Skip to main content

What Is A Writer?

ISSUE:  Winter 1996

At this time in our culture, there are two extreme views of writers. The most conservative view sees writers as genuine heroes, gifted geniuses who are more insightful than the rest of us and who are therefore obliged to lead and instruct. The most radical view sees writers as history’s lucky ducks, figures who, possibly because so many of them were white and male, were in the right place at the right time—that is, in a place of privilege—and who therefore often represent nothing more than a culture’s most anti-democratic values.

Neither of these views is satisfactory, because each assumes the writer’s passivity. According to the first, the writer was born special and, by writing a little now and then, sprinkles specialness on those of us who were not so lucky. According to the second, which assumes even more authorial passivity, the writer had specialness thrust upon him by the powerful and like-minded in his society and therefore, like an Aeolian harp, expresses the most oppressive of that society’s values.

I would like to think that I know a little bit about writing, in part because I have written professionally for more than two decades but mainly because I have studied other writers for roughly the same period of time. And I have studied them in the way that yields the best results for the student, which is to say that not only have I read but also I have written about them.

Not that I always knew what I was doing, either as a writer or as a student of writing. I am both a poet and a critic, which means that I only encourage distrust in both camps, with my critic friends wondering why I would wallow in something so messy and subjective as poetry and my poet friends wondering how I could possibly squander the precious time I might use for versifying on the crafting of footnotes. And, as I say, I have asked myself these same questions. Not so much about the poetry, which I have written ever since I could write at all and which seems as natural to me as walking or breathing, but mainly about the criticism, which, after all, calls for trips to the library, the reading of page upon page of soporific prose, and other strenuous, unaesthetic activities.

Nonetheless, even as I turned out poem after poem, I also wrote article after article and book after book of my own about other writers. “Why are you doing that?” the poets asked. And I had to say to them, “I don’t know.” Because I knew I was looking for something, but I did not know what.

Now I think I know. Now I understand that, on a less-than-wholly-conscious level, I was looking for some kind of equation, a formula to explain what a writer is. Recently I completed a book on Herman Melville, and with the writing of that book came an almost-complete understanding of what a writer is and what he or she does. The Melville book became the keystone in the arch I was constructing, although I still had a little work to do on the entire structure before I was finished.

In many ways, Melville was the archetypal writer: neither the genius nor the mouthpiece that some people think an author is but one who was lucky and unlucky, stable and unstable, blessed and cursed. Primarily, Melville was eccentric in both the figurative and the literal meanings of that word. That is, he was a little odd psychologically—more than a little, perhaps—but also he spent much of his life on the margin of everything that might be considered conventional.

If you are familiar with the rudiments of Melville’s life, then you know that there is a sound biographical basis for the unmistakable presence in Melville’s work of both a fondness for and a suspicion of rootlessness—and, one may as well say, a fondness for and a suspicion of permanence, too. Descended from prosperity, Melville was compelled by circumstances to exchange the stability of home and family for a life among some of humanity’s most desperate characters: mutineers, deserters, common criminals. The suffering he saw and experienced as a young sailor repelled him, yet it was his maritime adventures that gave him his first—and, in his lifetime, his only—literary success. Even after he had published widely, married, and, by starting his own family, meticulously reclaimed his bourgeois birthright, Melville seemed often to feel the constraints of conventional life and twice in later life he made sea voyages that mimicked the days of his penniless yet carefree youth.

It is no wonder that Melville’s work is shot through with ambivalence and outright contradiction. But this does not mean that his career defies description; to the contrary, Melville’s career poses a singular challenge that I tried to meet in my book on him. In attempting to view Melville as individual, citizen, and artist, I tried to write neither the biography of an author nor a critical study of the works produced throughout his career; instead, my goal was to write a biography of that career. The footnotes on which I spent so much time on were intended to guide the reader toward the many worthwhile books and essays on Melville’s personal history and on his writings and away from the inferior ones, but the text itself focuses on the life of his most intense self, that is, his writer-self: how it developed, how it functioned, how it reacted to success and failure.

The Melville book is the fourth and, unless circumstances convince me otherwise, the last in a series of books I have written, books that, though very different in subject manner, nonetheless are of quite similar construction. They deal with Reconstruction writer Grace King, with novelist Henry James, and with contemporary poet Mark Strand. Like this book on Melville, each of the others is also the biography of a career. A career as a writer is highly inadvisable; like actors and musicians, most writers don’t succeed, and the ones who do still have to cope as much with failure as with success—and even success can be problematic, as the headlines tell us.

What I have learned from my four subjects, though, and from Melville most definitively—so definitively that, as I say, I see no need to write another book of this sort—is that successful writers have two traits in common, no matter how different they may be otherwise. The first is that they never give up. The second trait, and it is closely related to the first, is that they adapt.

Grace King, for example, is best known for her short stories, though she also wrote full-length fiction, literary criticism, and history. James wrote fiction of every possible length but also biography, criticism, plays, reviews, travel essays, and art criticism. Strand is one of America’s preeminent poets yet is also the author of short fiction, children’s books, and essays; in addition he has edited anthologies and translated the works of other poets.

What we see in each of these cases is dogged persistence matched with a consummate versatility. Here I am reminded of the story of what the physiologist Claude Bernard is supposed to have said to a student who asked how he might succeed in Bernard’s laboratory. Travaitter comme une bête, said the scientist: work like an animal, that is, with the persistence of an animal and an animal’s disregard for failure, because, deprived of its bone or nut, an animal will not dwell on the absence of the thing lost but look elsewhere for another, without resentment.

In some instances, these writers moved deliberately from one genre to another, though in others they had no choice. James, for instance, was literally hounded from the theatre after the failure of his play Guy Domville and wrote movingly in his notebook on Jan. 23, 1895: “I take up my old pen again—the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself—today—I need say no more. Large and full and high the future still opens. It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life. And I will.” And he did: in less than a decade he published what many consider his three greatest novels, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl,works built largely around scene, dialogue, and other dramatic conventions he mastered during his “failed” foray into the theatre. (Incidentally, late in life James tried again to write plays, though with little more success than before.)

But even more than these other writers, Melville demonstrated throughout his career an aggressive resistance to discouragement; when he found one door closed to him, he looked around until he found another that was open. His only truly popular books were essentially travelogues, and his great uneven masterpiece Moby-Dickwas largely ignored by a world that was not ready for it. Yet during the decades of public silence which followed the realization that his fictions were no longer marketable, he wrote the poems that alone would have guaranteed him a permanent if minor position in United States literature. And as he lay on his death bed, he was writing “Billy Budd,” one of the finest short fictions of his or of any time.

But to say that Melville’s life was a triumph because he wrote a masterpiece as he lay dying is to overlook the genuine struggles that punctuated his daily existence. It is easy to look back and say, “Poe was a genius” or “Emily Dickinson wrote some of the finest lyric poetry ever” and not recognize the many vicissitudes that characterize the lives of everyone and perhaps the lives of artists especially. We need to look more deeply: if persistence and adaptability are all, then the life of every writer would be a steady ascent, with success a certainty.

Yet one of the paradoxes of understanding any celebrity, writer or not, is that the better-known someone becomes, the harder he or she is to know. Even family members may be left in the dark; Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s own granddaughter, wrote in her memoir that “the core of the man remains incommunicable: suggestion of his quality is all that is possible.”

The problem is compounded when the figure under scrutiny lived in the last century, a time when records were scarcer, photographs cruder, and descriptions couched in an English often foreign to contemporary ears. With a figure as inscrutable as Melville, the problem of understanding becomes almost insurmountable. He had achieved fame with his early, fact-based writings; startled the literary world with Moby-Dick; and then followed that masterpiece with the highly idiosyncratic Pierre, a book so strange that one newspaper ran the headline “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.”

In the end, of course, he produced a body of work that permanently altered the consciousness of a culture. For one thing, through his own eccentricity and that of his characters, Melville predicted better than any writer of his time the ambiguities of the 20th century, thereby paving the way for such writers as William Faulkner. In William Faulkner and Southern History, Joel Williamson notes that Faulkner’s greatest books, such as The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, were about people who had lost their grasp of their racial or sexual identity. The novelist himself had a nature as protean as Melville’s and, like Melville, he was as capable of a crippling inconsistency as he was of a range and depth that gave his work immense power. Williamson notes that Faulkner took every conceivable position on civil rights for African-Americans, from unstinting support to callous dismissal.

Here I am reminded of what William Pritchard says in his essay on T.S. Eliot in The Columbia History of American Poetry, that “it may even be the case that a great writer’s power is commensurate with his power to offend,” for inconsistency of character is double-edged. On the one hand, a protean nature puts the writer in touch with so great a variety of feelings and ideas that it can only be viewed as useful; on the other, it leads to the kinds of mistakes that constant, steady people are unlikely to make.

This inconsistency is, of course, perfectly normal. That is, inconsistency is perfectly human: while each of us would like to begin in the lower left corner of the chart of success and rise on a straight line to the upper right corner, the fact is that—and this is only if we are lucky—the careers of most of us, regardless of what field we have chosen, are marked by peaks and valleys and thus describe, not a straight line like the one an arrow makes as it flies toward the bull’s-eye, but a jagged one that better resembles the little graph of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, a psycho-economic ideogram which reminds us that, while “Buy low, sell high” is sound advice, we cannot triple our capital through desire alone.

Readers should not expect writers to do what they themselves cannot, that is, get better every time. But it happens, and, like Melville before him, Faulkner became a victim of his own success when his readership found that his late works weren’t as “well-written” as his early ones.

Yet the curious thing about Faulkner is that, as Williamson notes, “none of his books had ever been met by a flood of rave reviews and an eager market.” Instead, his celebrity status, his growing reputation in intellectual circles, and the awards and honors he had received (rather than the actual books he had written) turned him into a Great Writer. Thus, when a book like The Fable appeared late in life, the public didn’t really know what to do with an author whose work they had never read in the first place.

But these lands of vagaries are commonplace in the career of a writer and, indeed, are inseparable from the whole concept of writerly success. Another kind of turbulence is much more serious, however, and much more troubling to the writer than the mere ups and downs of the marketplace, and here I refer to the demons of mental and emotional illness. Again, we do not know as much about Melville’s psychic makeup as we do about those of artists who lived after Freud rather than before. But there seems little doubt that Melville suffered from clinical depression; at several junctures his wife seemed ready to leave a husband grown insufferable, and there is no doubt that his little family breathed a collective sigh of relief when Melville disappeared for months on one of his voyages of renewal to Europe and the Holy Land. Faulkner’s letters reveal him as anxious, irritable, and depressed, and his troubles with alcohol are well known. Yet both these writers worked steadily, met their obligations, raised families, made and kept lifelong friends—they functioned, that is, and led lives in many ways similar to yours or mine.

The fact remains, however, that many, many writers are so spectacularly disturbed that it almost seems axiomatic that the best writers are mad. Take, for example, Virginia Woolf, one of the finest novelists of the 20th century as well as a manic-depressive and, eventually, a suicide. An editorial on madness and creativity in The New Yorfc Times (Oct. 15, 1993) notes: “An increasing number of psychiatrists, neurologists and geneticists . . .believe there’s a link between the genius and madness of artists such as her. Maybe so. But as anyone who’s ever read Woolf’s letters and diaries can attest, it’s the link between imagination and self-discipline that got her a place in literature’s pantheon. Her mind may have had a grasshopper’s fleetness, but her industry was the ant’s.” Noting that Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge suffered from either manic depression or severe depression and that the composer Robert Schumann starved himself to death when he was 46, the Times piece quotes Dr. Ruth Richards as saying that “people who have experienced emotional extremes, who have been forced to confront a huge range of feelings and who have successfully coped with those adversities, could end up with a richer organization of memory, a richer palette to work with.” Obviously, mental illness by itself has no direct relation to creative activity, or everyone with bipolar disorder would be an artist.

Besides, the idea that the only good writer is a crazy writer puts a tremendous burden on the writer who is talented, ambitious, and, perhaps to his or her disappointment, unredeemably sane. A poet friend of mine fretted about this in my presence once. “Maybe I’m too normal to be any good.” I assured him he was a fine writer, and, in fact, he recently won a prestigious prize for his first collection of poetry.

Even so, I myself sometimes wonder if I am too happy to produce work of great feeling. The creativity of Melville, Faulkner, and Woolf cannot be explained by persistence and adaptability alone; great writers have these same traits, but so do great orthopedic surgeons and corporate presidents. Is mental and emotional illness the missing third ingredient in literary genius, and, if so, where does that leave the “healthy” writer?

In completing my formula, it is fortunate that I have my experience as, not a writer, but as a teacher of writing to fall back on. For, like all but a few writers I know, I make most of my living by doing something other than writing. And, like most of those in this situation, that means I teach.

Not all writers teach, of course. Melville was a schoolmaster for two brief periods in his life, and Faulkner did some celebrity stints as a professor late in life. But, for better or worse, neither had the 30-year classroom career that is more or less standard for teacher/ writers today. Artistically, no doubt this was to their advantage, since teaching is so time-consuming. However, in teaching writing one learns about it as well, and the lessons one learns that way can be invaluable.

In the writing classroom I have learned that, all things being equal, there are only two kinds of writers, namely, what I call the “unconscious” writer who produces very “conscious” material and then his or her antithesis. This first type of writer is the one who proclaims defiantly a contempt for tradition and who then, in total ignorance of what he or she is doing, unconsciously writes the most cliche, hackneyed work imaginable. The second type of writer is the one who consciously connects to the work of other writers through study and discipline, which is to say that this writer encounters a vast range of feelings and ideas, not through personal experience, but through the experiences of others. You might say that this second kind of writer is taking a correspondence course from the School of Hard Knocks; the lessons may not be as vivid, but the tuition is a whole lot cheaper. At any rate, it is this conscious writer who is more likely to produce work rich with deep unconscious resonances, i.e., the only kind of work that truly satisfies.

In fact, this intellectual and emotional engagement with other writing unites the healthy and the disturbed writer in a manner far more important than any difference in emotional states could possibly separate them. A writer is necessarily a fan of writing, and fandom is an essential characteristic of every writer, whereas the presence or absence of illness is an arbitrary factor having little in itself to do with literary output. Even the briefest look at the life of James or Woolf or Faulkner or any of the writers mentioned above reveals that when they were not writing, most likely they were reading and in that way banking the literary capital that makes writing possible.

Still, there is a good reason for connecting mental and emotional illness to artistic production. What illness does is provide the compulsion to write: to figure things out, as it were, to bridge a gap between oneself and others or to fill a hole that seems to exist in one’s life. As I write these words, Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell has just appeared. The surface of the poet’s life was chaotic to the point of tragedy, yet Lowell’s bouts with bipolar disorder achieve a kind of sameness after a while, and what lingers in the reader’s memory is a sense of the poet’s monumental intellectual achievement. As regularly as he took himself off to one hospital or another, Lowell also went on periodic retreats to study, write, translate, and, mainly, to read, read, read, from the earliest writers up through the emerging poets of his day. It is evident that Lowell brought to these study sessions the kind of ferocity that often disturbed his relations with wives, lovers, employers, and friends, but it is also evident that from these sessions came the bricks with which the poet made his art.

For a less-troubled writer than Lowell, the compulsion to make one’s life whole through study and organization and productiveness will be just as evident though much less frantic, However, the material that is studied and organized into what I have called the bricks of art will be the same. In a sense, it might be said that, though Lowell had a very rough time of it psychically, he had an easier time of it artistically than my poet friend who feared he was too normal. After all, Lowell had to read and write; for my friend, it is a matter of choice.

So in addition to what I have learned from studying writers, namely, that the best of them are (1) persistent and (2) adaptable, I have learned something else, both through my research and also through teaching writers, which is that good writers, be they healthy or ill, are (3) passionately devoted to literature. It is this third trait that makes the imminently-successful person into a successful writer, just as, to use the examples I have already given, one might expect successful orthopedic surgeons and corporation presidents to be persistent and adaptable persons who are devoted, not to literature, but to their own fields of endeavor. Thus what sets successful writers apart from other successful types is the particularity of this third trait, i.e., literariness, and not illness, although it should be noted that the public is likely to be more tolerant of mentally and emotionally disturbed poets and novelists than it would be of similarly-troubled doctors and business leaders. Let artists be grateful for this tolerance of the foibles of some among them, then; equally, let no one assume that you have to be crazy to write.

Assume, however, that one is quite persistent, adaptable, devoted to literature, and also at least intermittently sane; does this mean that one will be a great writer? Of course not, although it is doubtful one could become a great writer by any other means. At some point in the discussion of art, rational inquiry ceases to be useful, and observers from every discipline agree only on what cannot be said. Freud, for example, observes that “before the problem of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must, alas, lay down its arms.” An autobiographical James character (Dencombe, the novelist in “The Middle Years”) says, “”We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. . . . The rest is the madness of art.” “And Georges Braque, Picasso’s contemporary, says, “In art there is only one thing that counts—the thing you can’t explain.” If writing is an attempt to explain what cannot be explained, perhaps that is why there always have been and always will be writers. And if total explanation is foredoomed and partial explanation the only reasonable goal, the writers who succeed to the extent they do will be the ones who are persistent, adaptable, and passionate enough to continue the search.

As I look back on my formula, with its two general traits common to all successful people and its one particular trait related to success in a particular area, I must admit to being somewhat dismayed at its simplicity. On the other hand, these simple conclusions are the result of long study: of the four accomplished writers I have written books on as well as the dozens of others I have studied less formally and the hundreds of budding writers I have taught. Besides, regardless of how accurate the formula may or may not appear to the reader, I cannot think of any writer who would deny its implicit imperatives. For these are the things that, consciously or half-consciously, writers say to themselves each day: keep at it, be flexible, and, when not writing, read.

So at a time when some readers want to think of writers as gifted geniuses and others are bent on destroying the concept of authorship altogether, a close look suggests that successful writers are necessarily neither more brilliant nor luckier than other people but more persistent, more adaptable, and better-read, that is, more familiar—in a literary sense, at least—with the entire geography of the human mind and heart.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading