I enjoyed this post by Robert Fay on T. S. Eliot and other working writers. Fay laments the need that almost all writers have to do some other kind of work for a living, especially since he would love to become the kind of writer who doesn’t need such a job:
When I learned that critic and famed literary blogger Maud Newton worked full-time as a legal writer, I was devastated. Maud Newton? The woman with 156,000 followers on Twitter, who knows every book person worth knowing, and has been on C-Span Book TV, she needs a day job? Isn’t there like a NEA grant for an irreplaceably significant literary personage?
From that point forward I decided that I would, for the sake of my own sanity, assume every writer I stumbled across was making a killing from writing. It’s easier that way. If I learn of a promising young novelist, I assume he wakes up each morning in a fabulous pre-war Manhattan apartment, owns a DeLonghi espresso machine and works on his book each day for three to six hours, depending on his mood. In the late afternoon, he strolls downstairs to the mailbox and gathers up a medley of foreign and domestic royalty checks.
On my own website, in my worryingly thin “About” section, I make no mention of the fact that I work full-time in the marketing department of a software company. Why? Maybe for the same reason that pop singers used to hide that they were married — it just doesn’t fit the image. It’s far more romantic to think of Jack Kerouac working as a railroad brakeman, zipping through the American landscape on the California Zephyr, than it is to ponder Eliot in the basement, Dr. William Carlos Williams treating a dying woman or the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006) working as an executive at Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company in Nebraska. That’s why I’ll stick with denial, thank you very much.
He’s got his tongue at least halfway into his cheek there, folks, so don’t get too worked up. However, you are welcome to get worked up about his describing Maud Newton, who has a nice blog, as an “irreplaceably significant literary personage” — four words that might be more accurately applied to, you know, someone like T. S. Eliot.
Anyway, all this reminds me of a story I once heard from the wonderful poet and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia. (Dana tells this story in print somewhere, but I can’t find it.) In the 1980s and early 1990s, when his career as a poet was just getting started, Dana was also a vice-president for marketing at General Foods. He managed to keep his vocation and avocation quite separate — until he started getting poems published in the New Yorker.
The problem was that there was a little company shop that sold snacks, newspapers, and magazines — including the New Yorker. Even a casual browser might see his name in the Table of Contents. And eventually, that’s just what happened. Word got to one of his bosses (given his status in the company, there couldn’t have been very many) who called Dana into his office.
The boss waved a copy of the magazine at Dana and said, “Is this you? You write poetry?”
“Yes,” Dana admitted, “I write poetry.”
The boss sat back in his chair. “Ah, shit,” he said.