Wednesday, August 31, 2011

'A Weevil in a Biscuit'

We do not travel much.  It's partly having little children, partly having little money.

I'd like to see more.  Antiquities, museums, beaches, foods, gardens, ruins - every now and then they whisper: "Come here, fool. You're dying every day.  Do you want another minute at that suburban cafe?"

I reply that I can write anywhere - even here, in the 'burbs.  And that travel will not write for me.  But still...

Ruth, who does not hear these sirens, discovered this for me in Virginia Woolf's diary, Tuesday 17th February, 1931:
I feel us, compared with Aldous & Maria [Huxley], unsuccessful.  They're off today to do mines, factories... black country; did the docks when they were here; must see England.  They are going to the Sex Congress in Moscow, have been in India, will go to America, speak French, visit celebrities,--while here I live like a weevil in a biscuit. ... Lord, how little I've seen, done, lived, felt, thought compared with the Huxleys--compared with anyone. Here we toil, reading & writing, year in year out. No adventure, no travel; darker grows the fog. Here, by some invisible rope, we are bound.
(Image: Virginia Woolf, by Roger Fry, c.1917)

29 comments:

Rachel Power said...

Isn't that amazing? I always assumed virginia Woolf would have been well travelled. And look at the work she created! It certainly didn't suffer for her lack of external adventure. Funny, though, how I envy the idea of toiling, reading & writing, year in year out. I would take the freedom to do that over working and travelling!

Damon Young said...

She did travel (e.g. Germany in the 30s), but nothing like the Huxleys. Most of her time was spent...well...writing. And walking, talking, pottering about. Certainly not jetsetting.

As for the freedom to write, it's easy: just sell the house, give up your job, and brace yourself for the creative joy relative poverty!

Damon Young said...

*I am Damon's fingers, inserting an 'of' in the above sentence*

Rachel Power said...

As you know, this is a constant conversation in our house. My fear is that selling the house at this point wouldn't aid our freedom; rather, it would just make us slaves to the rental market. The problem is we now live in an era where rents are fairly equivalent to mortgage repayments, so we might be in worse position. And we live a block away from the school, blah blah blah... We go round and round in circles on the subject. The attraction to doing the house-sell/quit job thing for me, though, isn't just about practicality (we already live in poverty!), it's more about making a grand leap of faith, and a different kind of commitment. I'm attracted to the idea of forcing myself to live off my own work rather than the safer office job (even if I never see another dollar of superannuation again...). Aaargh.

Damon Young said...

Perhaps it's also the fear that you'll regret the life not lived?

You know what mortgage/safe job looks like. But just around the corner is...

Rachel Power said...

Yes, of course. But my other fear is that I haven't done enough to prove that I deserve otherwise. If I take that leap will I fly, or will I just prove to myself that I am not up to the task. Like an escapee who just wants to crawl back to jail! Have I established my practice enough that I will not just find myself in a desperate freefall? I know, I know... All part of the same circular argument... Have you considered becoming a therapist, Damon?!

Damon Young said...

The encouraging reply is that failure is fine. Delusion about failure is worse, and you're not egocentric or arrogant enough for that.

The slightly less encouraging reply is this: If you're still asking these questions to and fro, perhaps your urge to write isn't very strong. (As opposed to other urges, e.g. security, family, and the like.) And perhaps you're not egocentric enough?

Is this fair?

Rachel Power said...

Yes, I think that is fair. Though I think your 'encouraging' reply might be the harsher one!
A lack of ego is perhaps one way of putting it. Certainly my impulse is to put my energy towards my family (and I suspect that's a learned and deeply ingrained behaviour). And, in my case, I don't think the urge is security, but what feels like a genetic propensity for self-denial.
But I don't want to give the impression that I'm not writing. I certainly do write. I'm just a very slow writer, and my creative impulse is a very fragile thread, easily interrupted.
The to-ing and fro-ing isn't about writing itself -- more about how much I sacrifice in order to write more.
If delusional about anything, it is perhaps being wedded to a fantasy about what a creative life looks like.
I'm hoping there are some commonly felt issues here, so I'm not just indulging myself on your blog!

Damon Young said...

Very common, I reckon. We just have to invite some more responses.

Gondal-girl said...

Gondal Girl to the rescue! :)

I think it is not either/or - but a synthesis of the two, sitting between the safe houses ( ie mortgage etc) and the writing life - why is one safe and the risky? Am I deluded to think I have both? I am happy to work and pay my way, but this is just me, as my paid work feeds my writing life and my stomach and everyone elses stomach in our house.

I love the weevils in biscuits - and hear your call to other shores too Damon, I feel both, but am happy to sit in between, wasn't it Emerson who said that if you don't take the beauty with you when you travel you will never find it, so my aim is to find the beautiful where ever I am. ( though if you offered me first class tickets and a nanny I may be slightly tempted or wouldn't say no to a few of VW servants helping out once a week either)

Damon Young said...

GG, I think we need to be specific here. Having a secure job is called 'safe' because it sacrifices writing time for continual income. No risk - except to sanity, dignity, ambition, or some such thing. In this light, it's not perfectly safe - but we call it that, because it's familiar and normal. For some, it's not safe - it's horrible, and makes them resentful and unhappy.

(I'm not talking about your case.)

As for the either/or, sometimes it has to be. There is only so much time. There's a good reason why I've published as much as I have: I don't have any other job.

Gondal-girl said...

But there is more than just the secure job vs the creative life - isn't there? Part time jobs and time to write? Can a writer be productive all day writing? I lot of productive writing comes from walking/thinking for me so I am ready when I show up to the screen/ page.

Is this a male / female thing as Rachel suggested? The need to provide family comfort is large - but for men there is anxiety around the income? Are we slaves to the old biology? Or can we transcend and make the world anew?

Damon Young said...

Yes, there are options. But my reply was in the context of Rachel's dilemma: paying off a mortgage & working vs. writing & renting & starving. (Yes, I'm elaborating.)

I agree that one cannot write all day. But writing after a full day of work, then cooking dinner, then doing laundry isn't always an option either.

I don't think biology has much to do with it. And Cordelia Fine - who's much smarter and more well-informed than I - agrees. Gender roles? Yes. Biology. Not so much.

Rachel Power said...

I'm not sure where biology leaves off and gender roles begin, but I suppose our contemporary awareness of these concepts means we have the power to subvert/circumvent them.

I guess every writer is different, and if you are someone who is effective at combining both creative work and more conventional forms of work, then I think that's a strength. Apart from anything else, not all novels can have full-time writers as their main characters and expereince in these other realms can be great fodder for writing.

I know this is not everyone's experience, but what I personally find hard is that work seems to put me on a track that feels in opposition to what's needed for writing. All that time for ideas/thoughts to permeate, filter etc that you both mention - I don't find work gives me that time; rather, it crowds out the space for that.

Also, there's just a lot to be said for being free to go where the energy is at any given time - and that's what gets sabotaged for me by being stuck in a conventional working routine. Without kids it might be easier, but the combo of work, family AND trying to carve out creative time is a challenge for me.

Unknown said...

Having a secure job "is called safe" because it is safe, (well relatively safe in this day and age), but you're right Damon that the consequence of a safe job (for most of us) is that we sacrifice writing time for continual income. Otherwise I agree with what you say (damn you!): not only is there only so much time, there is only so much energy and fresh creativity in the day - if we spend our days working and thinking for someone else, we leave our creative endeavour only the dregs of our creativity. It's rarely enough. And the risk is to our sanity, dignity or ambition - at least for those of us with full time salaried jobs who also claim to be "writers". I have a mortgage, a family I am utterly committed to and multiple short stories and an unfinished novel that I tell myself I will get back to when the time to write is right. I am a professional writer, and I'm paid reasonably well to write, only it's material I have little interest in writing except as a means to pay the bills. At the end of the day I'm a mercenary who sells his talent to benefit others and my family. That's a conscious choice, and I stand by it - but in the cold light of day, I kid myself when I define myself as a "creative writer". So long as I sell my talent to others, I am little more than a dabbler.
Committing to the life of a writer does involve risk and few of us are brave enough to take that risk. Damon is right (damn him yet again!) when he says that sometimes it has to be "either/or". Very few of us can successfully do the two (work a full time job and write) or at least feel satisfied pursuing the two. The sooner we acknowledge that the better: either act on it and take the risk (no more excuses) or accept the truth that we are little more than tourists pretending to be something we have chosen not to be (at least, until the time is right to write... maybe this weekend...).

Gondal-girl said...

I am with Rachel - where does biology end and gender start?

I also think with writing, you either make time to do it or not, regardless of rent/ mortgages/ jobs/ starvation/ children. I look back on pre baby days and laugh at how much time I possibly 'squandered' but then again, it only looks like that from here with my little Pixie and employment taking more of my time, because I am still writing. Regardless. Seeing writing more as a practice like doing Yoga or prayer or playing an instrument - it is a 'daily bread' (Sorry Damon, couldn't think of a better non religious term). It is the daily bread that gets me through the daily grind. Now to make baby dinner.

Damon Young said...

Well, it's all biology - including our capacity for psychological and social development. But I see no reason why biology determines any of this. Except beards, obviously.

I agree on the 'daily bread'. But you'd recognise the difference between a life of publishing (V. Woolf style), and writing in the gaps between parenthood and/or work? One is more dedicated, though each may be equally passionate. The former has a greater chance of honing the craft, refining the work, and te like. I think Gerard (Dr Unknown, above) i right about this.

Gondal-girl said...

I think that is a little demeaning suggesting that writing has less quality if between work/parenthood as opposed to someone who chooses to live without paid employment to write or live by the pen alone. Many successful writers have worked at jobs not involved with writing, and have still produced the goods.

I think the writing could possibly be more dedicated because of the above restraints - honing the craft/ refining work is about showing up - regardless of what else one does in ones day? ( thinking of Anne Enright here among others)

I am not comparing myself to Woolf by any means, but with servants and no children and a man to pay the bills, she surely has a domestic advantage.

Damon Young said...

I don't think full-time work is compatible with writing if you also play an active role in child-raising.

I didn't say it was impossible to do all three. Just a 'greater chance' if you lose one of them. So if you've no children, you can work full-time and write on the side (e.g. TS Eliot).

Gondal-girl said...

http://www.sporcle.com/games/anchors_away/give-up-the-day-job

point taken - part time is the only way - but it always feels women get the raw prawn


( too much suffragette influence from Half the Human race)

Damon Young said...

Yes, I think they often do.

Which is why our household is a little different. Ruth doesn't like prawns.

Rachel Power said...

Yep, your set-up aside, Damon, I think most women get the raw deal when it comes to part-time work. Haven't read that sporcle article yet (though I will) but I find that what women are expected to fit in to the "other half" of their working week (housework, appointments, kids activities, school involvement, shopping, general errands) is much more than 20 hours worth. And part-time jobs are rarely part-time, either. I think that the part-timer tends to become the default person for keeping everything running and ensuring kids cared for. In my case, it's always me leaving work at 5pm on the dot, no matter how much pressure I'm under to stay back, to pick up kids and get dinner cooked by 6.30 (even though my partner technically works the same hours on those days).

But back to writing (and this is not unrealted to the rant above), there are plenty of great examples of writers who had day jobs. I suspect, though - historically at least - the bulk of them were men. Because their non-work time was largely their own. Few women had/have that luxury.

Emma Kirsopp said...

I absolutely love this post! And this comment thread!

Rose Wintergreen said...

I'd like to second Emma's comment. This isn't just a comment thread, but a really interesting conversation. Thank you to all of you for being so open and sharing with us all.

It's something that has been at the forefront of my mind for sometime now. It's exciting and reassuring to hear that it's not just me!

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Emma and Rose.

Given how high the stakes are, it's worrying how little these things are discussed.

Thanks for your contributions, everyone. (Including you, Virginia.)

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

"Given how high the stakes are, it's worrying how little these things are discussed." Indeed. Or, when they sometimes are in blog comment threads, they often unravel into fighting. Lovely discussions here.

Rachel said something above: "Certainly my impulse is to put my energy towards my family (and I suspect that's a learned and deeply ingrained behaviour)."

These topics call my mother to mind a little. I always suspected, and she only admitted it once (not to me - I overheard her on the telephone saying this to someone else) that she put her work before us kids. Her work allowed her to be at home, true, and wasn't 'creative' (she is a teacher - but I believe deep down the vocational tug is quite similar). As I grew up I was quite annoyed - even hurt. Now I'm more inclined to be forgiving, even sympathetic. So when you said that Rachel, I understand you, as that it was I always swore to do in what perhaps was a reactionary stance against what I felt I had. Nonetheless, I still ask myself similar questions too...

Hope that made sense. Still coming off the flu here, my brain is not at 100%

Damon Young said...

Yes, my choices are also, in part, a reaction. I wanted to be more involved, domestically and in parenting, than I remember my father being.

(I say 'I remember', as children may well exaggerate just how distant their parents are. I'm sure Nikos thinks I'm cruel for choosing chores or work so often, instead of play.)

Whatever I'm doing, I feel I might be doing something else. It's partly because this is true - there is always sacrifice of something. And partly because juggling so many roles makes it difficult to absorb myself fully in any one of them. My life feels like fractions: a third of a career, half a father, half a husband.

But better this than let one part die entirely.

Rose Wintergreen said...

Miscellaneous-Mum - your comment made perfect sense! Really interesting comment about your reflections on your relationship with your mum. I don't know if any mother (or father) could ever get it totally right. What a terrifying prospect.

Damon - I second your fractious approach. It's so bad for the spirit (and for others in your life) for you to suppress something instead of doing it (assuming it is something you really wish you were doing). Life is so much more rewarding when you give yourself permission to prioritise exposing yourself to new experiences, and pursuing your muse. I absolutely understand people when they say things like "oh, I'd love to be a singer-songwriter, but I just don't have the time", or "I've always wanted to be a writer, but there’s never any time or money to write”, but I also find it so upsetting! There are always challenges, everyone goes through self-doubt, it’s not easy and it’s not meant to be easy. But if it’s something that really matters to you, you are inflicting upon yourself the most exquisite kind of torture by not even allowing yourself the permission to give it a try. In a sense, it’s like continually telling yourself that you don’t have the right to explore who you are or to grow.

Damon Young said...

Rose, I stake my muse to the desk with a fountain pen.

And agreed: it's bloody hard work. But at least the labour is in the service of one's better self.