writing for myriad reasons and purposes. So we need writers. Especially fiction writers, whose purposes are more myopic yet powerful in terms of artistic goals. Societies crave and need creative outlets, to be able to escape sometimes and go out and beyond their usual cognitive limits. People want to think. (Yes, even now.)
Thank you to all those of you who work “real jobs.” We need you. But we also need writers. Most people who think they’re writers aren’t writers. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way; I mean it in an honest way. Not everyone who goes to law school or medical school finishes; for some it is simply too hard, too much money, terribly non-enjoyable, too bureaucratic, boring, awful, etc. Many drop out. So it is with many a nascent writer doing an MFA program, say, or getting a degree in writing simply because they don’t know what to do or because their mother, father, brother, cousin, friend told them they were “a great writer.”
The deeper truth is that writers write; they don’t need goading. They do it out of cold hard spiritual necessity. Many people along my journey encouraged me to be a writer, but many more warned me against it. It was the usual banal bullshit: It doesn’t make any money; no one reads anymore; fiction is dead; only writers who do an MFA can get published; there’s no future in traditional publishing anymore; you’re wasting your money and time and potential; you’ll be judge and laughed at by others; etc.
Some of these predictions have come true to varying degrees; some haven’t. But it doesn’t matter. I tried for many years not to write. I couldn’t do it. Like a cosmic itch which nothing else can scratch—perhaps like religion for the faithful, alcohol for the drunk, Heroin for the drug-addict, travel for the travel-junkie—it was in my blood, in my veins, in my body, in my very cells and even atoms. As I got older and realized life very much is temporary I grasped more and more firmly that writing was who I was and what I wanted to do. Needed, actually. That need runs through me like the booze I once consumed madly. If I ever lose that sensation, perhaps I’ll stop writing.
But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.