Writing and Moaning
Alan Cheuse | December 2003
All writers have pet peeves. My biggest annoyance of the past few years was gifted medical students who write wonderful novels on the side. Such as Harvard graduate Daniel Mason, currently studying medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. Mason published his first novel, a lovely work of fiction called The Piano Tuner, a year ago this autumn.
I began reading it as I do all novels, filled with great hope, and found my expectations mostly rewarded because of its gracious story, doubly rooted in British history and British fiction. Mason's main character, a London piano tuner named Edgar Drake, sets out on a journey to British-occupied Burma in the autumn of 1886, called on by the British War Office to tune the French-made piano of a despised but much respected army surgeon, Doctor Anthony Carroll, who has sewn together a peace treaty for the usually warring Shan states of eastern Burma.
From London to India to Burma and once there from Rangoon upriver to Mandalay and then overland to the mountain village of Mae Lwin on the Salween River, the piano tuner's trip reminds us of the metaphoric journey to the heart of darkness in Conrad's great novella of the same name. Except that Mason, a young American writer, turns darkness inside out and makes a quest plot that dazzles the reader with light rather than murkiness and shadows. Not the least of which are his land- and ocean-scapes and street scenes, all of which emanate the spark and illumination of wonder rather than despair.
Edgar Drake the piano tuner meets an end he never expected when he first set out on his journey and the novel itself offers many unexpected pleasures in the unfolding of the story and arising also from some of its metaphors about life and work. As in a wonderful little set-piece about Edgar tuning the French piano in the jungle village that concludes with his recollections of what his wife back in London thought about his work.
It was his habit, often to Katherine's chagrin, that while at work he became completely absorbed in tuning. Do you see anything when you are working? she had asked soon after they were married, leaning over the side of the piano. See what? he had answered. You know, see anything, the piano, the strings, me. Of course I see you, and he took her hand and kissed it. Edgar, please! Please! I'm asking how you work, I am being serious. Do you see anything while you work? How couldn't I? Why? It just seems that you disappear, into a different place, maybe a world of notes. Edgar laughed, What a strange world that would be, dear. And he leaned forward and kissed her again. But in truth, he did understand what she was trying to ask. He worked with his eyes open, but when he finished, when he thought back on the day, he could never remember a single visible image, only what he had heard, a landscape marked by tone and timbre, intervals, vibrating.1
As is often the case in fiction about artists of various sorts, the writer substitutes an approximate art or craft—here it's piano tuning—to give readers an idea of what the writing state is like. "It just seems that you disappear, into a different place." And as is often the case in the work of a young writer, the reader—this happens even to readers who are writers when the work is good enough—gets a sense of the zen-like pleasure of disappearing into air, into another place, into another zone, that often comes with working at what we do, remarked by us, most often, by our recognition at how much time passes without us noticing it.
That joy, that pleasure, comes early in the career, paralleling, perhaps, the exhilaration that the young athlete feels upon mastering the fundamentals of the game. Or the exhilaration that young lovers feel when first they consummate their affection, and consummate it and consummate and consummate. Look to the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for an example of first exhilaration. Alone in a room in New Orleans early in his career he decides that he wants to buy Zelda a $600 bracelet. So he sits down at his typewriter and composes a story called "The Camel's Back," sends it to the Saturday Evening Post—they send back a check for about that amount, and he purchases the jewelry and gives the gift to Zelda. That's exhilaration in fiction writing! The composition of This Side of Paradise gives us the same impression, that it was created with youthful, almost child-like zest and energy.
And after that? Comes mastery—the harnessing of that energy in supreme and sublime fashion. Look at Fitzgerald again. He sends a draft of The Great Gatsby to Maxwell Perkins, Perkins sends him a few notes, and he revises, and we've all read what he came up with.
But the struggle to maintain time, strength, cash, and patience—the four necessities for any writer, if you recall Ishmael's outcry for them in Moby Dick—takes a toll. From mastery, Fitzgerald passes into a period of difficulties, and the work certainly reflects this. Cash runs low, Zelda sinks further and further into mental distress, he writes for the movies, and his fiction turns darker and darker even within the parameters of a single novel. Look at the difference between the lovely painterly opening of Tender Is the Night and the scenes of madness that come later in the book. The unevenness of the writer's life is reflected in his work, always a dangerous problem to be on guard for.
"The novelist is the shambles that follows the work around"—I love that remark of William Gaddis's. And in the case of the late life of Fitzgerald, nothing could be more apt. His body was deteriorating, and his mastery, squandered on screen writing and charming but superficial magazine work, becomes intermittent. The narrative voice of The Last Tycoon, that of Cecelia Brady, the clear-eyed ingenue from Bennington College, suggests the old high art. "Though I haven't ever been on the screen," she says to open the novel, "I was brought up in pictures. Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party—or so I was told. I put this down only to indicate that even before the age of reason I was in a position to watch the wheels go round."
But the book sputters out in a confusion of unresolved possibilities—"Cecelia does not tell the story though I write it as if she does whenever I can get the effect of looking out," Fitzgerald says in one of the working notes preserved along with the unfinished manuscript of the novel—and the darkness, or the blankness of the page, brought about by Fitzgerald's untimely death. In the 20th century, Fitzgerald makes a fine picture of Wordsworth's portrait of the poet-artist, beginning in joy and ending in a sort of madness.
Though he didn't complain all that much about the work, only about life and Zelda and money, or the lack of some. He didn't moan, though he had a lot to bemoan. The pattern made by his life, from early exuberance through mastery to decline, is one that I want to look at in relation to our own lives and work. Because it seems to me that most new writers—call them young, if you like—look for something to which they might compare themselves, and these days usually never get past the few seemingly fortunate souls among their contemporaries, who always seem to be ecstatic and covered with money and accolades. I want to suggest that this is a pollyanish way of looking at what we do, at our trade, and a foolish way too, because it can only lead to feelings of failure by comparison.
I know it may sound odd at first to hear someone say compare yourself to Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Willa Cather rather than Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt or Bret Ellis. But if I correctly read the rhythm of resurgence and renewal in western fiction—making the newest contributors, in fact, the current generation of writers in any generation, will be a mixed lot of fish and oysters, some bearing pearls, some not. So it's foolish—though exhilarating—to bet on any one of them when with the clear hindsight that art allows us we can look back to the masters of the early eras who outlasted all of their contemporaries. And outlasting usually, if not always, means better. So why not use better as a standard and choose the flavor of the epoch, rather than the flavor of the month?
The fact is we can't tell much about our contemporaries except that they are like us in their triumphs and in their difficulties. We can see a bit more about the oldest living generation in our midst—Mailer, Styron, Bellow. But just how much can any writer see in the career, thus far, of, say, Jay McInerny, except that after initial exhiliration he appears to be limping along, toward what end we can't yet say? And how much should a writer like, say, Matt Klam, read into the career thus far of, say, Jonathan Franzen? Or Z.Z. Packer and Ann Beattie? At this stage in the careers of the young and the exhilarated, judgement resembles something like racetrack handicapping—you just go along figuring things out from race to race.
The triumphs of our contemporaries and those just a bit older seem limited compared to those who have come at least two generations before and whose lives, in the best of cases, demonstrate for us the complete arc of an artist at work, struggling, and achieving a certain mastery, before the end comes. Which is why I was turning our eyes to Fitzgerald. When it comes to early exhilaration you can't beat this life. After opening the letter notifying him of the publication of his first short story, he runs out of his house into the streets of St. Paul, stopping traffic to tell people the news. And after the exhilaration of first acceptance comes the exhilaration of cashing your first check and then the exhilaration of seeing your first words in print or knowing they are about to appear.
Although, nerves and anxiety often dampen some of the enthusiasm. As with Hemingway, for example, starting out at the Toronto newspaper and then the Kansas City Star before heading for Paris and the apprenticeship from which we all have learned so much. Gertrude Stein observed him in these early years, and wrote about it in the voice of her companion Alice B. Toklas.
He was an extraordinarily good-looking young man, twenty-three years old, rather foreign-looking, with passionately interested, rather than interesting eyes. He and Gertrude Stein used to walk together and talk together a great deal. One day, he came to the house about ten o'clock in the morning and he stayed, he stayed for lunch, he stayed all afternoon, he stayed for dinner and he stayed until about ten o'clock at night and then all of a sudden he announced that his wife was enceinte and then with great bitterness, and I am too young to be a father. We consoled him as best we could and sent him on his way. Hemingway said that he had made up his mind. They would go back to America and he would work hard for a year and with what he would earn and what they had they would settle down and he would give up newspaper work and make himself a writer. They went away and within the prescribed year they came back with a new born baby. Newspaper work was over.2
So exhiliration shades quite early into doubts, questions, and torment. As when Willa Cather went from the campus newspaper at Nebraska to a magazine job in Pittsburgh, where she published regularly and lived a surreptitious life, in love with the daughter of the magazine publisher but unable to express it in public.
Or as it was in the early writing life of Theodore Dreiser, working for small-town Midwestern newspapers, until the publication of Sister Carrie, his first novel. Doubleday contracted for it. Mrs. Doubleday, when she heard about the book from one of the editors at the publishing house, told her husband she didn't want him to bring the book out. As she heard it described, Dreiser's novel sounded much too salacious for her turn of the century New York sensibility. But Mr. Doubleday said that he had made a contract and he would honor it. He did, by printing 600 copies only. When Dreiser first heard the news, he spent the night sitting in a chair in front of the window of his rented room on the second floor of a house in Brooklyn, moaning and turning around and around and around. All night. And the next morning he took a job as a brakeman on the New York railroad.
In the case of Dreiser, writing itself wasn't much to moan about. Trained as a newspaper man, he thought nothing about turning out reams and reams of copy. And he translated this ability into his fiction writing, throwing off one book after another without much groaning and complaining. When, for example, he gave the manuscript of An American Tragedy to the publisher B.W. Huebsch and got a telephone call back from the man saying that he wanted to publish the book but that a 50,000 word chunk in the middle of the novel had to go, Dreiser replied, "What's fifty thousand words between friends?"
As the events surrounding the publication of Sister Carrie suggest, it was the business of writing, not the act of writing, that could, and did, produce great torment. In this regard, Dreiser had some important American ancestors. Hawthorne, forlorn at the figures of his book sales, complained in a letter about those "scribbling New England women" whose books outsold his own by far. His friend Melville, whose South Seas romance-adventure novels Typee and Omoo were bestsellers in their day, turned his own career into a shipwreck by publishing his masterpiece Moby Dick. The book sank soon after it appeared and took Melville's reputation with it, down down down into the deeps of literary obscurity so that it wasn't until some 20 years after his death—with the discovery of the manuscript of Billy Budd by one of his grandchildren in an attic repository—that his reputation began to tend upwards again.
Melville suffered in his later years, but stoically, keeping his job at the customs house at the New York docks and focusing his attention on his narrative poem "Clarel." And the composition of Billy Budd. I don't know of any American writer as great as he was who suffered so much obscurity for so long in his own life-time. He was in his grave before Henry James suggested that it was better for a writer to be taken up in middle-age rather than in youth because then at least when he was dropped by a fickle public he had a life to go back to. So he couldn't take that piece of advice from the master, smarting from his rejection by the New York stage. But he lived it.
As if the torments of work, and the business weren't enough, there is always the torment that life may bring, the illness, family troubles, and worse. Guy de Maupassant, for many of us the father of the modern short story, wrote well for a relatively short period of time and then, as Isaac Babel describes so vividly in his little masterpiece of a story named after him, the French writer sank into a madness devoutly to be avoided, if you can. Babel's narrator, a dece St. Petersburg hack, tells us of the return home after a drunken rendezvous with a nouveau riche Jewish woman with a taste for literature whom he has been assisting in her translations of de Maupassant, when he picks up a biography of de Maupassant and reads through the night.
I learned that Maupassant was born in 1850, the child of a Normandy gentleman and Laure Lepoiteven, Flaubert's cousin. He was twenty-five when he was first attacked by congenital syphilis. At first he suffered from headaches and fits of hypochondria. Then the specter of blindness arose before him. His sight weakened. He became suspicious of everyone, unsociable and pettily quarrelsome. He struggled furiously, dashed about the Mediterranean in a yacht, fled to Tunis, Morocco, Central Africa. and wrote ceaselessly. He attained fame, and at forty years of age cut his throat; lost a great deal of blood, yet lived through it. He was then put away in a madhouse. There he crawled about on his hands and knees, devouring his own excrement. The last line in his hospital report read: Monsieur de Maupassant va s'animaliser. He died at the age of forty-two, his mother surviving him.3
And then there is Babel himself, who rode so defiantly in the company of the Cossacks of the Red Cavalry and wrote masterly stories about that time, and was later arrested by Stalin's secret police and in the bowels of Moscow's Lyubanka Prison dispatched with a pistol shot to the head, all the while pleading with his executioners that he be allowed to finish his work.
Fortunately, young American writers will never know even a pinch of anything anywhere close to such torment. But the life of the young writer, especially the writer in an MFA studio program, isn't the bed of roses described by critics such as the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley either. Much closer to the truth is the picture made by retired editor and writer Ted Solotaroff in his 1985 essay "Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years."
In trying to determine why some young talented writers make a career and others fade away, he figures that the central factor is what he calls durability, and durability, as Solotaroff writes, "seems to be directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without, and how effectively one incorporates them into the creative process itself, particularly in the prolonged first stage of a career." From his point of view, graduate writing workshops are mostly wasted on the young. And serve as a hot-house in which for two or three years the young writer is given special treatment, the kind that he or she will find sorely lacking in the years immediately following the workshop study.
In the years that follow, the main difficulty is, as Solotaroff sees it, learning how to cope with the vicissitudes of the market place in such a way that the writer doesn't develop an internal sense of rejection. "For the inexperienced writer," he points out, "a year or two of rejection or a major rejection—say, of a novel—can lead all too easily to self-distrust, and from there to a disabling distrust of the writing process itself. Anxious, depressed, defensive, the writer who is suffering this distrust, whether temporarily or chronically or terminally, gives up her most fundamental and enabling right: the right to write uncertainly, roughly, even badly." The gifted writer, Solotaroff goes on to say, "is likely to be vulnerable to rejection from without and within, and how well he copes with them is likely to determine whether he has a genuine literary vocation or just a literary flair. To put the matter as directly as I can, rejection and uncertainty and disappointment are as much a part of a writer's life as snow and cold are of an Eskimo's."
Prepare for years of rejection and learn to work well and quietly, outside the spotlight most young writers yearn for. "'Don't sweat it for twenty years or so,'" Solotaroff quotes Bobbie Ann Mason as saying. He himself spots the young writer at least ten years of writing and living before any real breakthrough occurs. And even after that happens, as he points out, "the life of published fiction writers is most often the exchange of one level of rejection, uncertainty, and disappointment for another, and to go on means to rely upon the same imperiled and durable trust in the process and the self that got them published in the first place."
Even a writer who has been so conspicuously combatative over the course of his career as Norman Mailer admits to the sensitivity of the artist. "Since good novelists," he says, "have to be brave on the one hand but prudent on the other, we make up a delicate species. More sensitive than others in the beginning, we have to develop the will, the stamina, the determination, and the insensitivity to take critical abuse. A good writer, therefore, does well to see himself as a strong, weak person, full of brave timidity, sensitive and insensitive. In effect, we have to learn how to live in the world with its bumps and falls and occasionally startling rewards while protecting the core of what once seemed a frightfully perishable sensitivity."
And there's a new twist of the knife for the current generation of new writers, with freshly minted MFA degrees and a few stories and/or a novel or two just out or just about to come out. The competition may be ferocious—but then, if you look at it, it's always been ferocious. But writers in this generation are trying to keep their heads above water in a market where the spigot is always running, trying to flow into the next new thing and making even the newest writers feel as though, as one writer recently described it to me, "you'll become a has-been without ever being anybody."
So except for an exhilarating moment here and there, there's not much joy to be found in what we do, and a lot more moaning than the young writer would like to admit is part of the process. I've certainly done my own share of both cheering and moaning. With regard to cheering, I admit that when my first story was accepted by the New Yorker I ran across the street to knock on a neighbor's door to tell him the news. As for moaning, I've done my share, though usually in a well-insulated room off to myself—the same room I write in—where no one can hear. Some writers feel so backed into a corner with rejection and troubled pages that they pray to Jesus. I keep a little statue of Ganesh, the Hindu deity, who helps you overcome obstacles large and small, in a corner near my workdesk. Growing up in New Jersey I never imagined I would be asking for help from an elephant god, but then growing up in New Jersey I never knew what it was going to be like to try and make art.
For most writers, the tilting back and forth between exhiliration and moaning somehow all balances out, at least you'd think so if you've heard the story about Minnesota writer Jon Hasler—I first heard it from Richard Bausch—who when he arrived at his summer cottage in the northern part of his home state found that sometime during the winter the pipes had burst, spewing raw sewage all over his bathroom. He called in the local plumber who, when down on his hands and knees amidst the vile debris, looked up to see Hasler watching him from the doorway.
"You're a writer," the plumber is said to have inquired.
"Yep," Hasler says in reply.
"Lord," the plumber says, "I don't know how you can do that kind of work."
And then there's the story about the writer and the whipper that John Gardner told in his little speech at the dinner Knopf threw for him at Twenty-One the week he won the National Book Award for his novel Nickel Mountain.
An impoverished writer reads an advertisement in the Village Voice that says "Free Caribbean Vacations, For Writers Only. Pier 47, Deadline, Today by Five." He rushes down to the pier clutching some fresh manuscript pages and is accepted for the free vacation. As soon as he's on board the ship he's knocked down from behind, and awakes in irons, chained to an oar. A large number of other men are chained there with him. A huge man in a black mask arrives, flashing a whip. He flays the rowers until their backs are raw and bloody, forcing them to row and row and row. After some days, he tells them to stop, unlocks their chains, and they're allowed to disembark onto a tropical beach where they lay about for a few days while their wounds heal. Without any warning, the whipper shows up at the beach and herds them back aboard the ship where they are once more chained to their oars and forced to row back to New York as the whipper cracks his lash across their wounded backs. Upon their return to the city, they are released, but not before the man, another writer, next to our hero says to him, "Are we supposed to tip the whipper?" As our hero shakes his head in wonder, the voice of another bloodied writer rises from the rear of the hold. "We did last year!"
Is pain and suffering built in to our idea of success as a writer? The best-selling novelist bangs his middle brow against the wall, never having been invited to a first-class writers' workshop? The aethestic genius of the little magazines longs to do a screenplay? The poor want money? The rich want adulation? Oh, there is so much more to making a fine story or a good novel than ever we dreamed about!
But all the joking about difficulty aside, and after all the lovely images about piano tuners disappearing into their work fade away, there is, I hate to point out, one more thing more difficult than succeeding at this business. And that is failing at it. And most of us fail regularly when we start out, and many will fall away from the pack as the years go by, leaving a small group of those who have failed least still standing. To all of us, W.B. Yeats addressed his poem "To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing."
Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours' eyes?
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.
Alan Cheuse is a book critic on National Public Radio and the author of three novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir, and his most recent, a collection of essays titled Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
- Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner (New York: Knopf, 2002), p. 214.
- Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice D. Toklas (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 212–214.
- Isaac Babel, "Guy De Maupassant," in You've Got To Read This, ed. by Ron Hansen (New York: Perennial, 2000), p. 27.