Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 17th, 2013

The seasons of a writer’s life

with one comment

The view from my office

One of the most difficult truths that we all have to face sooner or later is that every human life tends to take the same shape. When we’re young, we’re all convinced that we’re exceptional, and that our lives will be qualitatively different from the ones we see around us. Eventually, though, we come to recognize that as unique or unusual we may be in other ways, when you stand back, every life is strikingly similar in its overall structure, however much it may differ in the particulars. We all tend to pass through the same phases at roughly the same intervals, and that’s as true in our thirties, forties, and beyond as it was when we were children. It’s a realization that has inspired some fascinating academic research—notably the work examined in the classic book The Seasons of a Man’s Life and the epic Grant Study of men from Harvard and Boston—and some great works of art, from John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom to Michael Apted’s Up series and the trilogy of films by Richard Linklater recently crowned by Before Midnight. And although the process may not be more any striking for writers than it is for anyone else, we’re certainly more likely to muse and obsess about it in print.

Recently, I was talking this over with a friend of mine who is also a writer around my own age. We bonded over the fact that we’re both trying to figure out a balance between work, life, and family, and that all of these elements tend to reach a period of peak intensity, inconveniently, at around the same time. Like most writers, we spent our twenties learning the craft and slowly building up a body of work, published or not, until we finally began to see the results of our efforts. At the same time, we’ve gotten married and settled down after years of moving from one city to another, and are either starting families or preparing to do so. And these aspects of life don’t always comfortably coexist. As a writer, I’ve reached a curious point where I’m the only one responsible for my own success or failure: I’m surrounded by people who are dying to see me do good work, and if I don’t achieve the goals I’ve set for myself, it’s solely because I haven’t been able to live up to those expectations. Under other circumstances, this would be a time at which I’d be focusing on writing to the exclusion of all else. As usual, though, the reality is a little more complicated.

The view from my office

But that’s also probably how it should be. Last year, Lev Grossman, the senior book critic at Time and author of the novel The Magicians, posted an essay on writing and fatherhood that I’ve thought about frequently since. Here’s the money quote:

I personally needed to have kids to become the person and the writer I wanted to be. This is not a universal thing; I’m not recommending having children as a writing tip. I think it only applies to people who even as adults are the emotional equivalent of frozen cavemen, and who need somebody to thaw them out and seriously kick the shit out of them, emotionally speaking, before they have any idea who they are or what they’re doing. I was one of those people. Having children did that for me…

I bitch and moan a lot about how I’m always changing diapers and giving baths and making school lunches and strapping and unstrapping little people into and out of car seats while I could be writing books…But it’s also true that I never wrote a book I was proud of till I had children.

And while I wouldn’t quite put myself into the frozen caveman category, I absolutely agree that it’s only by going through the radical changes brought about by life’s major transitions that a writer can grow, both as an artist and as a human being. I may not write as much or as quickly as I once did, and it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out a mode of living that brings both sides of my life into balance. But that’s what it means to enter a new phase: we don’t evolve into something new as much as we have it happen to us, whether we’re ready or not, and it’s up to us to become the sort of person who can integrate all these conflicting pieces into a harmonious whole—or at least to come close enough to it on a daily basis to remain reasonably sane and happy. The result, whatever form it takes, can’t help but be good for craft, which consists in its own way of an endless series of rebalancings, compromises, and improvisations. Like everything else in life, it takes time, flexibility, and a willingness to accept the things we can’t change. And if we’re lucky, when the next phase arrives, we’ll be ready for whatever it brings.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2013 at 8:47 am

Quote of the Day

with one comment

Lord Kelvin

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

Lord Kelvin

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: