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Working to Write

PUBLISHED: December 15, 2008

Few writers are fortunate enough to support themselves solely through their writing. Many are teachers or journalists, and there’s the occasional copywriter, clerk, or librarian. William T. Vollmann and Richard Powers worked as computer programmers. In Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz was a civil servant for much of his life. Recently, I’ve noticed a batch of young writers with medical backgrounds, including Chris Adrian (“A Better Angel,” “The Children’s Hospital”), Rivka Galchen (“Atmospheric Disturbances”), and Vincent Lam, whose first book of stories, “Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures,” won the cash-flush Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006. He’s also the co-author of a medical guide entitled “The Flu Pandemic and You,” which is likely the only medical text with a foreword by a Nobel Prize candidate (Margaret Atwood).

The doctor-writer coterie is a large and long-established one, with Anton Chekhov being its most famous member, but also counting among its ranks Michael Crichton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W. Somerset Maugham, Mikhail Bulgakov, Walker Percy, and William Carlos Williams. (Thanks to the British Medical Association for providing some names I was unaware of.) Maugham and Percy gave up their medical careers early on, though Williams practiced throughout his life. Chris Adrian has not only maintained his medical practice but is also a student at Harvard Divinity School.

What does this all mean in considering these writers, besides telling us where they get their paychecks from? I’d prefer to say that it means nothing, or close to it. We could go on about sources of influence or formative experiences, but in fact, this trivia-style sampling of writers’ day jobs tells us more about the economics of writing than about the texts or the writers themselves. Sure, the medical backgrounds of many of these writers—Bulgakov, Lam, Chekhov, among others—informed some of their fictions, but so certainly does a whole panoply of other experiences: childhood traumas, hometowns, relationships, obsessions, a chance encounter in the street. (Powers was spurred to write his first novel after viewing an August Sander photograph in a museum. Haruki Murakami can pinpoint the moment at a baseball game when the urge to write overcame him. We’ve all heard these stories. And who’s to say whether Murakami’s erstwhile job as owner of a jazz club or that singular moment at a baseball game is more important to his work?)

I would offer instead that this brief examination furthers the notion that few people are what they do, that if a job—or that loftier word: profession—equals an identity, then that identity is both incomplete and mutable. We are used to saying “I am a teacher” or “I am a publicist” or “I am an accountant,” but rarely do those first two words—”I am”—reflect their literal, or metaphysical, meaning. Often, it would be more accurate to say, “I work as…”—perhaps because one has to, or one can’t monetize one’s passions. So it is the rare and lucky person that is able to subsist by doing what he loves, whatever that may be. With the successful working writer, he or she is nearly always one of those lucky few. But for any writer, that simple declaration, “I am a writer,” must always be his identity, must always be literal, or else he is lying to himself about his aspirations. That “I am” expresses something fundamental about who that person is; about his priorities; and about the perseverance that will carry him through days when the ideas or accolades won’t come. It is why even writers who support themselves through entirely unrelated work say, occasionally sheepishly, “I am a writer.” It must be true—or else it isn’t worth trying.

It’s impossible to know if Scott Turow would write legal thrillers if he weren’t also a lawyer, or if Graham Greene, John Le Carre, and Joseph Weisberg would write spy novels (to use a blanket term to describe what are diverse bodies of work for the former two and is likely to be so for the latter) without having been spies. But surely they would still find themselves writing, as would these doctors, since writing is much more than a professional choice. It’s an attempt to achieve some understanding beyond the quotidian by grasping for that “I am.” It’s also well expressed in one insurance executive’s humble maxim: “Poetry is an effort of a dissatisfied man to find satisfaction through words.” For a time, work as a vice president at Hartford may have paid Wallace Stevens’ bills, but it was through writing that he strived for wholeness.


Drew Johnson's picture
Drew Johnson · 12 years ago
Wallace Stevens over Charles Ives over Franz Kafka: the insurance company I’ve always been after.
Bobby Styles's picture
Bobby Styles · 12 years ago
Right On, Mr. Silverman!

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