Sentinel Poetry (Online) #22
September 2004

ISSN 1479-425X


A working mother finds a heavy burden in mothering her children and being a dutiful wife to her husband if she has one. A working father misses the school events that mean the world to his children, and won't, or can't help with housework. A working writer has no choice but to put his writing on a back burner due to the tyranny of bills. The trouble is that the working writer is actually in red-hot burning hell.

In the Bible, Christ suggests that if a person's left eye will cause him to go to hell, he should pluck it out and throw it away. So we see these days that people are actively practicing this plucking and throwing away of inconvenient burdens. If motherhood is more important to a woman than her career, she simply stops working. If she is in a place like the United Kingdom where there is social security, the state picks up her bills. If her career is more important than her marriage and her children, she gets a divorce and ships the children to boarding schools if her husband won't have them. Same goes for a working father, and because the plucking and throwing away of distractions is getting easier, our time is littered with children of absentee or single parents, and divorce lawyers performing a social service by helping people escape potentially dangerous marriages after a few benign arguments. I always remember the scene in Tony Parsons' hilarious 'Man and Boy' in which Gina tells her husband about the job she'd just obtained in Tokyo: "I've been offered a job…It's a big job. As a translator for an American bank…The girl who's been doing the job - she's really nice, Japanese-American, I met her - is leaving to have a baby…" Two women - one leaving to start a family she may pluck and throw away in a few years, the other throwing away her family for a chance to eat sushi in a business suit in Tokyo.

But for a writer, it is a different ball game altogether, especially so if the working writer also has a family. The major difference, and the reason the writer's ordeal defies description is that unlike a married man who walks away from his marriage, or a woman who chooses not to have children at all or never to marry, the writer cannot choose not to write. In Letters To A Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke suggests that the true writer is the one for whom only death could separate from his calling. He writes, "Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write." He suggests the would-be writer should ask himself the pertinent question, 'MUST I WRITE?' and the answer must be a firm yes, and the writer must then build his life "according to this necessity."

I am reflecting on all these again today, not because it is a new discovery, but because in the process of researching an essay-in-progress, I stumbled on "No one reads poetry" - a BBC Kent Video Nation recording by Ben Barton. The bitterness and frustration in that 2' 53" recording is the story of so many writers around the world. As I reflect on this, I recall that some years ago, a friend defined a profession as "The thing you do, no matter what." No matter what! People have to stick to their chosen professions even if their families have to disintegrate, even if they risk homelessness and starvation, even if they dance at the very purview of ridicule, their professions must be what they do - no matter what. I would not go so far as agreeing with Mr Barton that no one reads poetry, it is just that poets and publishers of poetry are still uncomfortable about making poetry a popular art. Making money from poetry is even tighter than making money as an actor in Hollywood where 98% of actors are out of work at any one time. Probably less than 1% of poets worldwide don't have to do any supplementary work.

It seems that work is the writer's worst nightmare and fiercest adversary. People may ask, 'what about talent and skill?' Of course they are paramount, but writers cannot develop their creative muscles if they don't exercise them. Work infringes on a writer's creative time. Work saps a writer's physical and mental energy. Work robs a writer of invaluable research time. Work ambushes a writer wrestling a big time-sensitive essay or book. Bearing in mind of course that writing is work, the enemy here is regular office-based or non-office-based work with regimented hours and other forms of control. Control is the negative trigger because writers are fundamentally free spirits. The only things they like to control are their works, but even then, they act merely as moderators or referees between their stories and their characters, and between their settings and their dialogues. Writers are funnels fitted with filters through which messages seep for the eventual entertainment, or education of their several publics.

Of course all these tyrannical attributes of work apply only to the outsider writer. Outsider writers meaning those writers whose very upbringing, education and career paths are not within the literary environment, or writers without research grants, writer's residences or institutional backing, which they are unlikely to get anyway until they have written and published something worthwhile. The Art Council of England for instance is listed in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2004 as a provider of  "15 awards annually of £7000 each for writers who need a period concentrated work on their next book. These awards are open to writers who have been previously published in book form." The problem is getting that first book finished. The next book will invariably take care of itself.

For writers faced with the work or write dilemma, it sometimes must seem like a dead end. If somebody asked me today to proffer solutions, I think the most useful suggestion would be: make sure you are born comfortable, but not so comfortable that you take the way things are for granted. Whatever the circumstances of your birth may be, start young and try to achieve literary success during your student days when somebody else is responsible for paying your fees and subsidising your life. Helen Oyeyemi, the Nigerian 18-year-old girl whose book The Icarus Girl is forthcoming in 2005 (Bloomsbury) might just have escaped the work or write quandary. The start young suggestion is of course totally useless to most writers of my age. Alternatively, have a five-year get-out-of-work plan. Work out how much you must put away (no matter what) every month, so that at the end of five years, you will have enough money to live for twelve to twenty-four months without needing to work. Within those two years, write enough poetry to repair the damaged parts of your spirit and keep your spirit thenceforth in a state of repair, and write enough prose to earn you a financial future. This is not to say you should go writing with money on your mind, but to strive for excellence. In today's world, it is unusual to write excellent prose - especially novels, without commensurate financial compensation.

If a writer does not need to do a nine-to-five job, and does not do one, but fails, given twenty-four work-free months to produce an outstanding piece of literature, perhaps he might consider going back to his old job, do it until 65 and live off a pension. Joseph Heller must be dying of laughter over the outsider writer's unique catch-22: he cannot really write if he is stuck in a regular job, but cannot grow in his regular job because he hates it and does not give it his best. Everyday he walks into the office, he feels he is walking into his own tomb. This is an unfortunate reflection on the fortunes of dead men working. 

Nnorom Azuonye

Ben Barton, BBC Kent, Video Nation (Online)
Tony Parsons,
Man and Boy (1999, Harper Collins) pp.89-90
Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2004 (A & C Black) p.494
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet, (1993, W.W. Norton & Co) pp.18-19

Cover Page l Top of Page