“He became a poet the way other men become monks: as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence.” – Elizabeth Gilbert on the poet Jack Gilbert, in Big Magic
After I finished my undergrad degree many years ago I wrote for a small newspaper in the mountains of Colorado. It paid $19,000 a year and offered no benefits, so I lived in my parents’ basement for a year and waited tables on the weekends. Most nights after dinner I went to the local coffee shop and wrote pages and pages in my notebook. Sometimes I was journaling, sometimes I was responding to the prompts in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, sometimes I just needed an excuse to feed my secret addiction at the time—smoking cigarettes. But all of the time I was feeding my inner urging. I never had thoughts of sending any of those pages out for publication, or even showing them to anyone, ever. I was writing for the sake of writing. Because doing so fed my soul. Because it felt holy.
Things couldn’t feel more unholy now. I finished my graduate degree a couple of months ago and hit the ground running—trying to implement everything I learned about how to become a successful writer. I wrote a CV and have been networking with other writers. I’m researching publishers and agents, using Twitter, and updating my website regularly. I’m refining my elevator pitch and brainstorming a marketing plan for my book. I’m submitting my essays to literary journals. I’m revising essays and trying to write new pieces. But something is missing.
I’ve lost my true north—the reason I started writing in the first place. It wasn’t because I want to be rich and famous (well, I wouldn’t mind being rich, but there are easier ways to get there than writing) or because I envision having thousands of Twitter followers. I started writing because I had to, because it was as natural to me as running, or math, or painting is to someone else. It is my dominant mode of expression.
The world I am now part of emphasizes getting published and building a literary career. And it has to. Ours is a society that doesn’t value the arts, and therefore is unwilling to pay writers for their work. There is no job listing posted anywhere for “author.” If we want to be read, we must hustle for it—we have to be marketers and sales people and event planners. Which I knew when I made the decision to take this path. So I’m not whining or complaining that being a writer is hard work. But there is a disconnect, because all of this runs counter to the purpose and intention of art.
I am no longer in some kind of dance with inspiration, or playing with magic. The push to build an author platform and climb the ladder of the literary world has made me feel no different than a sweatshirt, or a pickup truck, or a box of cereal. I have become a product to be consumed by our consumerist culture. I am a brand now, and I need someone to buy me. Thousands of someones. Millions of someones. Where’s the art in that?
Jack Kerouac, one of my inspirations for writing, wrote Belief and Technique for Modern Prose in 1959. The first instruction on his list is, “Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy,” not, “Post to Twitter three times daily and blog at least weekly.” Number eight is, “Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind,” not “Go to readings and talk to the organizers about becoming a reader at a future series.” Number 18 is, “Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea,” not “Join Medium so that you can get more exposure.”
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes of the unknown poet Jack Gilbert. He was unknown because “he never much cared about being known.” He won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1962 and was nominated for the Pulitzer. But instead of following that path he moved to Europe, where he spent most of the next twenty years living on a mountaintop in Greece, where he “contemplated the eternal mysteries, watched the light change, and wrote his poems in private.” Late in life he returned to America and taught poetry. His students say “he didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry…but why: because of delight…He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of the world.”
Which is the reason I started writing in the first place. It was my joy, my comfort, my connection, my prayer, my means of understanding anything. It was my fight against everything that wanted to deaden me. Except now, it too is starting to deaden me.
I’m certain I’m not the first artist to come upon this struggle. The literary world is full of writers who would prefer to spend their lives holed up in a room somewhere with a coffeepot and a notebook rather than on book tour or slaving away at a day job. The challenge now seems to be how to find a balance between the two worlds—the external and the internal. Or I can be like Gilbert, and walk away from all of it, which, I admit, is sometimes appealing. What could be so terrible about a life in which I write purely for pleasure? Really, shouldn’t that be the only reason I write?
Elizabeth Gilbert writes of Jack Gilbert that he “seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel.” I think Kerouac was similar. He too always seemed to be in on some secret the rest of the world wasn’t aware of. He was always in conversation with the divine. I used to be this way too.
I know these are the breaks—if I ever want to be a full-time writer I have to play along. Which, okay, fine. But it’s becoming clear that my post-MFA education is in some sense going back to where I began—with journaling, with reading and rereading Kerouac, with practicing via Natalie Goldberg’s and Anne Lamott’s guidance. It’s returning to coffee shops—sans laptop—and letting the words flow from my body directly onto the page. It’s taking long walks—sans cigarettes (dammit)—and reconnecting with that spark that started me down this path in the first place.
All I’ve ever wanted is to spend my days in conversation with whatever this thing is that sends me back to the page again and again. I want to record and sift and reflect and try to make sense out of living. Which is what I need to remember the next time someone tells me I’ll never get my book published without 5,000 Twitter followers and a ready-to-be-executed, self-made marketing plan.
Number ten on Kerouac’s list is, “Write in recollection and amazement for yourself,” which might be the best advice ever. Everything else feels like noise.