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  • Writer's pictureDamon Young

Public writers, private lives

How do writers live?

We're familiar with festival performances or Hollywood tropes. But how do actual authors negotiate money, career, marriage, parenthood and identity?

A little while ago, Ruth Quibell and I spoke to a number of writers from Australia and abroad (chiefly the UK & US) about their daily lives. The result was "Public Writers, Private Lives", a feature for Island 135. You can read the whole essay here. And here's a sample:

The public face of writing is an edited, commercial one. Beyond book signings, blurbs and bullish advances are two stubborn tropes: writers are idiots, and writers are butterflies.

Idiot, from the ancient Greek idiotes, is someone who refuses community; a recluse or exile. A butterfly, while charming, never sits still for long. She flits and tastes, sits then flies – a creature of caprice. This is the author as a hermit or party animal; dying of tuberculosis and ennui in an attic, or playing with bon mots over cocktails. Whatever it is that the artist achieves – and this is often left absurdly ambiguous – this endeavour is otherworldly, and foreign to ordinary labour and polite society. Writing is not, in a word, bourgeois.

There are some good reasons for these tropes. First, the caricature of the mysterious exile or party animal works nicely with the romantic ideal. The artist is liberated, not only from ordinary labour, but from the etiquette of middle class respectability. She is often in touch with ‘higher truths’ invisible to anyone concerned with material concerns like net price, rent and groceries.

Since Plato, artistic reverie has often been put in the same ornate box as love and madness, and this makes sense: the craft of writing can indeed involve something like epiphany or inspiration. Discoveries can be made, seemingly without conscious effort, as if ‘from above’. The author, in other words, seems to avoid dull labour or common sociability: she is more prophet than drudge. This specialness also provides some consolation – at least in the minds of the monied – for the financial insecurity of a writing career.

Second, some very successful modern authors have seemed to live this way, and their aura of hermetic austerity (Orwell) or public pickling (Hemingway, Dylan Thomas) provides tropes for the next generation. Plenty of brilliant writers have suffered madness (Woolf, Plath), chosen solitude (Proust) or both (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein). Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Among the Bohemians (2002) exemplifies this outlook, with its tales of poverty, adultery and filth. Put another way, many great authors provide not only a wealth of aesthetic experiences, but also a stock of identities.

In film or on television, these become (ironically) simple caricatures for mediocre narrative. Need a poor loser to transform, or as a foil for the authentic hero? Make him a failed writer, preferably with something called ‘writer’s block’. Need someone who lives a ‘fabulous’ life of cocktails and cock, without a day job to confuse things? Make her a writer. The idiot and the butterfly keep screenwriters from having to think about other, more complicated animals.

As writers, we want a better-stocked menagerie. We are curious, not only about others’ literary ideals, but also about the strife between these ideals and the reality of professional writing. To this end, we interviewed twenty authors from Australia and abroad, from a columnist in her first year of full-time writing, to a bestselling global author and television personality. What we gleaned was more nuanced, and often more banal, than romantic poverty or champagne soirées – and more compelling for this.

If you want more articles like this, do subscribe to Island here.

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