I have recently stumbled - well, fallen actually, as if over a large, sodden log - across the phrase, this writing life, more times than I care to count. I have become aware of this oft-used phrase in my recent exploration into the world of contemporary literature and modern writers. I understand the term is taken from the title of a book, a very good book, an innocuous and truly helpful guide for people who would like to incorporate the art of writing into their lives. I have not read Annie Dillard's book, but I understand that many, many, many people value and admire it. But in its wake, the term - this writing life - seems to have taken on a meaning of its own.
Some writers imagine that this writing life and this life-life might be two different things.
I found the webpage of a truly famous contemporary author (widely published and wildly sought), who writes about writing on her webpage. She explains that after completing an Ivy League education, she traveled and worked at various jobs in an effort to collect life experiences about which to write. She stated that she worked in restaurants, bars, and on ranches.
On the surface, I suppose, it sounds like a good idea. But, really, how can a writer ever pierce the heart of truth when there is an implied separation - a built-in observational platform - from which to observe others, about whom one will write?
The author may have been temporarily employed, say, as a cashier. But she was not a cashier in real life. She was a writer in real life, and was employed as a cashier only so that she could write about others who had to be cashiers in real life. The distinction is clear. One is on the observational platform, and one is in the mud of life. One of them is the observer - and one of them is, well, adding watermelon red coloring to the slushee-maker and selling 12-packs of beer as a way to pay the rent. Une vie authentique.
Now, the writer's observation, no matter how technically good, or entertaining, or well-crafted, seems, somehow, just not quite - true. A bit hollow and distanced. And a wee bit too safe.
I worked in a seaside bar when I was in my 20s. If the famous author had taken a menial job there and observed me, what would she have learned about me, or my life, say, when the entire west coast swordfishing fleet came in to drink? And drink they did - they drank hard, having spent almost two months at sea. She might have seen me in a short skirt, carrying three pitchers of beer in one hand and six chilled mugs in the other - ferrying rafts of alcohol to the patrons, until late into the night. She might have captured, in writing, the inflection with which I hurled barroom invectives to a loud group of men who clamored for drinks and tried to pat my behind as I wove through the crowd.
If she had been there, would she have observed and jotted her impressions of me while I counted my tips hoping I would make enough to pay the babysitter and pick up milk for my two-year-old? If she have watched as the bar emptied at 2:00am and the lights went up, and I cleaned ash trays, washed glasses and wiped the tables, what would she have written when I picked up a crumpled $50 bill from the floor as I thanked my god and breathed, What luck! ?
What might she have observed as I got into my dented sedan, and drove to pick up my son in the darkest hours of night, he who slept on the couch at the babysitter's home while she and her whole family also slept, in their own beds, down the dark and quiet hallway?
Could the writer have learned anything about the life of the other - unless she were also fully immersed in the living, breathing, own-her-own-moment of now?
I would like to posit that while writing about life in the same way that a wildlife biologist would chronicle the behaviors of lions on the Serengeti - the observer, hiding in a blind covered with brush and grasses, concealing true intent and defying detection - is able to watch the creatures in their element as they roar, and feed, and play, and love beneath the hot African sun, the observer remains in the dark. In this way, the art of writing is approached as separate from the art of living.
The lions are out there living, rolling in the dust, tearing flesh from the bone with their teeth - and the observer is - well, the observer is not.
And while someone may very accurately, even poetically, capture the observed activities and actions of said lions, there's the whole beauty of being the one tearing flesh from the bone with your teeth while lying in the shade next to your mate, the kids also gnawing on smaller bones, the vultures overhead, circling and ready to clean up once the feed is over. In the grit and glare of the dust and heat and life-life.
Otherwise, you might as well just gather with the other observers in the late afternoon, in a luxurious safari tent filled with elegant campaign furniture (the atmosphere lit by the glow from candelabra brought to this distant and foreign place from the motherland), and talk about the African wildlife at the onset of eventide, all of it palatable, now, thanks to the culture and the safety of transplanted civilization, the floors padded with oriental rugs, even in a place as remote as this, the wide, vibrant plains of the dark continent.
It is far more beautiful, and satisfying to be one of the creatures that roam about really living life (and then writing about it), than to be one of those who remain apart, who only observe and breathe the rarified air of those trapped in the writing life.