Writing is a Side Dish

If the writer should not rely on writing to make a living, what does he/she does to feed his/her art?

In his recent work, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner describes Walt Whitman as the archetype of the ideal poet. In any case, ideal for the society in which he lives. Ideal because he is able to speak on behalf of all, while having a singular voice. He is a useful poet. He enlightens the crowds—as would today the lights of the television. He is an oxymoronic poet: His utility takes roots in his very uselessness. Indeed, Lerner points out a fundamental ambiguity in Whitman:

He claims that, on the one hand, he’s doing the most important work that can be done, producing a technology for the formation and perpetual renewal of the greatest people on the planet, and, on the other hand, that he’s doing no work at all: He’s always ‘loafing,’ taking his ease. Whitman has tremendous admiration for American workers of all sorts (see, for instance, ‘I Hear America Singing’), but he doesn’t want to be one; he appears to think leisure is a condition of poetic receptivity.”

Leisure for Whitman would be, in a way, a profession that transcends all professions. It would include them all, as long as, while doing nothing, the poet listens to others (who work). Although Whitman’s project is commendable, and Leaves of Grass is a remarkable achievement, the fact remains that, as a programmatic manifesto, this vision of poetry serves above all to discredit it as it is created today.

Because, of course, there is no such thing. Such a poet does not exist. Or, more precisely, if such a poet gives himself this motto, he can only create a dead-born poem. Just because a poem does not have to be useful. As Lerner says, poetry leads us to go beyond the productivist framework in which this leisure/labor dichotomy is articulated: “Poetry” is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price. The same could be said regarding literature in general.”

But, if the writer should not rely on writing to make a living (see previous article), nor be a dreamer flying over the active people with an all-encompassing look, what does he/she does to feed his/her experience, his/her art? He/she works on the side, of course. All trades are possible. No recipe seems to exist. History abounds with those writers who spent their days beside the vibrant center of writing. Randomly …? Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a doctor. Kafka, employed for an insurance company. Pessoa, commercial translator. Joyce Carol Oates, teacher. Antonio Lobos Antunes, psychiatrist. Pierre Mertens, jurist. Etc. (I will give the reader the freedom to complete this list according to her/his desires. Anyway, it would probably be easier to draw up a much smaller list of writers called “professional”).

Often, this “complementary” activity—which nevertheless defines socially the one who writes—is experienced as a burden by the writer. A second-best. The tangible, repeated proof of failure. It represents all the lost hours. It is the lack of fame. It is the symbol that removes the writer from his/her writing desk, and therefore from the work in progress. Whatever the links between writing and the “real” profession of the writer, this last confiscate the precious days that will bring forth the unachievable masterpiece.

Yet, when the writer manages to silence this feeling (in other words, when he/she manages to go beyond the leisure/work dichotomy of which Lerner speaks), the perspective changes. When the writer no longer seeks to produce a text but simply and methodically to feed his fundamental obsession for literature, a middle way opens.

Because this person is a writer not because some libraries hold books with his name on the cover. She/he is a writer because he/she is a transducer. Through her/him, the current of life is transformed into questions, into blocks of realities impossible to combine. The words come then, not as tools, but as spasms, as an attempt to answer, and all the more so when the writer is busy with something else, when he/she is busy not writing and has pushed his/her will aside.

You can build a book, its architecture, you cannot build the sentences that make it up. These are the imprint that the world deposits within the writer, his/her language before words. And without these sentences, no construction is possible. Seen through this prism, it is clear that any exogenous experience is precious. And any job, with its lot of recurrences (gestures, places, tasks), offers fertile soil to the writer, more than an obstacle.