Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The practical bohemian, or the art of getting by

with 6 comments

You want to know the only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man? It’s that he’s a survivor.

Christopher McQuarrie, The Way of the Gun

The same is true for a writer who is still working after five or ten years. Writing for a living is an education, and not just in the obvious ways. After a few years of writing on your own, you’ve inevitably developed a bag of the usual narrative tricks—get into scenes as late as possible, cut all drafts by ten percent—but you’ve also learned some practical tools for survival. You know how to write a publishable short story in a couple of weeks, rather than the month or more it might have taken in the past. You know where to find cheap books. Like J.K. Rowling, you know the address of a café that will let you write for hours if you buy a cup of tea. Maybe you’ve gone through a period where you drank or smoked too much, and then hopefully managed to get beyond it. And you’ve met other artists who have figured out some of the same things.

Because the unseen, communal art of writing is that of surviving happily on very little. In his great Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, R.H. Blyth describes voluntary poverty as “safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house,”  which also explains why most writers, including myself, eventually decide to quit their day jobs. The optimal solution, obviously, is to have it both ways: to write and work a steady job, as many writers have indeed done. But for most of us, the time ultimately comes when you need to make a choice. And of the two extremes of being consumed by a non-writing career and renouncing it entirely, walking away seems the safer solution, even if it means giving up some material comfort. And if nothing else, a writer can take heart from the fact that the things he needs to survive—books, a little food, a source of caffeine—can be had for almost nothing.

Take all these tricks, add them up, and turn them into a culture and community, and you have the artist’s life. More specifically, you have Midnight in Paris. Most artists eventually come up with similar solutions to these problems, in a sort of convergent evolution, which is why bohemians in all times and places tend to resemble one another more than the societies around them. But the lifestyle is a means to an end, and one of the worst things we can do is romanticize this kind of existence for its own sake. Everything that we find romantic about the Lost Generation and other spiritual bohemians—the coffee shops, the cheap neighborhoods, even the drug and alcohol abuse—originated as a practical answer to a particular question. And the untidy life of a Fitzgerald or Henry Miller can only be understood as very specific solution to the problem of how to sit down and write for hours at a time.

A writer’s goal, as I see it, should be to combine the simplest possible external life with an inner life of great complexity. This may sound like a spiritual or mystical objective, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the result of cold, calculating pragmatism. Voluntary simplicity, enforced solitude, joining a community of artists, renunciation of other kinds of careerism—these may seem like ethical choices, but they’re as basic and value-neutral as any other set of tools. And if we tend to forget this, and get distracted by side issues, it’s only because getting by on one’s own terms inevitably leads, almost by accident, to a very interesting life. It took me years to realize that Tropic of Cancer wasn’t about sex, but a handbook of art and survival. And while we may be fascinated by the details, the artist’s ultimate goal should be to say, with Miller: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

6 Responses

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  1. Well, you don’t smoke, so that’s half the battle. My favorite Spanish colloquialism is “fumando como un chino en quiebra.”


    October 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm

  2. If I were a chino en quiebra, I’d be smoking, too.


    October 19, 2011 at 1:14 pm

  3. Ha Ha… voluntary poverty as a kind of safety first… Very much agreed.


    March 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm

  4. Words to live by!


    March 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

  5. ThankYou for this wonderful post. It led me to at least two delightful places on the web and I came back for another read and found words that took me back in my own memory thirty years. Your writing is like food.


    September 1, 2016 at 9:33 am

  6. @jodychayanne3: Thanks! It’s one of my own favorite posts.


    September 1, 2016 at 9:11 pm

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