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From Phyllida's Desk

Writers' Lives

Anybody who’s worked at writing knows that creative success doesn’t necessarily lead to material success. We tend to think of the award winners and the bestsellers as two mutually exclusive sets of writers; and we hope, even if we don’t always believe it, that if a writer stays true to his or her voice, the work will be recognized on its merits, eventually.

We have to remind ourselves that yesterday’s “Great Novels,” the “classics” taught to (sometimes) resentful and unappreciative high-school and college students, were the pop fiction and chick lit of their day; and that writers like Stephen King and Nora Roberts are “good” writers, not “merely” successful ones.

Recently, I read two examples of writers’ lives. Both writers are good by the standards of literary fiction, but one has a life I would literally kill for and the other had a life that sounds depressingly familiar. Why does it go one way for this writer and another way for that one? I actually have a serious answer to this question, which I’ll give at the end of this post. But first, here are the lives.

Jaimy Gordon’s latest novel, Lord of Misrule, just won the National Book Award. Her publisher, McPherson and Co., is so “tiny,” that it was only after her book became a finalist for the award that they decided to increase the print run from 2000 to 8000. Excerpts from a New York Times article follow:

“Ms. Gordon, 66, has taught writing for almost 30 years at Western Michigan University and lives by herself in a two-story house next to a lake.… Her husband, Peter Blickle, 17 years her junior, teaches German at the university and lives by another lake, about a 20-minute walk away. His wife goes over there most evenings with her dog and they have a glass of schnapps.

“She has a huge corona of springy, tightly curled hair that suggests prolonged exposure to a light socket, and a personality to match: forthright, disarming, uncensored.

“‘I’ve spent my whole professional life swirling the eddies of the margins,’ Ms. Gordon said … ‘I had opportunities, and I blew them.’

“For much of the ’70s Ms. Gordon was part of the experimental arts scene that flourished in Providence … ‘I wasn’t writing about anything in the real world.… I was just writing about the language that was thronging in my brain. I didn’t write realism until I was 35.’

“‘I had to confess that I do think about an audience, and I don’t think that’s so bad,’ she said. ‘I’m a reader, and so I know what it’s like. That power — I wanted it so badly.’

“To write a novel that was even remotely commercial … was considered a sell out, and yet … success did not immediately come her way.

“Despite her enthusiasm ‘Lord of Misrule’ failed to attract interest from a mainstream publisher. ‘It was like dropping it over a cliff,’ she said.

[With the paperback version soon to be released by Vintage Anchor, Ms. Gordon isn’t letting success go to her head.]

“‘What I want right now is to see my book in an airport. Then in a couple of years everyone will figure out that I’m too esoteric, and I’ll be back to [McPherson] again.’”

And now for the other path: Alston Anderson.

“an African-American short-story writer, poet, novelist and jazz critic. He spent three years in the Army in World War II and three months of 1955 at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He studied philosophy at Columbia and the Sorbonne.

“He had sharp talent and famous friends: Richard Wright, Terry Southern, Robert Graves. His work was chosen for anthologies of ‘jazz fiction’ and of the best ‘Negro writers.’ He had a story in The New Yorker and an interview with Nelson Algren in The Paris Review.

What he didn’t have were money, lasting acclaim and, evidently, family.”

When he died, in 2008, he was buried in potter’s field. It was thanks to “a program that tracks down the remains of indigent veterans and provides them proper military burials” that he was eulogized as “Anderson Alston,” prompting New York Times writer Lawrence Downes to Google him, discovering that his names had been reversed.

So what happened?

“Mr. Anderson was at Yaddo with James Baldwin. He left under a cloud; notes in his files tell of bad behavior and his mixing with ‘objectionable characters.’ He was dunned for months after for an unpaid $13.36 phone bill.

“He tried to explain. ‘I find it impossible,’ he wrote to Yaddo’s executive director, Elizabeth Ames, ‘to work eight hours a day and write at the same time.’ He survived on ‘baby-sitting and odd typing jobs, just enough to provide one meal a day. It would be a very simple thing for me to get a job and pay my debts, and I’m very much aware that this is what I should do. But I feel that once I make such a compromise I’ll become an $80-a-week clerk and that will be the end of me.’

“He changed addresses six times that year, and later told [Robert] Graves that he nearly froze to death that winter. His request to return to Yaddo was rejected. ‘Lover Man,’ however, got great reviews. ‘Perfect ear, warm heart,’ said The Times. ‘First-class,’ said Time magazine.”

Like Micki McGee, “a Fordham University professor who wrote a book about Yaddo, ‘I think I’m going to cry.’”

Is this what success is all about? The ability to hold down a decent-paying full-time job and produce award-worthy fiction at the same time?

Unfortunately, sometimes I think the answer is yes. Like Anderson, I know that if I were to work full time, as I did for years after graduating from college, “it will be the end of me” as a writer. I started writing as a lark when I got my first personal computer, and knocked out some short stories on weekends. They sucked. It was only when I was forced to work part time, first because of a providential layoff, later because of the illness and eventual death of my mother (thanks, mom!) that I began writing seriously and for sustained periods, learning by doing, improving by virtue of the daily, or at least three or four days a week--all day--grind.

Is Jaimy Gordon a better writer than me? Undoubtedly. But so was Alston Anderson. It’s the writing that proves it, not the good jobs or the lack of them, not the fame or its loss. With luck, and if my health and money hold out, I could still write the award-winning novel that wins me a review in the Times or a place at Yaddo. Not likely, but the race isn’t over yet.

Why do we so resist accepting that people are different? That “I can do it” does not, despite teachers’ and camp counselors’ favorite exhortation, imply in any way that “you can do it too.”

One of my therapist’s most useful pieces of advice has been first to recognize and understand how I work, and then to accept it. Not to feel that another person’s way is better and that I should force myself to adopt it. If it works for me then it’s right, whether it means rising at noon or at 5 AM; whether it means working around a full-time job or having days of freedom by living on a part-time pittance eked out with grudging withdrawals from savings.

Of course, I started writing relatively late in life; many young people have the energy and dedication to work full time and write. But I remember being much the same twenty-five years ago as I am now: limited as to mental and physical energy; needing to conserve my creative resources for that one project that mattered to me, and letting the rest go—along with the housework. My editor, Rakesh Satyal, twenty-five years my junior, is my exact opposite: he combines a demanding full-time job with frequent cabaret performances, and his first novel, Blue Boy, won last year’s Lambda Literary Award for gay debut fiction.

Yet we share a sensibility. It was he who picked Phyllida out of the wasteland of subsidy-published PODs and gave it its HarperCollins debut, and who appreciated the scholarship and the wit, as well as the sex, that went into my Pride/Prejudice.

I’m “successful” by my definition: writing what I want, true to my voice, and earning some very fine reviews, print and online, mainstream and decidedly out-of-the-way, along with the inevitable stinkers. But I haven’t made much money so far, and I have yet to find an agent.

At least I’m still paying my phone bills.
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