Fresh From Life

by jkatejohnston

6 September 2013

Dear Max,

Four o’clock is the new five. Or to put it another way, insomnia plus coffee equals morning. Not to mention I spent ten hours in Spanx yesterday, stuck in a hearing that went late. At 5:30 I told the judge that I didn’t have any rebuttal argument, and he practically ran off the bench and kissed me. Then I got home on two buses that had trouble coming. Home, food, reading-to-Enzo, bed, and here we are.

Meanwhile I learn that Miss Chilaquiles is quitting her job to write. I find this inexpressibly irritating. I don’t envy the time that much. But Chilaquiles happens to have a lot to say at the moment, so that quitting her job—an idiot move and not just financially—actually makes sense right now. I would like to have that much to say.

On the way home from work on the two buses that had trouble coming I was making a list in my head of writers who worked. Trollope (post office bureaucrat) Boswell (lawyer) Kafka (insurance?) Wallace Stevens (insurance again?) Eliot (banker) Oliver Sacks (doctor) Primo Levi (chemist in a paint factory) and of course the perfect and wonderful Dr. Williams who you can’t even imagine without his work.

But I can’t help noticing that they’re all men and most of them had servants or at least wives. (I technically have a wife but she doesn’t act like it and I don’t want her to.) Can you even think of one serious woman writer who worked a full-time bread winning job? Yeah. You can’t. All the woman writers I can think of (and I can only think of about three right now) had A Competence (a scrap of family money) and no kids and probably servants too. Jane Austen; Emily Dickinson; both idiot Brontes; Elizabeth Bishop; Virginia Woolf.

It’s occurring to me this moment that women have only been able to have full-time bread winning jobs for about the last thirty seconds of recorded history. (Time to kiss Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s tiny feet again.) I don’t exactly love working, but I wouldn’t give it up, even if I had the money. I have to be in the world. So there!

And you don’t need time to write. Who can write for more than an hour or two a day? You need time to read. Because writing without reading is unsustainable in the end. That’s my real problem. And kids’ books don’t count. They are so dreadful. Of course you want to write fresh from life, not strained through books. But the guy who said that (Johnson) was only the greatest reader in the world. His writing wasn’t exactly fresh from life, but Boswell’s was and he put Johnson on the page as fresh from life as you could ask for. What a beautiful piece of luck.

I looked up “fresh from life, not strained through books,” and I see that Johnson wasn’t talking about writing, he was talking about how to live like a gentleman on a pittance—something you can’t learn from a book. (It’s toward the beginning of The Life of Johnson when he first goes to London to seek his fortune, page 56 in my Modern Library edition.)

But speaking of working and writing and Dr. Williams:

When and where, after such forays, did I or could I write? Time meant nothing to me. I might be in the middle of some flu epidemic, the phone ringing day and night, madly, not a moment free. That made no difference. If the fit was on me—if something Stieglitz or Kenneth had said was burning inside me, having bred there overnight demanding outlet—I would be like a woman at term; no matter what else was up, that demand had to be met.

Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found. I had my typewriter in my office desk. All I needed to do was to pull up the leaf to which is was fastened and I was ready to go. It worked at top speed. If a patient came in at the door while I was in the middle of a sentence, bang would go the machine—I was a physician. When the patient left, up would come the machine. My head developed a technique: something growing inside me demanded reaping. It had to be attended to. Finally, after eleven at night, when the last patient had been put to bed, I could always find the time to bang our ten or twelve pages. In fact, I couldn’t rest until I had freed my mind from the obsessions which had been tormenting me all day. Cleansed of that torment, having scribbled, I could rest.

(The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, from the foreword. There are no page numbers in the foreword, but it’s easy to find.)


And lastly, Enzo: “If you ever smell a mango, you have no choice—you are doomed—you have to eat it.” (Speaking of fresh from life.)