One of the members of our Facebook page wrote me a private email yesterday, in which she raised some hard-hitting and very relevant points. “Most people,” she wrote, “DO NOT HAVE the luxury of a lifestyle that allows free days to sit and think and accept that nothing got done or even to sit all day and write. People, including those that love writing, need to eat. How do you get to the point where you can sit all day and think/write/not work at a job you hate and still have a house and food and heat in winter?”
I wish I could answer that last question, but I can’t, because although I am very, very privileged among academics, in that I have a reduced teaching schedule and have been given more time off to write than most, I still have my “day job” as an academic—I can’t afford to give it up, even though I’m a couple of months away from the age when people used to retire—and envy those writers who make enough money at their writing (or have inherited family fortunes) so that they can actually write full-time. Envy? No, that’s too weak a word. I seethe with resentment, fury, self-pity! I say ugly things about those writers to my husband in the mornings, when my emotions are usually least repressed. Some days, I just break down and cry because after so many years, I’m still struggling to “fit” my writing into my life. This semester, I’ve pushed my courses until the spring, so I can actually finish this book that I’ve been working on for years in between preparing classes, grading papers, graduate student defenses, departmental meetings. And even so, in this relatively unencumbered time, I feel the hot breath of other obligations—to my grad students, to my newly formed department, to my colleagues—on my neck.
So: Despite what I wrote about in my last journal “ripeness” is NOT “all.” For most of us, including me, finding the time and energy to write is a huge, practical problem. Unfortunately, it’s not one that I have solved for myself, let alone feel I can advise anyone else on. You struggle with whatever your situation is. If you are lucky, as I have been, it gets better as you get older. But as privileged as I am in my present position, I’m not a full-time writer. I rail against it, I resent it, and I fantasize (I’m sure unrealistically) about the wonderful lives the full-time writers lead. (Beach houses figure prominently.) If hundreds of thousands of people buy my Anne Boleyn book, maybe I’ll be able to be one of them. Buy my book! Send this aging child to camp!
I want to say something else in this entry. I’m very grateful to the person who wrote that email. If she hadn’t, I might not have thought to clarify my own situation, leaving many of you hating me the way I hate the actual full-time writers! JK aside, the practical issues she raises are very real, and although I can’t solve them, we can still discuss them here, and share our struggles with each other. I may have some life-experience that can help, and so might others.
She also asked how much I welcome challenges to what I write in this blog. The answer to that is: VERY MUCH. Please challenge me! I don’t like writing or speaking in a vacuum; I like conversation. It’s the way all my books have gotten written, the way I conduct all my classes, the way I live my life. I grew up in a house in which no one got away with anything without someone else raising an objection or an argument. And, as a fairly iconoclastic thinker (in the context of academia, anyway), I’ve gotten much more than my fair share of both helpful criticisms and stinging attacks, published and verbal. Sometimes, they have initially hurt or inflamed me; but always—whether they were accurate or not—they gave me the opportunity to clarify and improve my ideas.
We often forget that every form of communication, whether written or spoken, is selection. For everything we say or write there are thousands of other things we don’t say. It seems so obviously true as to not be worth belaboring here. But the fact is that it’s the one thing that critics most often forget (“Hey, you didn’t write the article I wanted you to write! You wrote the one you wanted to! How dare you!”), and it’s the one thing that we have to learn—I mean really learn, not just lip service learn—about our own work. It will always be radically incomplete. It will always be misunderstood. It will never say what everyone else wants it to say, what they think is important. It will never say everything that you wanted it to say. Sometimes, you will even neglect to say the most important thing you want to say.
In theory, it seems self-evident. But in practice, it’s something that comes only with the hard learning of sharing your ideas and having others respond. That’s one of the main reasons why putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, is scary; it puts you out there, where not only what you said but what you didn’t say will be there for all to see. You never know how something “plays” until someone responds, and often you find out that what’s been heard is very different than you intended. That, by the way, is a lesson for writing, too: learning to respond to criticism—all criticism: good, bad, wrong-headed or on the money—as a gift. But that’s for another entry.