Sunday, December 23, 2012

My writing life

Lately I've been asking myself a question that ends up being more complicated than it sounds: if I knew at the beginning of my writing career certain realities that I understand now near the end of it, would I have become a writer? Let me make clear that this question is not wrapped in regrets. I'm proud of my literary archive. The question comes from another direction.

Certain things are clear to me in retrospect. One is that I seldom made decisions in the best interests of "my literary career." That's because I never thought of what I was doing in these terms. Writing wasn't a career. It was a calling. It never occurred to me to do things in the "best interests" of a career, and so I didn't. In particular, two decisions slammed shut doors that had just been opened to me.

  • Going from fiction to playwriting, for example. When I dropped out of grad school "to become a writer," I had relatively early success and validation. I was selling journalism and publishing regularly in literary magazines, both in less than a year. If this hadn't happened, if I'd gone a considerable time without validation, would I have stuck with it? Hard to say. But I was encouraged early, and at the national level. When I returned to grad school, I actually was publishing literary short fiction more often in more prestigious places than my teachers were. But I also was having a hell of a time with my thesis, a novel. I even had agents, who had written me and not the other way around, waiting for it. But it was a nut I didn't seem able to crack. This is why the transition to playwriting happened and was relatively easy. Playwriting played to my strengths -- character, dialogue, storytelling -- and ignored my weakness -- descriptive prose. So just when I was getting a break in literary fiction, most significantly getting a Roll of Honor citation in Best American Short Stories in 3 of 4 consecutive years in the early 1970s, I abandoned fiction.
  • Going from traditional theater to hyperdrama. The same thing happened a decade later. My plays were getting noticed. I had an agent in NY who was excited about my work. The producing tycoon Harold Prince had become a fan of my work. Things were looking great -- until I received a commission to write a new kind of play and became totally obsessed with hyperdrama. I abandoned traditional theater.
I don't regret these choices. But clearly they were made at a time that reduced "traditional" opportunities that were becoming available to me. I was following my calling, not my career.

No, these decisions are not the basis of my question today. The basis is this: I had no idea how much it tales out of one's body and soul to write seriously. It's like running one existential marathon after another. Looking back, I'm amazed I survived -- or at least survived as long as I have. The fat lady hasn't sung yet.

If I knew the price, maybe I'd have done something easier. Because one also has to ask, okay, this is the price, was it worth it? I used to think the literary culture mattered more and was healthier than I believe it is today. I used to think the calling was more than it's own reward, that it paid dividends to others. I'm not so sure. Maybe the literary life is a sophisticated form of existential masturbation.

Well, even self-abuse can be fun, and I've had a hell of good time, no doubt about it, meeting a number of great people along the way. But maybe if I hadn't had early validation and encouragement, maybe if I'd become a math teacher, maybe I wouldn't feel like I just finished running a marathon.

I'll never know. 

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