Pop quiz. Category: Definition. Word: Writer.
If you’ve been absorbing the dominant narrative, in other words, if you’re a human being living on this planet and reading this, the image that pops into your mind might look something like this:
(no kidding, this is the first face that pops up on google image search).
Writer (n): a person, almost universally male, almost universally young, almost universally troubled or addicted or misunderstood, who chips away at the marble in the quiet solitude without anyone to help him. In other words, Jack Kerouac. In other words, Ernest Hemingway. In other words, David Foster Wallace. Heaven helps us all.
The myth of the solitary writer, which is also the myth of innate talent, is as pernicious as it is insidious, its message, simply, destructively, that writing must be done alone, and that if you can’t do it alone, you are no writer at all. It also, un-coincidentally, bears a suspicious resemblance to the 18th century definition of “human.” – white, wealthy, northwestern, property-owning, not interdependent with a community but rather controlling it. Possibly, this accounts for the unnameable despair known as writer’s block, this outside pressure to produce something all by yourself that will somehow overcome readers and validate one’s existence (I’ve felt that, maybe it’s just me).
The fact is, the truth is, the dirty secret is as follows: Writing is NOT solitary. It is not the sole province of wealthy white men with ennui. It, like any other art – especially its close cousins, painting, music, storytelling – belongs to all of us. And it requires community effort. The kind of mythology that has books emerging fully formed, fully clothed from the head of a powerful (male) head is remarkably similar to the kind of mythology that erases away with the pre-existing archetypes (which, if you want to look closely, is remarkably similar to the creation myths of early capitalism, which have worked hard to erase elders and community organizations (witch burning, anyone?)). But perhaps I’m diverging, the point is:
Writing, though work that must be done alone, is not solitary work.
To prove it, here are 5 literary heroes we all ought to know of but don’t, and one place to practice what Ira Perloff called “this solitary work we CANNOT do alone.”
1. The Editor, Eg: Malcolm Cowley
Haven’t heard of Mr. Cowley? No surprise here. Malcolm Cowley was a poet, literary critic, journalist. He also happened to be an editor. A damned good editor. Among the writers he helped: Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, yes, Jack Kerouac. Other famous editors you might know: Toni Morrison, who said that a good editor “make[s] all the difference … there are editors so rare and so important they are worth searching for, and you always know when you have one.” (Her editor is Bob Gottlieb, in case you’re wondering). The fact that even Jack Kerouac (the archetypal “I just wrote this on the way over here” writer) has an editor, the fact that Toni Morrison (ie, God) has an editor we don’t know about. What does that mean?
2. The Partner(s), Eg: Zelda Fitzgerald
The shadow history of the great solitary writer/artist is often one of a suffering (sometimes, even, literally and literarily exploited) partner. Zelda Fitzgerald; Joan Haverty, Sylvia Plath, every female person within a country mile of Pablo Picasso. At best, it’s a good thing – Zadie Smith asks her husband, Nick Laird, to hide the wi-fi password. The failure to acknowledge this relationship is what makes these relationships so dark, but what would it look like if this work was acknowledged and part of an exchange – you help me write today, I’ll help your work tomorrow?
The fact is that many great writers have someone(s) to offer a dry shoulder, to toast the bread, to put the tea on, sometimes just to push us gently back into our chair.
Even if we aren’t partnered, we do better as writers when someone helps us enforce a space of silence around our work. When someone expects us to get out of bed and do that terrifying work of excavation and demon-slaying. In other words, have you hugged your writing buddy today?
3. The Teacher, Eg: Keith Johnstone
Most great writers have had great teachers, teacher defined as anyone who is able to see us and to hold the environment that allows a person to grow. Plato studied with Socrates, Suzan Lori-Parks studied with James Baldwin, Keith Johnstone helped so many actors and writers recover spontaneity.
My own teachers are so many I can’t even name them all, Marie France Malo, Elizabeth Williamson, Sheri P. Rosenberg (recently lost, never forgotten), Dana Flynn, Nona Caspers, Michelle Carter, Anne Galjour, Matthew Davison… and that’s only people who stood at the front of me in a classroom setting. The full list is endless. Do you remember the first person who saw you as a writer and pushed a book into your hands?
4. The Friend and Colleague.
In 2009, This American Life aired a compilation of all the times a reality TV show contestant said “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win.”
I bring this up sometimes with these rivals of mine, the people who are supposedly competing for the same five awards with me. And we all laugh and order another round. To the myth of competition, I offer the writer friend who is just now live posting from another writer’s award ceremony; another who is currently taking time away from her novel to line-edit another writer’s novel; the one who consistently sends us publishing opportunities, even if they’re submitting too. We are not competing because there is not now, has never been, enough to compete for. We just have to make more.
5. The Limitations of Form.
In this place, honoring the limitations of form (letters, page, image), the limitations of our body (space, time, longevity, ability, exposure). Scarcity of peace: the upstairs neighbor with the squeaky mattress, the struggle outside our windows; Scarcity of time. The friend who drags you away from the process of typing and re-typing that same old sentence and forces you to have brunch in the sun, the baby crying, the ambulance passing, the voice that says “you have 7 minutes. Now, GO!”
(Equally important, but not mentioned here because they come in after a book is published: the publishing house, the printers, the bookstores, the readers, the distributors, the cover artists, the people packing books into boxes and sending them on their way, the agents who sort through the slush piles to look for stories that are ready).
Do you wish you had more of some of the above? The Escapery exists in part to expand and celebrate the community in this so-called solitary work. We have writing adventures, we now offer coaching/ developmental editing, we have monthly newsletters with free writing experiments, we are working to bring you our first ever reading, and we offer a place to write. Adventures are launching right now in San Francisco Mission and Sunset. Come. Write. Support. Write Supported.