The Writer’s Triangle By Caitlin O’Neil
Triangulated By Caitlin O’Neil | Poets & Writers Magazine, March/April
Until I was invited to appear on a panel about life in the “toxic triangle,” I had no idea that I was in the writer’s equivalent of the plane-swallowing waters off the coast of Bermuda. I did know, only too well, how, during the year since I had left my full-time job as a public television producer and become a freelance writer, my furtive early mornings spent writing before work had given way to long afternoons puzzling over money, freelance assignments, and a growing sense of isolation. Alas, I was in the dreaded triangle, I just hadn’t quite realized it.
The term refers to the metaphorical vortex writers get pulled into while trying to balance making a living and being committed to their literary lives. Adapting the concept from a book about depression by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, writer and psychologist Susan Schnur, put the panel together for an event to be held at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston that offers high-quality workshops, events and professional development opportunities for writers of all levels, last February. Schnur outlines the problem succinctly: If a writer is earning enough money, she doesn’t have enough time to write. If a writer has enough time to write, she’s broke. If a writer is cut off from people and money-generating work in order to write, she’s depressed and isolated.
“I came up with the concept by watching fifty writers do exactly what I do-continually try out new recipes for getting the issues of time/money/isolation right,” Schnur explains. “One constantly tries this, then that, but it’s almost impossible to get right.” It’s the trap Dorothy Parker must have had in mind when she wrote: “The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning ferryboats?”
The response to Schnur’s panel invitation was overwhelming. She’d struck a nerve among the sixty or so members of The Writers’ Room in Boston’s financial district who share communal work space-and, apparently, a secret. Sitting in neighboring cubicles, we silently harbored anxiety, depression, and self-doubt-not about our writing, but about how our writing fits into our lives.
We finally brought these internal dialogues into the open one Saturday morning last spring, at the Grub Street writing center on Boston Common. Along with my co-panelists- nonfiction author Amy Sutherland, freelance journalist Paul Goldsmith, and a poet/professor Rebecca Morgan Frank-we laid bare our word-borne neuroses, challenges, and afflictions. Sutherland had clenched her teeth so hard as she pounded out her latest book that she’d needed thousands of dollars of dental work. She worked herself into such a frenzy that her husband, she explained, “would come in the door and he’d say my eyes would be going two different directions. I would have fangs and steam coming out of my ears. He would just grab The New Yorker and run to the bathroom and disappear for an hour, and I’d be back to talking to the dogs.”
Goldsmith had taken up smoking and gone to a shrink. “I was smoking a pack a day, burning through cigarettes,” he admitted. “I wound up having a panic attack where I actually thought I was having heart trouble, and then when you go to the doctor and he said, ‘You just need to get out more.’” Frank was so busy teaching at four different schools that she never slept, let alone wrote. “I fantasize all the time about having time just to write,” she said. Then there was me: overjoyed to have finished a novel but missing my old colleagues and the security of a full-time job.
Our stories were only the beginning. The writers in the audience eagerly shared questions and problems of their own. Should I quit my job? What about kids? How do you balance paying writing and the writing you love? By the end of the morning, our panel had morphed into a confessional. Here at last were others who understood the anxiety over an elusive book contract or an article that never materializes, over the bank account that is a carefully orchestrated fugue of debits and transfers, and the pressure of all those lonely hours.
While every professional these days seems to have trouble finding a balance between work and life, the writer’s dilemma is more nuanced: to find a balance between the work one loves and the work that pays (and then try to find time for family or leisure too). The problem has long been endemic to the literary life. Wallace Stevens worked at an insurance lawyer, heading to the office each morning, penning poems between contracts. More common than the literary success of a Michael Chabon or Stephen King is the life of writers who toil, in obscurity and often in isolation, balancing the creative urge to write and the pragmatic need to make a living.
Fiction writer Cort McMeel knows this well. A full-time commodity trader in Baltimore, Maryland, by day, McMeel writes at night and on weekends. “Trading is great in so many ways because you work fewer hours than most jobs and earn a great living,” he says. It sure beats my advertising copywriting gig where I had beer jingles dancing around in my head at night and was too burned out creatively to write during those precious night time hours.”
Stealing hours outside of a full-time job is grueling, however, and leaves little time for anything else-from eating to sleeping to being with your kids. “My wife and child are a great boon and joy,” McMeel says, ” but they, of course, take up time that the jealous mistress Muse requires. There is never enough time to write all the ideas in my head.”
With his writing time truncated, he finds it nearly impossible to produce long, in-depth fiction. “My work is completely structured around time. It’s 100 percent short stories because of child and work responsibilities,” says McMeel, who also found time to launch a new crime magazine called Murdaland last September. “The dedication it takes for sustained concentration is a whole lot tougher with youngin’s, whereas you can work up the discipline to write a good self-contained short story in two, six hour stints.” Nothing but pure love could compel someone to make such sacrifices.
Most writers, of course, dream of finding a way to write full-time, and many embark upon it even if that means credit card debt, lack of insurance, or constant hustle to find freelance work. But even when a fellowship or book advance adequately funds the dream, many writers find that having so much time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
An anonymous writer in Boston was so happy to have a university grant that gave him all day, every day, to write that he excluded everything else: family, social engagements, food, fresh air, and exercise. “I had this feeling that I didn’t want to waste a single moment of this stretch of time that I was extremely fortunate to have.” So while he was able to write much more than he would have with a full-time job, he says, when “I got around people, I realized how isolated and depressed I was feeling.”
After long stretches at his desk, Stephen Page, a poet living in Buenos Ares, experiences bouts of isolation and “pain too,” he says, “like something has been ripped out of me.” To counteract the feeling, he makes time to be with his family “no matter what. Evenings with my spouse, and family get-togethers on Sundays.”
“Everyone focuses so much on writing, as if that’s all you need in life, but that’s a fallacy,” says writer and psychologist Schnur. “You can’t have a productive life if no one is in it but you.”
Page also relies on other forms of work, which he finds essential for his well-being. A cattle rancher and a teacher, he turns to poet Gary Snyder for inspiration. “He never quit his day job,” says Page, who has taught for many years to pay the bills but who nevertheless relies on credit cards, eats sandwiches for meals, and wears old shoes. But he also welcomes teaching as a chance to forge connections that can seem like lifelines on days when loneliness is lurking. “Teaching is a passion of mine,” says the poet. “I feel it’s necessary to pass on knowledge and influence people to stay curious all their lives.”
William Giraldi, a prose writer and fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University, agrees. “Teaching is the perfect job for a writer. I cherish my teaching job because I worked construction out in the sun and snow for a year,” he says. “Even if I could support myself writing, I would continue to teach. No matter how important writing is to your life, you can’t do it all day long.”
But while many derive inspiration from teaching, or turn to it for its flexibility and steady income, such positions are often not very lucrative and demand an enormous time commitment. Writers can spend so much time cobbling together enough teaching gigs to pay the bills that they’re left with no time to do the work that the teaching was meant to support in the first place.
McMeel believes that writers should steer clear of academia. Instead “get out in the world and mix it up, get your hands dirty, get your ass kicked a little bit,” he says. “Adults who have been in jobs that require risk are way more likely to have stories of failure and glory and betrayal and redemption than young adults in high school and college.”
On this point, Page agrees. “I think to round out your writing, you need to be bigger than yourself, to help people achieve what they want in life, support them, and understand them. Hopefully, it will all come back to you.” Schnur says that this is the biggest issue for writers: “to realize that all the stuff that goes into getting to their desks is as important as what they actually do once they’re at their desks.”
We live in a culture that doesn’t always “take seriously or value [a writers] profound need to write,” she says, adding that for many of us, “writing is as necessary as eating and sleeping.”
That is why so many writers learn to set the alarm for an hour earlier, steal an hour between classes, or earn a sabbatical after years of hard work. It’s not self-discipline but love, noted Annie Dilliard, who said writing “is like rearing children-willpower has very little to do with it.” Giraldi puts it this way: “If you tell me you’re trying to find time to write, that’s like saying ‘I’m trying to work it out with my husband.’ You can’t try; you have to make it happen.”
Like other forms of love-marriage, parenthood-writing is about deep commitment. Balances are negotiated, sacrifices are made, but in the end it is necessity that dictates what gets done. “Writers don’t chose the task of writing,” says Giraldi. “It chooses them.”
And like any relationship, the bargain goes both ways. You, too, must chose writing, by setting aside the time, money, and energy it takes to stay committed. “You have to be willing to spend serious time-as serious as that of the writing itself-teasing apart what you need in order to get writing,” says Schnur, whether that means a babysitter, an editor, or a workspace. “It’s a recipe,” she says, “that you need to be constantly adjusting.”