Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Write to Life

Reviewing a biography of Kurt Vonnegut has prompted more thinking about the difficulties if not impossibility of writing to the highest standards while being a decent human being who is fair to others.  Vonnegut's biography is one of several literary exposes recently (of Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, and Hemingway again) that emphasize how bad they were at life.  Hemingway as a phony macho, a self-promoting liar, etc.  Heller as a bad father, and Vonnegut as a sad and bitter man, who betrayed friends, abused one wife (and was abused by another), and scared children.  He, like the others, was not like his public image.  That's the big revelation supposedly.

(I should say immediately that there is plenty of counterevidence in this biography of Vonnegut's kindnesses, loyalty, etc.  But on the whole it seems to emphasize the flaws.)

Vonnegut brings this topic to me in a peculiarly personal way.  I was in precisely the generation of young readers in the late 60s that made him famous, and my admiration was as a writer as well as a reader.  Vonnegut had taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop just a few years before I entered there.  My fiction teacher in my senior year of college had been one of his students.  So the evocation of that place and that time in this biography has particular resonance.

Those years turned out to be the tail end of an era--roughly Hemingway to Vonnegut and Heller--in which the novelist was an important and influential figure.  This was also a time that people drank a lot, especially writers.  And they smoked a lot, especially writers.  It was during the sexual revolution so-called, and before the consciousness-raising--and that's what it was--prompted by the womens movement.  But even within the context where drinking, smoking and philandering was common--and even more expected among writers-- there was behavior that stood out as troubling, awful, even scary.  So even before Iowa (at a few writing conferences, or on campus during writers visits) I had seen professional writers behaving badly.  I saw writers who were abusive drinkers, sexual predators, liars and cowards. What I didn't see I heard, because writers could also be vicious gossips.

So even as I saw some of these writers as role models, I was troubled.  The drinking and smoking was just exhausting and debilitating,  though it was a long time before I gave it up, as it could occasionally lead to some memorably wild evenings, as when I found myself playing blues piano with novelist Vance Bourjaily on slide trombone. But patterns of deceit bothered me, and cruelty repulsed me, and frightened me.  I didn't want to become that.  Then there were the questions of irresponsibility.

Some of this behavior made me lose respect for these writers, and question the validity of their work.  I think that's inevitable, even at a distance-- when you read that writers were cruel, it casts a  pall over the writing.  But as a reader, it's ultimately the words on the page that make the difference in our lives.  As a writer, a beginning writer, it raises questions of identity, and what kind of a life is possible.

For even though character flaws are involved, the necessities of writing itself come into play.  I also learned from writing how hard it is to maintain a balance. The world being created on the page is a very different world from the one populated by real people, in which actions have actual consequences that can't be corrected in the next draft. I know a writer now, with several very well-respected novels, who said he gave up writing novels because it was too hard on his family and his relationships. The sensitivity required of a writer writing leaves a painful vulnerability to reality, while the discipline and standards of writing so intensely can feed a monstrous impatience with the world, for its imperfections and shoddy standards, as well as its conspiracy designed to destroy your concentration.

Despite my call-me-irresponsible bravado, that question of responsibility, and doubts that I could be a writer and also responsible, was a major reason I never married.  Mostly it was my inability to be financially responsible while still pursuing a vocation as a writer, but that alone was so hard that it became overwhelming to consider adding house and children.  (Vonnegut knew this--he used to say that one reason there are so many gay men in the arts is that it takes so long to establish a career, marriage and family is unaffordable.)  But there was also the doubt that I could be emotionally and personally responsible to relationships and to my writing.  So this is in part why I fell into that statistically insignificant class of hetero men who never married.

I saw what the costs to a family might be.  In being reminded of those days, I realized that I was in that particular career track, which through a combination of my own actions and the actions of women who saw all this more clearly than I did, I left.

In the end I suppose the joke was on me, for I didn't have much success, especially success on the page, especially in my most cherished forms of fiction and plays.  I'll never know what my refusal to sacrifice others to my writing struggles contributed to that, but less than a fierce and selfish dedication to that writing above all may well have contributed.  I expect it still does.

It's not that I've been the height of responsibility, far from it. And as a factor in my failures this may be a self-serving delusion. But when I look back on what the writer's life was supposed to be and sometimes was, I'm glad I dodged that bullet.  Like a lot of my accomplishments, this one is of what I didn't do, of pain not caused.

 To some extent that was a road deliberately not taken.  And to perhaps a greater extent, it remains so.  I suppose if I still felt my gift was so great I'd make different choices.  And I don't presume to judge those whose accomplishments are greater.  Even at a distance, I found the Vonnegut biography shockingly reductive.  What's in it (if its proportionately true) may be another side of the story, but it isn't the whole story.  He may have been different in life than he was in interviews and books, but the interviews and books are a big part of the story.  Maybe no writer can live up to the ideals in the work, in the wit and inspiration of the words.  But we can share those ideals and aspirations.

This is an early demonstration of a graph of storytelling that Vonnegut refined--but not a lot--over the years.  It's about four minutes long.