"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Writers make bad heros...

One of the scariest things about wanting to be a writer - even scarier than the death of the print industry, the improbable and minuscule financial remuneration, and the grueling ordeal of receiving hundreds of rejection letters - is the fact that all one's favorite writers, the people one aspires to become some day, are all depressed alcoholic loners, dead white men, or both. When I imagine being a writer, I remember walking through an exhibition of Richard Avedon's portraits and noticing that the writers he photographed were more grizzled, more haggard, and more wrinkled than all the movie stars, politicians, and farm workers combined.

Of course, there's an alternative route for my imagination to take. Wouldn't it be nice to be like Colin Firth in Love Actually, a nice, handsome person, living by a lake, falling in love with a cute Portuguese girl, and writing a novel on the side? Or you could be J.M. Barrie, as portrayed in Finding Neverland, cavorting in the park and playing dress-up with adorable kids all while jotting down notes about your next best-seller in a classy little black notebook. Or J.K. Rowling in her Scottish castle - need I say more?

But even the movies don't provide very many examples of idyllic writerly life - I'm hard pressed to come up with another example. And real-life successful writers are a quieter sort than actors or other stars. They don't make newspaper headlines or appear on the cover of Vogue or get stalked by tabloids. So where's a young writer to turn?

I've found two sources of fodder for my aspirations. One of my new favorite activities is attending readings at local bookstores. Technically, this is not only an activity - it's also part of my job to scout out writers as possible invitees to read for a podcast my bosses run. But it's probably the most fun thing I've ever had to do for any job.

First of all, it's an excuse to go to a bookstore and browse. More importantly, there are real, living-and-breathing writers who have written actual books (which are sitting right there on the podium, as proof) and who are willing to answer all one's breathless questions about how they managed to do it. But the best part is, they seem normal, even...dare I say happy? These are not the withered, miserable old men behind the classics of western literature. Out of five authors I've seen at readings this summer, three are youngish, sprightly women who have traveled to India, started families, and published multiple books. They always seem to have lots friends in the audience (no loners, these), and their ability to articulate the ideas behind their writing is impressive. The bottom line is: I would be happy to become any of these women.

My second source of inspiration is a bit less tangible, but no less exciting, for me at least. Enter BBC Radio 4, where, every week or so, the lovely Mariella Frostrop talks to several authors about their writing. And how wonderful it is to hear two intelligent people conversing about the thing one loves most (with British accents, no less). Sometimes she even invites two writers on the show to discuss a common theme in both their work - how often do you get to hear two writers talking to each-other about writing?

The conclusion, I guess, is that if one wants to obsess about books, one must turn to bookish pursuits, like attending readings and listening to the radio. It might not be as cool as seeing a movie or going to a concert, but the next time you're looking for an exciting evening out, I recommend a bookstore.

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