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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.”
Read an Stephen Page interview conducted by g emil reutter and Diane Sahms-Guarnieri at FCR: https://foxchasereview.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/10-questions-for-stephen-page/ Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
10 Questions for Stephen Page
Stephen Page is from Detroit, Michigan. He is the author ofThe Timbre of Sand and Still Dandelions. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Bennington College. His critical essays have appeared regularly in the Buenos Aires Herald and the Fox Chase Review. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. . You can find him at:http://stephenmpage.wordpress.com/. His poetry appears in The Fox Chase Review at these links: http://www.foxchasereview.org/12SU/StephenPage.html and http://www.foxchasereview.org/11WS/StephenPage.html
Interview with g emil reutter
GER: So how does a guy from Detroit end up becoming a cattle rancher in Argentina?
SP: Well, I’m not ranching anymore. I was. Loved it. That part of my life is temporarily over. I will tell you, however, how I came to Argentina. The story started when I was a child. Some of my earliest happy memories are of my family vacations. Several times, all summer long, my family would pile in the station wagon and head out on the road. We would take about twenty short vacations a year. Sometimes just for the weekend. We would head up north in Michigan, or down to Florida, or Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina. Mostly visiting family. I loved the feeling of being on the road. Nothing behind you, only that which is ahead of you—Kerouac said something like that. I loved looking at the scenery as it passed by. Most of my extended family lived in rural or sparsely populated nature-filled areas. I remember farmland, lakes, rivers, large patches of woodlands. I loved walking for miles on dirt roads, along animal trails, trudging through swamps, crossing rivers, swimming across lakes. My parents were good caretakers, and I feel lucky that they gave me such an adventurous childhood. I also had two good-natured sisters who were easy-going travelling companions.
When I was fifteen or so, I ran away from home (not to escape anything in particular, at least nothing I could conceive at that age). I was walking home after visiting a friend’s house and I got this idea in my head to go somewhere, anywhere . . . no definite destination in mind, just go. As the sun was setting I was standing on the side of I-75, watching the smokestacks of factories turn yellow then orange then red, and I stuck out my thumb. I didn’t get very far, only down to Cincinnati, when I realized I was hungry. I crossed the highway divider and hitchhiked back home. I slipped the key into the lock on the front door of my home as the sun was rising.
As a young man, with my driver’s license, every Friday when I had my weekly cash pay stuffed in my pocket, I would jump in my car and drive, sometimes to visit family, sometime just to be “out there.” Away. Gone. Free. Traveling is like having wings, even in a car. I really found my wings when I bought my Harley. Riding a Harley has no other feeling like it in this world. It has a distinct vibration and rumble. On an open road, with no traffic, there is just you, the bike, the wind, and the scenery around you. You have a panoramic view of your surroundings—especially if you ride without a helmet (kids, please don’t do that!).
Once, I had a union job, cutting steel, and after I worked there for one year, the foreman came up to me on a Friday afternoon, and said, “You,” he paused, looking me in the eye, then pointing at me with a greasy finger, “are on vacation.” “What?” I asked, thinking I was fired. “You get a week’s paid vacation for your first year on this job. We need you to take the time now while the work is slow.” “Thanks,” I muttered, thinking ‘where will I go, what will I do?’ That night I fell asleep watching a movie called Easy Rider. I woke up early the next morning and packed a sleeping bag and some clothes in a sea bag my cousin J had given me, threw the bag over my shoulder, and headed out the door. As I was stepping off the front porch, my cousin T (who was sharing rent with me in an old farm house on the edges of Detroit) asked, “where are you going?” “To New Orleans.” “How will you get there?” “I don’t know, I guess I’ll hitchhike (I was in-between owning vehicles at the time) . . . Or maybe I’ll go downtown to the bus terminal and take a bus.” She looked at me and smiled, then said, “At least let me drive you to the station.” So, I ended up hanging out on Bourbon Street for a couple of nights, seeing the Rolling Stones play live, taking a train up to Jackson, Mississippi, then hitchhiking though Arkansas, Texas, north to Colorado, onto North Dakota, then turning east to back towards Detroit. I arrived home Sunday evening, eight and a half days later, just in time to eat dinner, sleep a bit, wake up early the next morning and go back to work. I took a lot of trips like that, either hitchhiking, in my car, or on my bike—I was always travelling, going somewhere, anywhere, just away, on my way to “There. There. Somewhere. Anywhere but here.”
After a few years of factory jobs, 7-11 midnight shifts, gas-station jobs, bowling-alley jobs, landscaping jobs, restaurant jobs—I decided I had to leave the Detroit scene. Get away. Far, far away. I landed a job that allowed me globe-circling travel. Out of seven years in this occupation, I spent fifty-two months overseas. Man, I saw a lot of the world. I ended up one day in Kenya, on a photo safari, and inside the same tour bus I was in was this exotic green-eyed goddess of a women. I noticed that every time I looked at her, she was looking at me, and every time she looked at me, I was looking at her. We fell in love. She was, and is, Argentine. Here I am.
GER: You have said that teaching is a passion of yours. Tell us why and how the interaction with students contributes to your own development as a writer?
SP: I love teaching because it is a way of sharing, sharing knowledge, a way of helping others. The best way teaching literature helped my development as a writer was that I was able to restudy the masters, analyze good writing and show others how to read well. To read carefully. To “read,” not just read. To understand the techniques of literature the masters use and/or used well—i.e. foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism . . . saying something without saying something.
SP: Most writers write in a room with the door closed, the phone turned off. I do. If a writer has to write in a room with family around, the writer usually has a spouse, family member, friend, or an employee take care of the family while he or she writes. Some writers write in a café. I also do that often. I know a few cafés that have vibrant creative energy and when I sit down at a table and lean over my journal or computer to write, the conversations of the other patrons just become white noise. In a sense, all writing is done in isolation. A writer has to know this, be ready for it, and, in some cases, have a disposition that does not mind being alone with itself for a while. I break out of my bouts of isolation by having an understanding wife, a circle of friends, and an extended family who understand my need to be alone a while and are always there for me when I open my (metaphorical and literal) door to socialize.
SP: My first collection of poems, The Timbre of Sand, was inspired by the exotic green-eyed woman, and started with my first love letters to her, after the safari was over. I wrote those letters while I was still traveling around for my employers and she was living in Argentina. About a year after the safari, I resigned from my travel-required occupation, moved to Argentina, and started to attend college. At university, I realized I loved literature and writing so much I made that my major, and I started to write short stories and poems. Then, one day, I was skimming over some of the early letters I wrote my wife (by then we were living together and shared rings) and I realized the epistolaries had poetic potential. I started a collection of poems dedicated to her, and as I began it I thought, ‘what better love poem is there than a sonnet.’ So I started a collection of sonnets. But being a bit of an originally minded rebellious person, I decided to contemporize the sonnet. I kept the line relations, the stanzas, the meter, the assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme that Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets have, but I eliminated the end rhyme (or at least freed my self of having to end rhyme). I had a few of them published separately in small presses, and then a small publisher in NY picked them up and printed them as a book.
My second collection of poems, Still Dandelions, was inspired by my love for nature. Even as a child, on my vacations and short trips with my family, I felt a oneness with nature, a connection to it all, a passageway through nature to the beyond, the Universe, the Everything, the One. I lived in New York for a while and was lucky enough to live near a park that was spread out over hundreds of square acres. It had trails leading through the trees, up and down hills, down to the Hudson. There was a garden in the center of the park that was tended year-round by city employees, so if there was a mild winter, some plant or another was in bloom all year round. If there was a harsh winter, something was in bloom at least ten months of the year. The garden attracted bees, other insects, birds. And the woodland always had some miracle of life happening, even in winter—lichen growing, moss, early tree buds, cardinals and sparrows gathering in groups on the snow, a squirrel leaping about to dig where it hid a nut last autumn, a hawk or eagle gliding around then swooping low, looking for a meal. There was the bite of the cold, the rush of a snow flurry, the pelting of hail on my face. There was also the singing of birds in spring, the green-skied vortex of an approaching storm, the stinging rain, the wilting heat of summer, the sawing of the cicada, the myriad-color leaves of autumn. I started a collection of poems about nature, the oneness I felt with it, and I thought, ‘what better way to share this oneness I feel than to honor Basho and write a collection of haiku.’ I took some liberties with the form to make it my own, but in doing so, as I did with the sonnets, I realized that writing in form is an act of discipline that all writers should learn in order to become original later. A good haiku is not an easy thing to master and takes a bit of practice. A great haiku is even harder to master. “A haiku is, or a haiku isn’t,” I think Kerouac or Snyder said. A haiku is not just a 5-7-5 syllabic poem (the English version of a haiku). If anyone would like to acquire a better understanding of haiku, I recommend reading Haiku Moment, edited by Bruce Ross. A haiku captures the Oneness, the feeling of connection to the natural world . . . it could happen while hearing a flap of a birdwing, a bee buzzing by. A haiku captures this moment of oneness with the world, the loss of the self—and this usually happens in a second, or even less. The epiphany comes immediately afterwards—and if the experiencer of the Oneness is a writer, he or she writes the experience down in a concise form (to coincide with the briefness of the “moment”) in order to remember it and share it with readers. There again, like my first book, I had many of the poems published separately in lit mags, then another small publisher in NY printed the collection as a book.
GER: Your literary criticisms have appeared in many publications, including here at FCR. What inspired you on this course and what are the benefits to you as a writer?
SP: That goes back to when I was child again. Another one of my earliest memories is that of reading. I read a lot while I was growing up. I would often share books, Dr. Seuss and such, with friends and family. We would discuss the passages and rhymes and meaning (I didn’t realize this was analysis at the time). As a teenager I was always deciphering Rock-and-Roll lyrics with friends—what does that object in that song signify, what is the double meaning in this word, how does the title coincide with the content, how many symbols are in that that stanza and why are they there? Then as a literature/writing student at Palomar College, Columbia University, and Bennington College, I was able to employ my love of analysis and set my thoughts on paper. This love of analysis benefited me as a writer because I was again, like in teaching later, able to understand how the great writers used, and use, techniques of literature.
GER: You have read your poetry at various venues in Argentina. How important is it for you to read your work in public and what affect does it have on your writing?
SP: I stared a writing group almost as soon as I arrived in Argentina. I thought it would be a good way to help writers help each other. We read our stuff aloud to each other. Later I started a poetry reading group, as a means of sharing literature with others. Once I was invited to read my poems aloud at an annual Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Reading a book alone is a solitary pleasure, a gift from the writer to the reader one book at a time. Reading aloud to an audience is a public event, a gift shared with more than one person in linear time. I discovered by reading my own stuff aloud, especially while I practiced reading aloud to myself, I caught the glitches in the lines, the skips in the meter, the loss of the music I thought was there. Thus, by reading aloud, or preparing to read aloud, I was better able to edit my work.
Stephen Page reading at the Ernesto Sabato Foundation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3b-5YrHXe-U
GER: Your fiction and poetry have appeared widely in the small and electronic press. How do you deal with the submission process and how important is to you as a writer to be published?
SP: Writing and submitting are two completely different processes. They use different halves of the brain, different sections of the cortex. Synapses fire differently. In one process you are a creator—in the other you are a publicist, a promoter, a hand shaker, a delver, a researcher. Every writer should be able to have a secretary edit, another to submit, a publisher, and a promoter to get the work known. That way the writer could spend all of his or her time on his or her writing. Use the cerebrum only for creating. Anyone in any one of the arts may draw parallels with this. Currently, with the revolution of eBooks, many writers need not only to be a creator, they need to be their own editor, their own publicist, and in many cases, their own publisher. In any event, I handle the submission process by dividing part of my “writing” time each day into parts—part for creating, part for editing, and part for submitting.
Writing is immensely more important to me than publishing. Writing is the part I love, the fun part, the part I want to do—the part I need to do. Publishing, however, is a pat on my back, and it is one way I can share with others. I do love sharing.
SP: Yes, I turn to Gary Snyder because of his love of travel and his love of nature, (which I can relate to). I also admire his ability to write well. Snyder spent years meditating in Asia and studying Oriental forms of poetry. Judging by his writing, I think he felt the Oneness, the losing of the self that I feel. I often turn to Mary Oliver and Louise Glück for that same reason—for their apparent awareness of the Oneness (and for their quality of writing). I also turn to other writers and reread their books once in a while because they write well and capture the drama of human interaction, the strife of life, the struggles of relations and love—like Neruda, Cross, Hemingway, Machado, Vallejo, Borges, Plath.
GER: You have quoted Matthew Arnold, “Life is not having or getting, but of being and becoming”. Why this quote and can you expand upon it?
SP: It is easy to become a materialist. Materialism is something innate in all of us and is developed one way or the other depending on our socialization. Historically, we humans—modern Homo sapiens and early humanoids—especially in societies or groups, have almost always measured success by what we own, be it property, possessions, exchange (or even worse, other human beings). What we have or what we are getting—even when we were hunter-gatherers and vying over territory (not just for survival but to feel that a section of land is ours).
Today, we are brought up in a consumeristic world. We are driven, from the time we are children, to want to have things, to get more, to buy a new football, a new jump rope, a new car every year, a superfluous piece of jewelry . . . to be rich, to live in a big house, to own land, to wear new clothes styled in the latest fashion. More often than not we are striving to own more than what we need to survive healthily. I think Sixto Rodriguez said it best when he sang, “You measure your wealth by the things that you hold . . .”
Very few people are taught to seek spirituality, and not just religion, which is societally subjectivized (and there is nothing wrong with religion)—I mean pureness of the soul (if that is what you want to call it, a “soul”—this experience we all have of existence). Not the egotistical sense of existence—the I—but the Oneness. Not many people are taught too meditate, to walk alone in the woods—or participate in any other method that allows zoning into the Oneness. We, as adults, should work harder at teaching children how to be One with the Universe (the universe as we currently imagine it). We need to teach our children respect for land and nature, not only for their spiritual health, but also for their physical health. We also need to teach the kids how to be better people, how to share, how to be good to others, how to be calm in stressful situations. We need teach them to be rich in spirit, generosity, and kindness.
As for each of ourselves, we need to make conscious efforts every day to become a better person than we were the day before, a better human being, a more humane entity that functions well in society and becomes one with the One.
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
SP: Oh, I have at least 10 projects I am working on. Some are stories and some are poems I am compiling or fitting together into meaningful, coherent collections. Some are separate pieces of writing I am editing. Also, I am writing a new book