My husband and I went to graduate school at the same time. That is not unusual; many couples have supported each other through academic degrees. However, what did set us apart from our fellow students was that my husband was an active-duty military officer. Not only was his tuition paid for by the Department of Defense, he received a full-time salary while attending classes. His service allowed us to rent a comfortable townhouse and own large appliances at a time when many of our peers struggled to pay rent and use the Laundromat.
One day while walking to class, a man in my department said, “You’re living off the military-industrial complex. How can you expect to write anything meaningful while you’re not struggling?”
I can’t remember my reply. What I knew deep down and can articulate now is that the danger to anyone’s writing does not come from living in comfort, but from believing you might have nothing to say because you live in comfort. The danger to your writing comes from thinking you are trapped when in reality even the caged bird sings. Cages come in many materials, from humblest wicker to grandest gold (and all the in-between materials that show up in modern furnishings emporia). You might, in fact, be trapped by circumstance, but we sing, we write, to overcome our circumstances and to understand those of others.
My grad-school experiences help me understand the recent hijinks of aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character on HBO’s Girls. Some of her actions in the episode “One Man’s Trash” have left her fans perplexed, particularly those over at Slate. Did she actually spend the weekend with a handsome, separated doctor, played by Patrick Wilson, or indulge in an extended daydream while taking out the Cafe Grumpy trash? Hannah spends two days playing house in his swank home, lolling naked in his sheets and basking in his sunny backyard. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and perhaps she really does wish, as Sarah Nicole Prickett opined in Bullett, that she could give up her search for an artistic existence and just live a “Nancy Meyers life,” meaning the kind of beautifully prop-strewn bourgeois dream found in that director’s movies.
However, I would argue that it’s not the bourgeois, conventional life that endangers Hannah Horvath’s writing. Matching lamps, backyard electric grills, and good wine are not keeping Hannah from writing. The danger to Hannah’s writing comes from the belief that getting and having such things are her purpose, instead of writing.
Is it tougher to write when your cage contains plush duvets? Perhaps. But if you are permanently lulled by luxury, or at least comfort, you were probably never someone who wanted to be a writer, because writers are perpetual observers who notice that even if the lampshades match, one is of fine, faded silk, while the other one is brand new—why are they different? How did that one get there? Who has been in this room? Writers are building narratives all the time, whether they want to or not, which is probably what led Hannah to make that mawkish middle-of-the-night pseudo-confession to her temporary lover.
Better to put those kinds of narratives on the page, but remember: You can do that in any type of room.
I’m chastising myself, of course, because I spent a couple of decades wandering around various rooms, believing I had nothing to say when I could have been firmly seated on a very nice sofa writing down plenty of ideas and observations. However, here’s the really hard lesson for Hannah and for me: The world doesn’t need our ideas and observations. It still may not. We need them. We need them because we are writers. Hannah needs to get down to the business of living a life, whether that life involves a husband and large appliances, or a sublet and a minimum-wage job.
What Hannah may actually be struggling with is encapsulated in what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” That is a valid choice, and if Hannah decides to go off and live in a yurt, I will cheer her on. If she decides to stay in Brooklyn and make time to write, I will cheer her on.
But if she simply continues to flail, she risks far more than losing a starving-artist existence. She risks losing herself. Hannah Horvath will never be fully at home anywhere until she has admitted that everything—bohemian or bourgeois—keeping her from writing is secondary.