I read Virginia Woolf’s book-length essay a couple of years ago, back when I was still of the mind that a writer — or any artist, for that matter — will have a difficult, if not impossible time balancing a so-called day job with the mental, emotional and physical demands of creative work. Woolf specifically referred to the need for women to have an independent income that will free them from having to engage in the exhausting pursuit of a nonwriting-related livelihood in order to put food on the table and a roof over one’s head.
She believed that creativity can’t flourish if the writer is unable to devote all of her intellectual powers to the task, which is often the case when there’s a bill hanging over our head or a jealous boss hovering over our shoulder. Woolf wrote that women should be guaranteed an annual income of 500 pounds (what I imagine to be a tidy sum back in the day), as well as literally a room of one’s own, a place to where one can retreat and cultivate one’s creative work, free of the need to waste one’s time on such mundane chores such as housekeeping and errand-running.
On the other hand, Poets & Writers magazine had an article a few months ago about writers — both living and dead — who’ve managed to hold down a day job while still pursuing a writing vocation. Some of them even claim that their jobs give them much of the inspiration that informs so much of their novels, like the lawyer who writes legal thrillers, and that they really like the structure, camaraderie and steady income that their day jobs provide. In the April 2007 issue of Writer’s Digest, the magazine closes with a profile of Ned Vizzini, and how he relies on his day job to maintain his sanity.
I can relate. In the few precious months when I wrote full-time — before I got this current gig at the local library — I lived my life primarily in local coffee houses, with my entire universe centering around my laptop. It can be an isolating, almost maddening experience, and even I could tell that at times, I was living a wee bit too much inside my head. You know the feeling, right, when you’re talking to yourself, maybe even answering back? Or how about this: you’re having a conversation with a character, asking him questions, poking into his private business, nosying around his head and wondering why he did this or that.
It is kinda nice to have real chats with real people, and the fringe benefits of working in a library can’t be beat: access to new books all the time, books I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise but which now serendipitously land in our office and call out my name.
And yes, perhaps it does also help preserve my sanity, and maybe it’s not so healthy to be so isolated and keeping company with people who, for all intents and purposes, don’t actually exist.
But I have to admit…I do miss those days when it was often just me and this imaginary world that I had created. I imagine it’s a little like Trekkies who may carry on perfectly normal lives in the “real” world, but when they’re at conventions or in the presence of fellow fans, they’re completely in their element, surrender their inhibitions, indulge in this crazy passion, and just feel so at home.
Yeah, it’s a total bitch and a pain to get up at 4am to write. Usually it’s more like 4:15 or even 4:20, after five or six frustrating bouts with the snooze button. But once I’m in that chair and have powered up the laptop, I’m breathing pure oxygen and get swallowed up in the work. Okay, so I’m not independently wealthy, and maybe we never will be.
S’okay. At least I do have a room of my own. Or at least a corner of a really big room.
p.s. Snippet of a conversation at this coffee house where I’m typing:
Woman to barista: Where’s the Internet?
Woman’s college-age daughter and barista (simultaneously): Uhm, it’s wireless.
Woman: Oh. I don’t even know how that works. Do you just plug it in?
Woman’s college-age daughter: I’ll show you, Mom.
Wow. Seriously, lady, it’s 2007. “Where’s the Internet???”