Monday, June 4, 2007

The mythe of the artiste

by Olivia Knight

If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to hang out in coffee shops, from which follows as day follows night that you'll learn to smoke, become addicted to caffeine, and then discover you need red wine to counteract the multiple café lattes that helped you over the bridge from chapter four to chapter five. Soon after, you'll acquire a small sexy hat, related to if not actually a beret, and a shabby-chic leather jacket, neither of which you'll have bought. Café managers distribute these items as assiduously as maître d's hand out ties to those messieurs who appear to have forgotten theirs. And voilá: you haunt your coffee shop table, gaunt on caffeine and nicotine, gazing pensively through paisley spirals of blue smoke, pen poised above notebook. You are a writer.

More good news awaits: you no longer have to pay bills on time, wash your dishes, hang up your clothes, co-ordinate outfits, or remember to post anything. You can have destructive and painful relationships which are actually good for you, because they lead to fine poetry. You're always fashionable, because bohemian-chic is in every other year, and on the inbetween years you're counter-culture. The extreme of this is what Wendy Cope calls “TUMPs” – Totally Useless Male Poets, who explain beguilingly that they couldn't possibly learn to drive, because what if they had a poetic moment on the motorway? It's possibly worth noting that “beguile” comes from Middle English gilen, “to deceive”. Deceiving people into believing you're useless is a marvellous tool for escaping responsibility. At this point, I should point out the following:

  • I nearly crashed my car having a poetic moment to Tannhäuser during a right-turn
  • I regularly walk into lampposts, tables, chairs, and small children (they're under the sightline, so it's not really my fault), and trip over the deceptively flat ground, because I'm daydreaming
  • I've never got the hang of laundry
  • Interrupting my writing is punishable by death
  • Yesterday I diverted the bailiffs from carrying off my books to pay for my electricity with an eleventh-hour phone call to pay my bill – I did have the money, I just hadn't got around to it.

I don't really think this is all okay, but I also feel that as I'm living four separate main lives at the moment, plus dabbling in a host of subsidiary brains, I'm actually doing pretty damn well.

Our fondest notion of writing seems to come from the sixties, which in turn nabbed it from the Romantics: writing is something that springs forth from one's soul, some unadulterated, pure, platonic essence, its only form deriving from the shape of our individuality, the way water is shaped by a colander, at which point the metaphor starts to decline. (I can't be the only person who's poured a pot of pasta into a colander, forgetting that the colander's design and purpose center around its not containing the water. I was thinking about a story at the time, is my excuse.) Being art, though, being an expression of one's being, one doesn't just think about it, one lives it. Again, I'm guilty as charged. I've built my altars and mixed my herbs, learnt to build databases, tried to prove Fermat's last theorem, taken up painting, studied AI; I've dressed as a witch, a gypsy, a peasant, and a desert queen. I cook the food my characters would eat, turn cold with fear in the scary bits, and murder my characters with tears streaming down my face and huge gulping sobs, rather like the Walrus in Alice In Wonderland whose handkerchief-covered hysteria hides how many oysters he eats.

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

So what happens when I write erotica, with this tendency to lose myself in my stories, play out my characters' selves, and experience their textual sensations in my own body? I dress up to write – not smartly, but in a child's dress-up-box way. I tried wearing a corset once, but the clasps of the garter part dig horribly into one's thighs, and anyway, none of my characters actually dress like that. As with my other writing, I have additional, complex lives to lead which include sex. I get published and try to be professional, returning contracts and proofs and queries swiftly. I write for a living, ie. all the time, and so I do still try to keep my house tidy, and accept and host houseguests, and retain friendships, and try to be pleasant to my other half not just stare through him at my interior world then get weirdly moody because it's touching depths...

Most of the time, despite the other lives, I try quite hard to be an acceptable human being. Every now and then, it can all go hang because the only important thing in my life is this incredible story I am breathing/bleeding/ writing… And during that tumultuous raging storm, on those rare occasions I am wholly consumed, I have a way to explain to people what's happening: "I'm a writer." The rest of the time, it's just an excuse. How do you combine your art and life? Does what you're writing affect your life? If you're writing and working a day job, how do you still maintain a life? Do you like the 'writer' image? Have you ever used it as an excuse? It it useful or unhelpful to you? And so on.


Nikki Magennis said...

Heh he heh! Lovely post, Olivia.

I suppose there's a grain of truth in the myth. I believe writing does funny things to one's mental state. After I've been immersed in writing, reality always comes as a shock. I find I'm mildly baffled by the fact that things are happening all by themselves.

To be creative, you need to be in a kind of liminal state, you know, the one where you slump in a chair and drool slightly. It's hardly surprising that the left-brain activities get sidelined.

Then again, I've never been chic and I always file my tax return on time. Still somehow keeping it together...

Right, off to stare into the middle distance, pensively, through a cloud of cigarette smoke...

Anonymous said...

I don't hold up to that image of a writer. I'm afraid I'm more of the write-whilst-changing-nappies/load-the-dishwasher/hoover/be-a-mediator-to-the-kids kind of person. The laptop is frequently put to one side whilst I solve some dispute or find that one item that no other person can find, before I'm allowed to return to my fictional worlds and WRITE.

I can't go sit in a cafe because I'd always have a toddler with me playing rodeo rider on the chairs or trying to wipe the objects from his nose on the table.

I've never smoked and don;t fancy taking it up either.

Sigh. I do sometimes wish for a deserted island (that has electricity) where I could create unimpeded, but my writing is placed at the bottom of a list of priorities by everyone else.

God, I'm feeling depressed now.

Janine Ashbless said...

And Nikki h, that is the reason why women don't run the world and never will.

Janine Ashbless said...

For ever such a long time I, being a middle-class female, was convinced that I was perfectly entitled to be a writer provided that

a) it did not inconvenience anyone else

b)I pulled my weight financially in the household

c) I kept up all social obligations

d) the house stayed reasonably clean.

Now that I am older and more evil things have changed a bit. Sometimes I even refuse to answer the phone! ;-)

Mr Ashbless, being a far better person than I, understands that when he comes home after a long and crappy day slaving to make the money that keeps a roof over our heads, I am liable to look up from my laptop with a glazed expression and growl "I'm finishing off this chapter," rather than talk to him.
He knows that's the way it is.

Other people are less likely to understand. This weekend I mentioned the Lust Bites group to my mother - how we got together to talk about our work etc.
"Are they all women?" she said.
"Oh, but they all must be just doing it for a bit of a laugh, surely?"

Don't worry: I buried her corpse deep, where it will never be found.

Alison Tyler said...

Olivia, I love this post!

I am the type of writer who will walk into a wall while thinking of what my characters are doing. Often I feel as if I'm underwater when writing. Just barely able to breathe until I'm finished...

And I adore hearing how other writers work. You all know what a voyeur I am.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Janine. You cheered me up. Inspired me, even. I'm determined not to feel guilty every time I get out the laptop.

Despite the fact that my non-fiction brings in a nice couple of royalty cheques a year, my DH believes that my writing is just a nice little hobby. Not something I'm serious about. He once asked me to give it up because he thought it interfered with the running of the household! (I told him that if I gave up writing, I'd give him up first, soon changed his opinion!)

It is currently grudgingly tolerated by him, though he would instantly change his mind if I started earning huge bucks (yes, I did mean bucks)and managed to find an agent or a 'proper' publisher for my writing, rather than websites.

And when that day comes...? I shall have him magically transformed into my naked slave, househusband extraordinaire, whilst I write away in my little book-lined study, occasionally stopping to stroke the cat (Or stroke my pussy depending upon which way you want to take this!) from dawn until dusk.

Madeline Moore said...

Beautifully done, Olivia. And how true. In my young, successful days as a writer, I wore black, smoked, drank, argued, and was waved to the front of the line at the incredibly popular bistro I haunted with my equally gaunt and argumentative peers. Then life intervened. For many, many years I was the housewife whose work was not allowed to interfere with the running of the household. This was a collar tighter than any I have subsequently worn, and although housewifery has its benefits ("security" among them) it chafed so severely I had to sell the house and divorce the man. A house wife no more. And now? Now, no cafes, no smoking, and as few arguments as I can possibly have and still (sort of) live in the world. My home is a writers' nest. My man is a writer. My kids respect me as a writer (thank you to one tv series and one novel published by Black Lace.)

Yes, I stumble over everything from ottomans (often) to, I'm sorry to say, a 'little person' and not a child, no, but a very irritated midget. My apologies did little to quell the angry fire in his eyes. Oops.

I've yet to attain the success I enjoyed in my youth, when the world was my oyster and I was as arrogant as a prairie chicken can get. But I'm older, wiser, know more, and try never to wait for the muse to appear. As Liszt, I believe, once said, "I sit down to compose at nine am and my muse has learned to be prompt."

Thank you for the terrific post, I'm sure we'll see a lot of interesting comments today.

Angel said...

I definitely agree with the part about leaving the rest of the world behind while in the throes of writing. I have been known to miss exits, completely lose track of time, or forget to eat. I don't smoke, but if I did, I would go through one cigarette after the other and then wonder where they all went. When I'm writing, the words take over and the rest of the world, well, obviously it moves right along just fine without my input!

I make a point of paying bills, doing laundry, dishes, all that BEFORE I sit down to write.

And the eight-hour crock pot is a writer's best friend when it comes to getting a hot dinner on the table at the appropriate time.

Angel said...

Ahem...I should have clarified...I miss exits when THINKING about characters, not when actually writing about them! I don't have the ability to drive and play on the laptop at the same time...

But if I did, I probably would. -grin-

Unknown said...

I've always had a deep inner life-it comes from being stuck in the middle of a family of 6 girls in a very small terraced house with one bathroom. You soon learn to drift away from the harsh reality of females pinching your clothes and makeup and telling you you look fat.
so I was well prepared for the life of a writer!

I digress-I have my dreamy moments, especially near the end of a book. I occasionally notice this particularly exasperated expression on my friends and family's faces when I'm a bit disconnected.

but so far I've almost always remembered to pick up my 4 kids, keep the house relatively clean and brush my hair everyday. I admit I let people do stuff for me sometimes...they like to think I'm flakier than I actually am-and that's fine with me, it buys me more writing time :)

Alana Noel Voth said...

Gustave Flaubert implied we (writers) should live ordinary lives so that our fiction would be violent and original.

Lillian Hellman suggested inexperienced writers never listen to other writers talk about writing or themselves.

But I think writers take solace in the existence of one another, and yes, we're (I) are extreme voyuers and live to learn and watch and explore. We take notes on subtle stuff most other people wouldn't bother with. And that's why the world needs us, to bring to its attention what everyone else blows off.

I have no artist mystique. Anyone looking at me from the outside wouldn't assume I'm a writer. In fact, when I mention it to people I've just met they look surprised. My day-to-day life is routine. I work in an office for a specific amount of time M-F; I MAKE time to write; I definitely don't FIND it, and it's difficult, and sometimes I'd rather do something else.

I have a damned hard time making ends meet, but that really has nothing to do with my being a writer or irresponsible. I'd like to think I'm disciplined and attentive. But I'm not married. I have a child. And so I struggle financially.

If anything suffers as a result of my being a writer it's my social life. It's non-existent. After all, something's got to give, and it won't be my day job or my kid.

I actually wondered yesterday if my writing would change if my situation changed. Like if I got an inheritance or something. Or if I got married and no longer worried about how I'd make ends meet. Would the demons inside me suddenly go still?

I've no idea actually.

Janine Ashbless said...

You tripped over a midget, Madeline!?!

Now that's what I call a confession!

Kis Lee said...

My friends expect me to be moody and/or bitchy because I live the "writer's" life. I'm the most laid-back person you'll ever know. Sometimes moody but mostly chill..but they stille expect me to throw a pissy tantrum now and then.

I smoke cloves...but that has nothing to do with writing. Just an old habit that refuses to die.

Michelle Pillow said...

Just stopping over to read :) Love the new look, ladies!


TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

I have my "artiste" moments, and I do write poetry--which is certainly not a money-maker!--but I've always strived to balance art with groundedness. I think part of that was being raised with horror stories of my father, King of the Artistic Temperment (yet not very good at actually producing much). The stories were repeated more and more vehemently as it became clear I was interested in writing and rather good at it. As a result, I've always been very concerned about pulling my weight in practical terms--in maintaining the house if I'm paying half the bills. I think of this as being a responsible adult human being. It's not a gender issue--we need to keep our inner children happy and playful, but also need to nurture our inner adults.

I do get lost in my own thoughts. I pull over to scribble down ideas. I stay up far too late sometimes finishing work--or conversely, let a bad mood make it so I can't work for a day or two. But since I'm trying to do this writing thing for a living, I push myself to practicality.

Madeline Moore said...

Yes, Janine, I tripped over a midget. Not one of my better moments.

I've also been yanked out of the way of an oncoming bus as I stepped, obvlivous, off a curb. But that happens to everyone, doesn't it?

The funny thing about living with another writer is that when I ask Felix a question and he doesn't answer, just keeps typing, I get mildly annoyed, like "I guess I'm stuck with the prosaic while you commune with the sublime..." but when it's the other way 'round, I just don't hear him or if I do, it's not enough to drag me from the state I'm in to a state where I can focus on the mundane. It's HARD to do and I don't WANT to do it. If that can happen to two writers it's no wonder other, non-writers find our 'lost in our work' thing irritating. Just thinking about it makes me want to transport myself into that state and make something out of a buncha words so...gotta go!

Megan Kerr said...

Just a thought: I'm equally oblivious to the world when I'm building a database or a website as I am when I'm writing. (I have weird hobbies.) Perhaps the lost-in-one's-work thing is not a function of being 'arty' but of loving what you do; one assumes most artists love their work because they're not in it for the city-salaries. (I'm in it for the sex. And according to Alison Tyler, that's my new tag line...)

Kristina Lloyd said...

I am such a useless artiste I can't even turn up on the right day to add a comment to this post.

You've all gone now, haven't you?

It's just me and my imaginary friends.

Hey, Billy, have you seen Blake anywhere? Simeon, leave the penguin alone! Esther, behind you! Run!

Megan Kerr said...

Kristina - if you feel all alone, watch this. It's rather good...

Kristina Lloyd said...

Olivia, thank you.

At *last* somebody understands me. That really was rather good.