February 2, 2015
The best thing that ever happened to my writing life was breaking my ankle. Painful, yes, but it bought me seven weeks of forced bed rest—kind of like a paid writer’s retreat, except for the part where I had to figure out how to get myself to the bathroom.
I’ve written in the margins of life since I was a college student selling cardigans at Lord & Taylor; a graduate student tutoring kindergarteners on the alphabet and prepping high-school seniors for their SATs; an adjunct with a five-class courseload across two campuses; and a late-twentysomething/early-thirtysomething “in marketing and editorial.” Lunch breaks bled into long nights, and long nights bled into weekends. All the while I was chafed raw: I had to eke out my passion in the hours between helping other people achieve their dreams—or at least get what they wanted.
This prolonged, uninterrupted time out of the office was the silver lining of a catastrophic injury. That room of my own was the broken-springed couch in my parents’ living room. Over the course of those long weeks of the walker and the bedpan and the constant throb of knitting bone, I wrote 5,000 words toward my novel-in-progress—not all of them were good words (Oxycodone isn’t the nectar of lucid prose), but they were my words: not the aggressively inane copy I drafted for the employee newsletter, like vendor changes in the cafeteria (“But no worries, Taco Thursday isn’t going anywhere!”); or the grind of daily blog posts; or, the advertorials, which gave the illusion (at first) of writing an editorial, something of substance, until I had to plug in the call-to-action du jour. Still, those newsletter articles, those blog posts, and those advertorials provided the health insurance I’d needed so badly. Not quite golden handcuffs—more like a blow from brass knuckles: the bruising truth that I would always have to find a way to make my real work—the work that felt, to paraphrase Cheryl Strayed, like the second heart that pumped my power and purpose—work within the confines of the work-a-day world.
The dilemma between thriving and surviving has driven many a tale of the young man (or middle-aged rogue) who wants to tear free from the swaddle of suburbia and run full-tilt toward bohemia. The true artist, we are told, is a Houdini wriggling out of those golden handcuffs: the post-Impressionists who trade gray days as bankers and stockbrokers for the colors of the tropics; the Beats hitch-hiking and taking notes; Thoreau on Walden Pond. The tragic figures, like Frank Wheeler from Revolutionary Road, are the guys who smother their creativity into taglines and never get off that weeknight train into the ’burbs. This story of self-actualization—stepping out of life in the ever-oppressive “real world” to chase something far deeper than a dream, a need—is traditionally told by, and about, male artists.
Of course, there are outliers: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild comes immediately to mind, since her grueling hike along the Pacific Crest Trail with only her love and her grief, her journals and her beloved books was as much about coming into her voice as letting go of her pain. However, in an essay about Wild for Elle, Elissa Strauss interrogates this ideal of opting out to tap into one’s true essence: “I just don't want to give in to the idea that we have to leave everyone and everything before we can find ourselves … I'm looking for a way through, not out.” This way through, and not out, has been uppermost in my mind as I’ve tried to weave time for my own work into the work-a-day that keeps me housed and fed—and as I read, and watch, stories of women writers who’ve bypassed the time clock altogether. Only not like Kerouac, holding his thumb toward the road, or Strayed, sleeping under the stars. More like Donna Reed.
It’s difficult to read the title of Ann Bauer’s recent Salon piece, “‘Sponsored’ By My Husband” and not feel a twinge (okay, a deep stab) of jealousy: The essay, which reflects on Bauer’s journey from a harried single mother spinning the plates of family, day job, and writing, to a life more comfortably focused on her creative work—a life that is subsidized by her husband’s “hefty salary”—is a call for honesty within literary circles: “In my opinion, we do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed … I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.”
As one of those writers who is often living paycheck to paycheck in a full-time job (thanks to Sallie Mae, my handcuffs are more brass than gold); who has given up time with friends and any semblance of a love life (not to mention sleep, and, at times, my health) for those few precious hours where I can blaze away at the keyboard, I can appreciate Bauer’s candor—because it’s easy to seethe with regret, the if-she-can-do-it-why-the-Hell-can’t-I’s. While Bauer acknowledges that, yes, one can write and publish without that safety net of a well-compensated spouse (prior to her marriage, she moved back into her parents’ house so she could finish her first novel, and took an editorial position soon after wrapping it up), it’s just a whole helluva lot harder, some of the responses to her piece have taken a hammer to those nuances and reshaped them into something far more blunt, and damaging.
In a post for the Brevity blog, Allison K. Williams describes tailoring her online dating profile to meet a man with the kind of hefty salary that could support her: “Not paying my own rent is weird. Not having my own residence permit is weird. Letting him hand me money for groceries and taxis is weird. But it’s better than not writing.” Williams creates a false binary between being supported and being a writer—as if there is nothing in between holding out for that hand-out and creating your life’s work. I live in that in between of deadlines and bagged lunches, scrawling dialogue and outlines of scenes on the back of an agenda for a nine a.m. meeting. But it’s better than relying on anyone else for the roof over my head.
Lifestyles like Williams’s (or even Bauer’s) will never be right for me: My father’s status as sole provider made him the Tyrant-in-Chief. My mother had no money of her own—and no will to scrape and scrounge in the kinds of blue- or pink-collar jobs that would’ve wrung her out, but at least given her, and me, a baseline independence. Physical, if not financial, safety: a room of our own, however small, that came with a locked door. This is the fracture I write to heal; my words are the cells that sweep the shattered bits away and weave a mesh of something stronger. I will never be beholden to any man, however loving and supportive he may be. Having a husband as a patron is just as intangible as lighting out for the coast with only moxie and a moleskin. I don’t have a way out; I only have a way through.
We need more stories of women artists finding their way through—balancing their hearts’ desires with mouths to feed; struggling between financial independence and artistic autonomy—depicted more openly, and more frequently. Marrying well, or leaving life behind altogether, cannot be the only answer. One of the most compelling, if, at times, profoundly frustrating, storylines on the show Girls has been Hannah Horvath’s sometimes sore-footed, sometimes sure-footed path toward becoming “a voice of her generation.” Hannah’s arc as a young woman who cares deeply about her art, and who refuses to accept the condescension of anyone who tells her that mining her own life for material makes her work frothier, less significant, is deeply affirming. Yet the show has been oblique about how, exactly, she has supported herself (in no way does a few shifts at a coffee shop pay for the utilities in that swank Williamsburg apartment, let alone the rent). Season three—which I watched, coincidentally, with my broken ankle propped on an ottoman, a bag of frozen peas on my cast—seemed as if it might show Hannah taking on a day job, in corporate marketing, no less. Finally, I’d see my reality writ large on the small screen.
I ended up chucking that bag of peas at the TV. At first, the stability of the paycheck, and the cache of having a “grown up” job, seduces Hannah. She frets openly about having the energy to write, falls asleep at her laptop. Her fears are, of course, well founded, as they are in anyone who can’t work all day, every day, at her passion. But the show presents having the day job as an unequivocal creativity-killer: Hannah’s co-workers are the ghosts of Christmas future, once-aspiring poets and novelists now complacent, lulled into the time suck of churning out witty copy for products that will make other people very wealthy. When Hannah’s partner, Adam, is cast in a Broadway play, she can’t help but compare her days in the cubicle farm with his days in rehearsal, refining his craft, and she can’t help but feel trapped. She quits that day job in what should be a grand fuck-the-man moment of catharsis—but, for me, that was the moment the peas hit the screen.
This was facile, a buy-in to that binary way of thinking: You’re either a true artist, or else you’re rotting at a cubicle, remembering the days you coulda been a contender. I’d hoped the show would at least consider some of the ramifications of Hannah’s decision (especially since she was rapidly coming upon the age when she’d be booted off her parents’ health insurance); instead, a deus ex machina arrives in acceptance to the University of Iowa’s legendary writers workshop. Never mind that there is a life after an MFA: a life that resets at that nuclear zero of bills to pay, a constant hustle for freelance jobs, teaching jobs, desk jobs.
Once my bone was whole again, I was back to that hustle. I stood on the tilt board at physical therapy, and on the tilt board of my everyday life—balancing catch-up at the office with physical recovery; shaping those 5,000 words into something more sober and coherent, and finishing the first draft of my first novel. Almost a year after my injury, and two months into a new, better-paying day job, I finished that first draft. When I finished, I went to the floor, pressed my forehead against a carpet choked with dog hair (because I’d put finally fucking finishing well ahead of cleaning that week), and wept with exhaustion and relief.
I don’t mean to sound like I walked uphill, barefoot in the snow—both ways!— to follow my calling. But there are so many women who’ve forged a way through the power of will: even if that way takes years, even if that way is knit around the needs of our children and our bosses; even if our apartments need dusting and lunch comes out of a vending machine; even if we’re always feeling like there’s something we’ve missed, someone we’ve disappointed. And ironically, in its current, Iowa-set season, Girls is acknowledging this: With full funding and nothing but free time, Hannah finds herself in an ideal position—and yet, she isn’t writing. The white-knuckled nerve to create—because not doing so is too painful—separates the very hard from the nigh impossible; it isn’t a lightning strike that catches you on a boxcar hurtling toward parts unknown, or in the heart of the forest; it isn’t a blessing from on high that kisses you on the forehead after you kiss your partner goodbye and send him out to the office. It is the electricity powering that second heart inside our chests; it pumps the blood of stories yet to be told.
Photo of Joan Didion by Jill Krementz, 1972