Writers and the writing life: peril, forever lost in the woods

November 15, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

As a newspaper writer and editor involved with books, I get asked questions. The most frequent one comes from people who have written books or are in the process of writing books or who are considering writing books. They seek the secret of getting published. Every one yearns for success, in dollars or fame or preferably both.

I am sympathetic but useless.

My response is much like my counsel to earnest young people asking about futures in journalism: "Don't do it!" There is, of course, some wiggle room. But my point, in both instances, is strongly this:

Writing, professionally or even as avocation, is a painfully demanding, usually thankless, intensely competitive, exhausting process that offers rewards that are mainly of only the faintest, evanescent and almost entirely internal kind.

I have spent my life writing for a living, mainly surrounded by other writers. So far as I can tell, for most of us the goad is a weird psychic motivation that has little to do with durable satisfaction; the pleasures found in writing are as fleeting as dew on an unseasonable July morning. Go get rich - I tell these supplicants - or powerful, or happy. All are easier.

Of course, my advice is ignored, as it should be. That's its point. People who are going to write are - well, they're going to write. They can't bear not to.

For us so afflicted now comes "Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life" (additionally subtitled "Writing as Risk"), by Frederick Busch (St. Martin's, 256 pages, $23.95).

You know the name? You should. Busch is, without doubt, a distinguished and powerful novelist and a rightly respected critic. He has published two previous books of nonfiction and 18 novels or collections of short stories, between "I Wanted a Year Without Fall" in 1971 and "Girls" in 1997. He teaches at Colgate.

Obsessive readers

This volume is a collection of essays binding together two themes: Writing, as declared, but also reading, for the two

cannot be separated. In general, find a writer who is not at least a marginally obsessed reader, and you will discover somebody who's not much of a writer.

Busch has - or expresses - a bleak view of writing's purpose.

He equates it to the unrelievable yearning to end solitude, to be finally nourished. He deliciously explores that in the mythology of Hansel and Gretel; we all are children abandoned, hungry and lost in the woods.

He is wonderfully contemptuous of pretentiousness and of what he takes to be the prevailing attitudes about - and especially treatment of - literature in the present-day academic world.

He cites a particularly influential professorial essay that dismissed feeling, emotion, more, as "the wrong way to interrogate literature." With that, he takes off, beautiful in his soaring scorn:

"Literature, then, is not studied or read; it is not considered or enjoyed: It is interrogated. Tie it in a chair beneath hot lights. Pump it full of chemicals. Apply electrodes to its most delicate parts. Beat it; steal its family; disappear it. The aggression in the word is noteworthy, and it is bloated with self-delight, with arrogance. We know the right way, that sure locution says."

At this point, Busch takes a hard, cold turn from the ironic to the righteous: "And it is bad, and a symptom of bad education by graduate students turned college professor and high school teacher, and an assurance, for years to come, of literary papers and essays and books that hum with contentment and cover the field - a living blanket of flies on the body of literature."

He redeems himself! He is a man who has been teaching literature for a living since a few brief youthful experiments in trying to stay alive while writing alone in commercial writing jobs.

But - somehow - he has remained a writer. And he has continued to be certain that serious writing is about life, not anatomy; about feelings, not nerve endings; about truths, not data.

Combatting scorn

In "The Floating Christmas Tree," he presents very readably that familiar, tedious process of writing-rejection-writing-rejection-writing-rejection. He celebrates the manner in which many great books were scorned by publishers, sometimes by dozens of them - yet somehow makes credible his own continuing to write in the face of both that experience and the awareness that it likely will be forever thus. He can be immensely funny and ironic and playful; a tiny piece called "The Writer's Wife" is a masterpiece of wry.

Much of Busch's work here is severely introspective, painfully and unrelentingly self-examining. He presents writing as just such a process. And that can be debated. Not all writing is self-referential.

His "The Language of Starvation" is a breathtakingly perceptive adventure into the role of nourishment - or, more significantly, its deprivation or denial - seen in works of Dickens, Melville, Thoreau, Kafka, Steinbeck, Beckett. His essays on Graham Greene and on Ernest Hemingway - unstintingly confronting all the familiar, facile rejections of their artistry - are as insightful of the role of discipline in art as any work I can think of.

Writing of "David Copperfield," Busch comes to a central theme of his idea of writing: "In a novel about a writer, a novel in which the book is the man, Dickens does what all novelists do: He resists time by rowing backward, against the current, into his life. Like all serious artists, he takes the matter of his art as a matter of life and death."

And that, I suppose, is the best possible test an aspiring writer can set in deciding whether to go on.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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