Freelancing, “Office Occupations” and the Writing Life

Writing for the press cannot be recommended as a permanent resource to anyone qualified to accomplish anything in the higher departments of literature or thought: not only on account of the uncertainty of this means of livelihood, especially if the writer has a conscience, and will not consent to serve any opinions except his own; but also because the writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best. Books destined to form future thinkers take too much time to write, and when written come, in general, too slowly into notice and repute, to be relied on for subsistence. Those who have to support themselves by their pen must depend on literary drudgery, or at best on writings addressed to the multitude; and can employ in the pursuits of their own choice, only such time as they can spare from those of necessity; which is generally less than the leisure allowed by office occupations, while the effect on the mind is far more enervating and fatiguing. For my own part I have, through life, found office duties an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously with them. They were sufficiently intellectual not to be a distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought, or to the labour of careful literary composition.

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill – courtesy of Alan Jacobs’ Pinboard. Some alternative titles for this post, (for me at least): “Be careful what you wish for,” “Get on with it already,” and “But, maybe you’re simply delusional.”

Saul Bellow on writing and “Experience”

Now I don’t want to make jokes on serious matters, and it is serious when people feel that they must be able to demonstrate that reality has happened to them, certified and approved reality in the form of Experience. Have they met life, not fled it? That’s fine. Very good. But Experience in this aspect is something resembling a merit badge; something like a commodity. Let us admit it, Experience with a capital E is something of a writer’s commodity …

Well now, does it harm writers to teach in universities? I am not sure the question is a real one. It is to some extent a postural question. It assumes that by doing the right things we get the desired results. Those right things are conventional. Leave your hometown; don’t leave your hometown; don’t write for the movies; travel; don’t be a sissy; don’t tie yourself down – and you will turn out fine. But the wind of the spirit is capricious … It bloweth where it listeth. And in the end a correct posture can give you nothing more than the satisfaction that comes of fidelity to good form.

It is not easy to find the right way. You must learn to govern yourself, you must learn autonomy, you must manage your freedom or drown in it. You may strain the will after Experience because you need it for your books. Or you may perish under the heavy weight of Culture. You may make a fool of yourself anywhere. You may find illumination anywhere – in the gutter, in the college, in the corporation, in a submarine, in the library. No one man holds a patent on it. No man knows what it is likely to tell him to do. For this reason universities and corporations may find the illuminable type unreliable from a personnel point of view. A writer may do better in the anxiety of the gutter; he may do better in the heavy security of the college. Despite the purity of your posture he may do well. It’s up to the spirit, altogether, and the spirit prints no timetable.

Saul Bellow, “The University as Villain” in There is Simply Too Much to Think About

Writing Advice

I’m not going to discuss writing as self-expression, as therapy, or as a spiritual adventure. It can be these things, but first of all—and in the end, too—it is an art, a craft, a making. And that is the joy of it. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.

Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

Why do writers read craft books? Rather, why do I (an amateur, a “writer” only in an aspirational sense) read craft books? I read two last year: Ursula Le Guin’s helpful Steering the Craft and Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (along with any number of articles and interviews online – David Mitchell’s Advice to a Young Writer was a recent favorite). The thing is, once you’ve read more than two or three of these sorts of things you find that all the craft books and “how to become a better writer” articles typically address one or more of three basic questions, and all provide more or less the same answers:

Q: How do I become a writer?
A: By reading and writing, mostly.

Q: How do I become a better writer?
A: By reading and writing better (and here are some exercises and/or reading suggestions that might help with that).

Q: How do I become a real writer? (i.e. a published, successful, famous, wealthy etc. etc.)?
A: No idea, but here are some anecdotes from my life or the lives of writers from the past, YMMV (and, by the way, getting published is not that important).

That’s it really. You can read a bunch of them, and they all say something along those lines, at least the decent ones. There’s plenty of snake oil seven-easy-steps-to-bestsellerdom stuff out there, along with ego-stroking books about nurturing the unique flower of your creative genius etc. but I don’t really count those as craft books. They’re self-help books: books more about the fantasy of being a “writer” (which, according to the movies, includes a full time career writing novels, a loft in New York, and a relationship with a beautiful woman that starts off on the wrong foot due to a hilarious misunderstanding but ends in true love) than the actual nuts and bolts of writing.

So, if the questions and answers are pretty much the same, why do I keep reading them?

1. Sometimes I need a little self-help and as Austin Kleon puts it:

every book is self-help

Despite my sneering dismissal of some examples of the genre the reality is that all writing advice is a form of self-help, and everyone needs a little help once in a while. I get stuck and sometimes breaking problems down and asking some diagnostic questions about what it is exactly I’m doing with my life writing can be useful and offer perspective. Sometimes a tip or exercise can help knock me out of a creative rut or see things from a new angle. I suppose my issue is that some of the books that are more focused on “finding your inner creative” probably just aren’t all that helpful in actually creating things (at least not for me).

2. It’s easier to read about writing than to write.

Rather than sit down and face the challenge of a blank page it is easier to read about someone who has already conquered their own blank page and still feel like you’re doing something that’s more virtuous than scrolling through your Facebook feed. I mean reading about writing is at least related to writing, right? It’s easier to prepare to write, to think about writing, than to actually just get on with the work of putting one word after the other.

3. Writers/readers are interested in writing/reading.

I am, as Francis Spufford puts it in his The Child that Books Built, a reading addict. Like any addict, I’m always hunting for new ways to get my fix and I suspect many writing projects are just that, attempts to get the high of reading in a different way. Anyone who has tried to lay claim to the role of “writer” usually has some sort of story about how they read something once that prompted them to say: “I want to try and do that” (tell the story of a lost Roman legion, or the discovery of Narnia, or the greatest detective who ever lived, or whatever). It is genuinely mysterious how marks on paper can make people and worlds come to life or how you can know someone who has never existed except in the pages of a book. The best craft books aren’t just flat how-to manuals; the best ones keep the mystery in sight while exploring the how and what and why of the process.

4. They provide a sense of camaraderie.

Writing is a lonely business, necessarily so, and craft books and writing advice make me feel like I’m not alone in the struggle to find the right word or discern a path forward through a foggy section of a plot. Sometimes it’s helpful to know that the literary greats write the same way as anyone else, one word after the other, struggling with the difficulties of making something up from nothing. Often, some of the best writing advice isn’t advice at all, just a recognition of shared insecurity and frustration (and joy, there really is joy the odd time things work out and some glimmer of authorial intention is reflected back from the page).

5. I want a silver bullet.

And at last: the truth. I hope that the next craft book will hold the secret to solving my life writing difficulties. I want the magic item that will slay the werewolf of self-doubt that scrabbles at the back of my mind, threatening to burst out and reveal me as a failure and a fraud. If I use these special (expensive) notebooks, with that fancy index card system and this (expensive) 19th century fountain pen and I get that (really expensive) desk and that (understated, but yeah, expensive) coffee brewing device and (so on) maybe I can dodge the simple reality that I just need to get the words down on paper, one after the other (bird by bird by bird…).