A good question that, in time, we all end up answering, one way or another...
This question won’t apply to everyone. And I know the obvious answer is to follow your own heart. But it seems to me (a currently relatively happily single person who intends to marry and would also like to be a father) that some days it feels easiest to remain a relatively happy single person. But marriage and fatherhood also seem so deeply rewarding. (Tillie sure took the plunge and gained superpowers as well as periods of "silence"). But, to be honest, I'm very afraid of not being able to have time to write. And I'm afraid of not being able to reach my potential if I don't have the freedom to stay playful or think deeply or chase often fleeting intuitions. And I'm afraid of being grumpy to those who don't deserve grumpiness, should I become limited. I wonder how you navigate periods of overwhelm to your creativity. Do you have tips for acknowledging when the world is on fire, and still sitting down to write? Any advice on making these big commitments, despite these fears?
One of the things that always occurs to me in taking questions from people I don’t know is that it’s a lot like writing a story. The correct answer is always: “Tell me more.” And once you’ve heard that “more,” in greater and greater specificity, the final answer might be a smile and a shrug, like, “Yeah, that’s complicated. Well, you’ll figure it out.” A third answer might be: “You know better than I do what you want and need, and life will just happen to you in a mad rush anyway, because you can’t help but do what you do, and, at that time, you’ll laugh when you look back at the days (these days) when you were trying to figure out in advance what has since happened to you in a completely different and more powerful way than you ever thought it would.”
But, because I can’t seem to resist advising: it occurs to me that for a person to decide early on to stay single in order to serve their writing (especially if that person is inclined, as our questioner seems to be, to partner up and have a family) might put an awful lot of pressure on the writing, pressure that may not ultimately be helpful artistically, in that it eliminates the sense of play needed to do our best work. So, in that sense, to make that decision preemptively might be a bad craft decision. Suddenly, whenever you’re writing, you’re worried, like, “I gave up everything else for me, Art, so you’d better pay off, and soon…”
One other thing I’ll share (and this is perhaps uniquely personal to me and not generally true or exportable to other peoples’ experience, but)…before I got married and we had kids and I went to work full-time, my moral universe was – well, it was fine. I was a decent person, approximately, but I think this was mostly out of habit and good training. Afterwards, something came alive in me – suddenly the world was fraught with moral richness. If I had these strong feelings for my wife and our new children (my thinking suddenly went) then – holy crap – the world must be full of people who felt that way about their partners and children too. Everyone seemed incrementally more tender and lovely and worth thinking about. And if we were struggling with money (we were), others must be too. And we were lucky people – college-educated, healthy, with supportive families. Suddenly my eyes opened to just how hard life was for some people, and how hard it could be for any of us if things went south.
Everything made a new sort of sense: conflict and striving and heartbreak and small victories and so on – the grouchiness of working people I’d knew as kids, the little desperate aphorisms they’d slip me at family parties, the lengths people would go to for their kids. Behaviors and attitudes I’d once considered freakish and separate from me, I could now understand. It was as if I’d joined the human race, for better or worse. (Now, disclaimer: it’s absolutely and obviously not true that a person has to be partnered up and have kids to feel this way; it’s just the way it happened for me.)
Now that everything mattered, stories seemed more possible to write. If a small, sad thing happened to a beloved person…that was tragedy. If that beloved person gained even the smallest victory – that was triumph. And my thinking became more politically alive too. I looked around at the life we were living – what the hardships were, and the pleasures, and the obstacles, and the small heroic actions – and suddenly realized that I was, for better or worse, living within a system – one of the countless systems people had developed over the course of history to try to cope with human need.
So even very small personal narratives became inherently “political.”
Whereas before I’d been trying to make big, dramatic things happen to stick figures, and then, when that didn’t work, making bigger, even more dramatic things happen to them, now it felt like the goal was to make a reasonable facsimile of a person and give that person feelings like I might have, approximately – and then even a small victory or defeat was meaningful. (I’ve written about this period at more length in an author’s note to the book I was writing during this time, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.)
On the other hand, the fear our you express, dear questioner – of your writing time diminishing – is entirely valid. It happened to me. And I’m sure it’s something that many Story Clubbers struggle with. I was working full-time in an office environment and had to get crafty about when and where to write and there were no long periods for me to, as you put it, “think deeply or chase often fleeting intuitions” – although, there among all of the mad activity and the non-writing, there was deep thought, some of the deepest I’d ever done, because I was struggling actively with paucity and overwork, and when I sat down to write, I’d say, I was more likely to follow those “fleeting intuitions.” It felt like one hour of writing in this new, awakened mode was worth ten hours of writing in the old mode. And having to fight for that time made me focus – it was no longer possible to go off and engage in long bouts of research. I had to make the time count, right then and there, which, in turn, helped me find out what I really believed in, in prose.
I also hear you about the grumpiness, and have seen that happen too, and the truth is – and this is important – everyone is set up differently in terms of his or her disposition and energy, and it’s an important part of craft to take a good, hard look at oneself and see what we will need, in the future, to continue our artistic practice. What conditions are going to be necessary for us? I have, for example, a strong, likely dysfunctional, dose of ambition, and also a freakishly high energy level – I don’t need much sleep, and I sort of “switch on” if interested in something. So. writing at night was possible and writing on the bus on the way to work, and so on. It turned out that I didn’t really need much peace and quiet – I could write well in the maelstrom of the office and maybe, at that time anyway, even benefited from it.
But that was just me, and this is decidedly not true for everyone. I know writers who need lots of quiet time and have been absolutely shut down by the demands of their lives. Other, important, things – making a living, the needs of one’s loved ones – will naturally and, usually correctly, get in the way of writing.
The important thing, then, is: Know thyself. (What kind of time and space and ease do you actually need to get your work done? What kind of life can you put together to honor all of these as best you can? How might you adjust what you can adjust (your sense of how much time you need, your self-generosity, your relation to difficulty) to allow some sort of artistic practice to flourish, even if it’s not your ideal practice?
It has always seemed to me that this question of how to protect our artistic lives is an essential part of craft. How do we make a living? How do we find the time to keep growing? How do we understand the old art vs. commerce opposition? How do we build a life that is emotionally rich that also takes into account how long it takes to learn this difficult craft?
I’ll take these questions up a little more next Thursday, and especially the dread topic of…money.
On Sunday, behind the paywall, we’re continuing our discussion of the virtues of cutting prose down - how this leads to style and helps us get more of ourselves into our work.
Also, P.S., if you’re not getting enough of my thoughts and opinions here on Substack, there’s a new book out called “Conversations with George Saunders.” Many thanks to Michael O’Connell, the editor, who worked through many, many interviews to compile a sort of “best of” collection. The book can be ordered directly from the University Press of Mississippi or from IndieBound, or from Amazon.