Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

So what is the writing life?

with 5 comments

Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon

“Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.” When I typed that blog description more than two years ago, I don’t think I gave it more than a few minutes of thought—I only knew I had to enter something in that blank space in the template. I’d been planning to start an official author site for a long time, but the actual look of the page was thrown together in an evening or so of work, and I can’t say I put a great deal of consideration into most of its components. Even the idea of concentrating on issues of writing and creativity was a fairly random choice: I only knew, as WordPress recommends, that it’s good to make the focus of your blog as specific as possible, and these sorts of issues were the only topics I could imagine myself writing about on a daily basis without getting bored. Over time, my sense of what this site could be has grown and evolved in many ways, but I’m also surprised by how much of it has remained the same. (I’m still pleased by the simplicity and elegance of its layout, which is due entirely to The Journalist theme by Lucian Marin, which I chose because of my preference for black text on plenty of white space. I still think it’s the best blog theme around.)

Yet the words I so casually typed on that first day still haunt me. Part of it is the kind of quiet confidence they try so hard to exude, which at the time was really something of a pose. When I created this blog, I’d just sold my first novel, which was almost a year and a half from publication, and my sense of what “the writing life” would be was rudimentary at best. True, at that point, I’d done nothing but write for more than four years, but the only visible results were a couple of magazine sales and a steadily diminishing bank account. For most of that time, the only kind of writing life I knew was one in which I was still essentially working for myself, while trying to get the attention of editors and agents, and although I often introduced myself as a novelist at parties, it was only with the additional caveat: “But only in the sense that I’m trying to write a novel.” It’s no accident that I waited until I finally had a book deal before putting my thoughts on writing online: I believed, right or wrong, that it would give my ideas some legitimacy, and also hoped that it might be useful to share my experiences, in real time, as I entered the next phase of my career.

My little Ponyo

Two years later, I’m still not sure what the writing life is. In its larger dimensions, it’s tantalizingly elusive: like every writer, I’m always greedy for higher sales, more glowing reviews, and other things that are entirely out of my control. It becomes slightly more clear in the smaller details. There are things about my career that I’d love to change, but ultimately, I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have spent much of the last decade doing exactly what I want. My routine can be challenging or aggravating, and there are mornings when I still wake up dreading the first draft of the unwritten chapter to come, but I ultimately spend each day doing all I’ve ever wanted since I was ten years old: telling stories, living other people’s lives, putting words down on paper. Like every life worth living, it comes with certain sacrifices, and I wouldn’t have been able to get even this far without giving up a great deal along the way. But I remain mindful of the words of my hero, Marcel Duchamp, which struck me so deeply that I used them as an epigraph to the epilogue of The Icon Thief: “Life is more a question of expenses than of profits. It’s a question of knowing what one wants to live with.”

Of course, the second you find a way of living that works for you, life has a way of yanking you out of it. With my first child due to arrive in just over a week, and possibly sooner, I’m on the verge of the greatest change I’ve experienced since I left home fourteen years ago to go to college. I don’t know exactly how my life will look after that point, but it’s safe to say that my carefully cultivated routine will be blown to pieces—an experience I look forward to sharing on this blog, assuming I can find time and energy between midnight feedings. And the change will be a fundamental one. Over the past eighteen months alone, I’ve written and sold two novels, along with many articles and short stories and well over a quarter of a million words of blog posts, a number that strikes me, right now, as totally insane. I’ve taken enormous pleasure in transforming myself into a kind of writing machine, but I can’t keep it up forever. That part of my life is ending now, or at least changing into something infinitely richer and more strange, and although it scares me a little, I can’t wait for what comes next. Because the more I think about it, the less I believe anything like “the writing life” really exists. In the end, it’s just life.

“Culture Shock 1913,” a special one-hour program on the birth of modernism, premiered last night on the Fishko Files on NPR. I pop up around the 10:45 mark to talk a bit about Duchamp. You can listen to it here

Written by nevalalee

December 7, 2012 at 10:08 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. As a one-time-only mother, I will say that having a child did completely turn my life upside down. On the other hand, being a parent expands your understanding and experience of being human, and there is no substitute for that experience. Also, my husband and I were surprised by just how much fun a baby is…even through all the sleeplessness and tears. Congratulations to you and your wife!

    speculativemartha

    December 7, 2012 at 11:01 am

  2. Wonderful, generous, insightful post as always! And congrats on your soon-to-arrive baby! I had no idea . . . As a mom of three I will say that nothing is as rewarding, bittersweet, or humbling as parenthood. I couldn’t write without my children. Congratulations!

    Samantha R.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm

  3. Thanks so much for the kind thoughts!

    nevalalee

    December 7, 2012 at 11:05 pm

  4. Very nicely said, especially your third paragraph. It seems that you’ve found that groove that all writers need. Yeah, it’s always changing, that’s true. However, there is nothing worse than a bored writer, right? Best of luck.

    Michael D. Kelleher

    December 10, 2012 at 11:04 am

  5. Thanks! Let’s hope the groove survives…

    nevalalee

    December 10, 2012 at 11:08 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: