There’s been a spate of articles about who funds our writing, and the glorious writing life (which always includes publication), that might have awaited if only money had not been the object. Most people fall somewhere between Bauer and what, in the American literary world, is apparently considered the hard-knock life.
I am reminded often of the simple wisdom of the ‘Dear Sugar’ colums of yore (now revived in podcasts by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed), when a woman who grew up with an outdoor toilet and student debt she was sure she would be saddled with until the age of 46, dispensed advice to the young, the old, the weary, and the marvelously misguided. Reading the outpouring of agreement with the idea that somehow we have to have cushy lives, wealthy benefactors, trust-funds, or connections in order to succeed as writers, I am reminded most of all of these words from Column #91 The Big Life
I’m a socialist at heart, but when it comes to the actual, individual way we live our lives, I adhere to an entirely pull-oneself-up-by-one’s-bootstraps creed. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.
I am, like Cheryl, a socialist at heart. Like her, I’ve always loved pretty things, and the occasional pedicure. Like her, I’ve dreamed huge and wide, batting in a dream world where I’m the center, I’m the queen, I’m the winner. There were books written by me, issues of social-justice solved by me, people brought together by me, and they were always there, those fantasies, firing up my heart and soul. When I decided to try and run a 5K (I am no runner), I called myself “The Legend” and pretended right up to the finish line that I was blazing back from past glory. I pretended even when I actually came one before the last, and that last person was walking. There were witnesses, and they were cheering me on with banners that said “The Legend Strikes Again.” I was not embarassed. What was there to be embarassed by? That I didn’t get a medal? That I didn’t win a prize? I was euphoric! I had run the whole way!
Like Cheryl, I grew up without money. The ticket my parents bought their only daughter to the U.S. was one-way, though they fully expected that I would return. How I would return? They didn’t know, neither did I, but neither they nor I were going to squander the opportunity of a lifetime with a full-scholarship to an American college (when all the universities in Sri Lanka were closed, young people were being murdered, and there was a war going on), by dwelling on the what-ifs and the problems that were still somewhere off in the future. They taught me something with that attitude. They taught me what some brilliant publisher put on their give-away tote-bag during BEA 2014: “Let’s carpe the fuck out of this diem!”
I never attended any event where I thought to put myself down. I never stood in a gathering where I felt less than anybody else. I never let the notion that if I asked for something from someone, anyone!, the answer would be no, stop me from asking. What was the point? There were, and are, surely enough jackasses in the world, fools without a modicum of decency who are ready and willing to do that for me – why do it to myself? You don’t show up for a job interview as a legal aide looking like you need someone to take you on as a client, do you? So why show up to anything looking like you were headed elsewhere and just got lost? Why show up for your life acting like you aren’t a writer, you have nothing to say, and someone ought to feel sorry for you?
Yes, there are vast injustices in the world. Yes, connections matter. Yes, there are MFAs that you and I cannot afford, and a system of education that priviledges the priviledged.
But is there only one narrow and burdened path to living a creative life? Doesn’t it seem just a trifle mad that we think financial security is the path to literary success? Have we forgotten Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Ursula K. Le Guin, and yeah, Cheryl Strayed?
Some of the most successful people in this country did not attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. In fact they barely attended college. Andrew Carnegie dropped out of elementary school, Ansel Adams didn’t finish high school, Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t even bother to attend, and Steve Madden kicked college out the window with, probaby, one of his self-designed shoes. Chances are, even if they had jumped through all the academic hoops, they’d still have gone on to succeed in what they took on, because they weren’t relying on “the proper training,” or waiting for someone to give them permission to do what it was inside them to do.
Have all my dreams come true? Hell no! But have I done things that I’ve wanted to do with all my heart, and put my ability to write to the best possible use even when it didn’t involve jacket covers with my name in flowing script and an embossed seal of approval from the powers that be? Damn straight I have. I have a husband whose daily grind lightens my financial load. I don’t take that as an invitation to sit on my arse and wait for the muse to knock on my door. I take it as an invitation to fill up my plate so high I can barely see around it, and give this world and this life that I have, and the people in it, no matter how close or distant, the absolute best of everything that I can possibly give, promise even more, and then kill myself trying. You’ll never hear me whining that I didn’t get this or that grant, or prize, or begrudging the success of some fellow writer. I’ve often “lost” in those big games, but that doesn’t make me a loser. It just makes me someone who is willing to give her all to the game and take it in stride. We’ve all grown up. Let’s move on from days-of-the-week to some real lingerie.