Lev Grossman reminds you that you don’t have to be a genius in order to be a writer

I’ve always admired Lev Grossman’s book reviews, even if I didn’t much like his first novel. But this essay he published, called “How Not to Write,” is really useful.

On how he took to the road, right after finishing college, to find a tiny town to be a full-time writer:

But I was lonely. It was the first fall I’d ever spent out of school, and I’d never been that isolated before. There were no cell phones back then. There was no texting, no Facebook, no Twitter, no email. Long-distance calls cost money. The web hadn’t even been invented yet. I had to get my pornography in the form of magazines.

You can’t be that lonely now, not anymore, but back then loneliness was a totally different animal: It came at you hot and strong, raw and uncut.

Then things began to get worse (leading up to the final and most important paragraph of the essay):

When things were at their very worst I would go down to the basement.

The guy who owned the farmhouse was a retired schoolteacher, and his hobby was making pickles. The basement was where he kept his pickle barrels, and late at night, when I was at my loneliest and most crazy, I used to jimmy the lock and creep down there. It was cold, and the floor was packed dirt, and there was no light —probably there was a light switch somewhere but I could never find it, so I was in complete darkness. Working by touch I slid the tops off the pickle barrels and felt the half-pickled cucumbers bobbing around in the brine. Then, slowly and methodically, crouching on the dirt floor in the cold and the dark, I ate them.

I lived like that for two more months before I called it quits; I lasted six months in all. Afterward I told people I left because I ran out of money, which was objectively true, but it wasn’t the real truth. The real truth was that I left because I was sick of being cold and lonely and a lousy writer. I had finally reached the tipping point where the misery of living alone in Maine outweighed the misery of having to admit to myself that it wasn’t working, that I did need other human beings, and that I wasn’t a genius after all. I would have admitted anything as long as I didn’t have to live in Maine anymore.

When I finally made up my mind to leave Ellsworth I was so relieved I felt like I was weightless. I couldn’t believe it was finally over. I felt like I was walking on the moon. I stayed up all night packing everything I owned into the Subaru and left just as the sky was starting to show cornflower blue on the horizon. I drove out of town — the radio was playing “Tangled Up in Blue” — then drove back into town when I realized I’d forgotten my one good kitchen knife, then I drove out again, this time for good. Not a single word I wrote there was ever published. I haven’t once set foot in the state of Maine since then.

It’s OK not to be a genius, whatever that is, if there even is such a thing…the creative life may or may not be the apex of human civilization, but either way it’s not what I thought it was. It doesn’t make you special and sparkly. You don’t have to walk alone. You can work in an office — I’ve worked in offices for the past 15 years and written five novels while doing it. The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.

Oof, it makes me glad I’ve never felt that compulsion. I’ve never even been really excited about “writers’ retreats,” where you get a cabin for a week or two and guaranteed “alone time” to write. Because, of course, that’s not sustainable. If you can’t work out a writing schedule compatible with all the parts of normal life (the day job, family, other obligations), you’re not going to succeed as a writer.

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