The other night I was having drinks with a couple of friends and I happened to mention a woman I had once been very good friends with but who had moved away. I was explaining that I wished so much we were still in touch but that she was just a terrible correspondent. One of my friends nodded knowingly and said to our other friend, Oh yeah, of course she’s a terrible correspondent. She’s a writer! And they both laughed. And I looked at them completely baffled. Writers are known for being terrible correspondents? That’s all they fucking do! is what I didn’t say but certainly thought. What writer isn’t always writing? But maybe I was only talking about myself.
Which reminded me of something I’d seen not long ago. Maybe you’ve seen it too. A picture of little girls in a ballet class lined up. All but one of the little girls are trying to do whatever ballet pose they’re supposed to be doing, but one of the girls all the way to the right is just hanging by her knees on the barre upside down. In many versions of this photo I’ve seen, the caption is “Be the girl on the right.” But in one version I saw the girls were all labeled. The girls trying to do the ballet pose were labeled “doctor,” “lawyer,” “teacher,” etc. And the girl hanging upside down, so clearly doing her own thing, was labeled “writer.”
What on earth do people think writers do?
Is there some kind of romanticized version of writers as people who just (perhaps metaphorically) (perhaps not?) hang upside down all the time, thus demonstrating how they flout the rules of society? Your hopelessly scattered friends who can never get anywhere on time but who just constantly churn out brilliant stories and poems and essays, as they pace around in cheap hotel rooms, sipping bourbon, and heroically deconstructing capitalism on their actual ancient typewriters? Are writers artists? Are artists glamorous and forgetful? Where are these notions coming from?
First of all, I have known plenty of creative doctors and lawyers and such. In fact, pretty much all problem solvers are creative, right? I have also known writers who get up early each day and go to their office jobs, meet their friends on time, never drink bourbon, and regularly correspond with people. Writing can simply be what you do, just like anything else. You can actually be great at it, but you can also treat it like a regular job. Years ago I remember hearing the author Jim Shepard saying that he basically writes from 9-5 and only on weekdays. Why not?
There are some writers that do hang themselves upside down by their knees, but I don’t know that they’re the rule. Most writers that I know are simply watchers. They just pay more attention to things. Maybe they do this glamorously, maybe they even do it rebelliously, but most times they are just boringly standing on line with everyone else. You might actually be standing in line in Rite Aid behind a writer who buys generic mouthwash just like you!
Lately I haven’t written much at all, except that since I’m always writing, I’ve written tons of long emails and notes and lists, and in some way or another gotten my thoughts down. I have, however, been reading lots of really wonderful books which I may write about at a later date. But I haven’t had any bourbon or been to any cheap hotel rooms. I can’t stand actual typewriters, due to my passionate love for the backspace key. I was the kid who couldn’t get those ballet steps right no matter how hard she tried. But I did try. I do try. Every single day.