writer’s writers and searching for le temps perdu

When can you call yourself a writer? Terribly boring question, with no real answer.

I for one, honestly don’t call myself one (with a few exceptions, like when my daugher is asked what Mommy does and she replies “she knits”), nor do I consider myself one, simply because I like to call things as they are. I write, yes, and pretty much daily, but I’ve always written. There is just a smidgen of difference between me the writer at 15 and me the writer at 25 and me the writer now… I remain basically unread (well, except here, of course), and I still dream about those moments when the pen (or the keyboard) flies seemingly on its own, that magic that happens every now and then. Writing, especially my forays into fiction, has become my drug of choice these days, along with espresso.

Perhaps one of the only differences between then and now is that I’ve discovered that reading about writing, or best said, reading writers writing about writing, is exhilarating, fascinating. It also makes me feel somehow like part of the tribe. It’s akin to reading about adolescent angst from a book, alone in your room, when you are in the middle of it yet hide it well. Indeed there is a certain vulnerability to artists when they speak of their own processes, their inspiration and frustration and, well, humanity that makes them at once more humble and more exhalted in my mind.

I loved listening to the panel discussion from the recent New Yorker Festival in which three writers (Jeffrey Eugenides—whose book I await with great excitement, Nicole Krauss, and Jhumpa Lahiri) joined Deborah Treisman to ponder what it means to be a “writer’s writer.”

There were so many things said that got me jazzed up…a million great sound bytes that I want to scrawl on my wall or tweet or simply remember, such as:

“You can’t browse on Amazon. The recommendations just bring you more ‘youness,’ the you you’ve always been.” (N. Krauss)

“All my books smell… the greatest aid to the young writer, the used book store.” (J. Eugenides)

“A writer is a reader who can’t control himself.” (J.Lahiri).

But perhaps the passage which most resonated with me was Jhumpa Lahiri’s…

“Every writer wants to write as well as he or she can, you know, and I think that we all start out in a certain place, and we all… nobody knows what’s going to happen, but we all begin somewhere, and at some point something brings us to our desks and we start writing something, and it turns into something that is our first book. And we write in complete ignorance and in darkness and we have no idea… will this ever even see the light of day. Will anyone ever read this, apart from me and maybe my best friend or my mother or something, you know. And then after that point whatever happens, happens, and for some people it is success, and it is publication, and it is readership, and it is another book, and another one after that, and that sort of thing. And then for other writers, I mean, there are millions of ways that story plays out. But everybody writes a first book with a certain purity of vision, a certain innocence, and a certain intensity, and a certain integrity, that I think is really… I think a writer’s writer maintains that integrity, no matter what… even if he or she is on his fourth or fifth or tenth book. There is something about adhering to that purity of vision and not caring about whether this book will be popular, or successful, or if someone’s going to give it a good review or a bad review, are people are going to buy it or not buy it. And I think that distinguishes the work of certainly the writers that I think of in that category… “

Listening to them speak of this first book, the book they wrote when they were hungry, when the thought of fame and fortune and even being published was but a dream of little import, when all that mattered was the writing, the magic. Most authors have those moments of wistfulness when they remember how it was when they could write without worrying about anything other than the words on the page, and often one senses a longing in their voices for le temps perdu.*

It is the writing that makes me happy, and I consider myself very fortunate as I do my part to preserve the magic, one word at a time. 🙂

*I just remembered a very humorous Salman Rushdie describing an experience he had early on in his career…a moth podcast which I couldn’t seem to find via a quick search, but if you can find it, do..



10 thoughts on “writer’s writers and searching for le temps perdu

  1. Love this. I think you are a lot like me in the way you view writing. It is something I do because it is so much a part of who I am, not necessary the title, but the act of doing….the process. I enjoy bing able to dissect my thoughts and find words that connects the experience with my emotions. It is how I make sense of the world around me. I truly enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s line “A writer is a reader who can’t control himself.” Another beautifully written piece, Tracey.

  2. This was a great read! I have a hard time calling myself a writer. Just because I write, am I a writer? I don’t get paid for it. But….I call myself a singer and a musician and don’t get paid for it (ok, well I just did recently, but even before that!) so I guess I CAN call myself a writer. I call myself a baker because I love to bake and I’m good at it, but I don’t get paid for it. I call myself a MOM and don’t get paid for it. Hey, I’m onto something 🙂

    1. I think I’m just allergic to defining titles. I used to have a “real” one and I remember going from “assistant” to “associate” to … and ahhh that “Director” with a capital “D.” Even then, though, in a world where titles were important, it never really mattered much to me. When I stopped working it was very interesting to see how people sometimes reacted differently to me when my response to “what do you do?” changed. Now my answer to that question varies by day and by who is asking…because I do a lot of things now!

      Maybe I also avoid saying “I’m a writer,” because the next question is inevitably about what you’ve published. Maybe if I ever do publish my opinion will change 🙂 Even established writers (this came up in the discussion with Eugenides et al) hate it when they are asked “So, when’s your next book coming out?”

  3. Me too. I found myself here through Twitter and wow- am I happy I followed that call. What a gorgeous post. I am sitting through the writing of my first book, inspired by your words here. Taking breaks to read Tillie Olson and others on mothering. Writing about creativity and motherhood on my site. And again, so happy to find this erudite discussion. Love, Suzi

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