Nobody, particularly writers and artists, want to be told to go slowly when pursuing their dreams. Reach for the stars and damn the consequences! That seems more in line with what a lot of us want to hear.
That’s why it’s helpful to hear somebody like Renata Adler, one of the great magazine writers of our time, sound a note of caution in this interview from The Guardian:
Her advice to writers is: cling to your day job – wherever it happens to be – for as long as you possibly can. “I’ve said it all along, in my even way: if you’re at Condé Nast, and they’re cutting your pieces to shreds, just hang on. Do your art in your own time, but don’t quit because then you’ll be out there, vulnerable.”
A day job can make things difficult for some writers; they need the time to concentrate on their work. But economic insecurity will ruin your concentration every time. As Adler says, “One needs an apartment and a job.”
There are many satisfactions in the writing life; though they all come with caveats. Setting your own hours—unless you’re on deadline. Being your own boss—unless you have to work closely with a narrow-minded editor. And so on.
But one of the truest joys that comes with being a writer is when you start to think that you can actually make a living at putting words onto paper.
Longtime New Yorker scribe E.B. White recalled that moment of realization for The Paris Review:
I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing. I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use. I went abroad one summer and on my return to New York found an accumulation of mail at my apartment. I took the letters, unopened, and went to a Childs restaurant on Fourteenth Street, where I ordered dinner and began opening my mail. From one envelope, two or three checks dropped out, from The New Yorker. I suppose they totaled a little under a hundred dollars, but it looked like a fortune to me. I can still remember the feeling that “this was it”—I was a pro at last. It was a good feeling and I enjoyed the meal…
Writing itself is of course a good feeling. Being paid to do so is an acknowledgement from the outside world that you’re not wasting your time doing so.
(Library of Congress)
The winners of the 2015 Magazine Awards (the rather unfortunately named Ellies) have been announced. The New Yorker took home a few as usual, and Vogue won for publication of the year.
More interestingly, awards are also given out for best individual articles; here are some links:
Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)
There are plenty of good reasons to become a writer—excepting of course a desire for money, fame, or respectability.
In “Phi Beta Football,” a football-season essay for the New Yorker about his childhood watching Princeton football games, John McPhee identifies another superb reason to devote one’s life to the written word:
…on a November Saturday of cold, wind-driven rain—when I was about ten—I was miserable on the stadium sidelines. The rain stung my eyes, and I was shivering. Looking up at the press box, where I knew there were space heaters, I saw those people sitting dry under a roof, and decided then and there to become a writer.
Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)
According to scientific writer Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophoe), there have been five waves of mass extinctions in Earth’s history. They all had natural causes. In the current epoch — called by some researchers the Anthropocene in recognition of humanity’s transformative effect on the planet’s ecosystems — there is another wave of species disappearing, and it’s because of us.
The Sixth Extinction is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:
In Kolbert’s account, the Anthropocene is marked by accelerated change and disruptions recalling the natural calamities of the past. In other words, humankind is the new asteroid. There’s the ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide concentrations destroying everything from frogs to coral reefs (increased “biotic attrition” in one of the book’s more memorably clinical terms) … Interlocking webs of travel networks make continental boundaries meaningless, mixing flora and fauna together at higher rates of speed, dooming even more. The result, Kolbert writes, is much the same as the pulses of “megafauna” extinctions that started occurring some 40,000 years ago when humans began sweeping across the Earth and wiping out megaherbivores like Cuvier’s North American mammoths. “It might be nice to imagine there once was a time when men lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert notes dispassionately. But “it’s not clear that he ever really did”…
You can read an excerpt of The Sixth Extinction in Audubon magazine.
Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)
S.J. Perelman specialized in a particularly adroit style of urbane humor, which he deployed for decades at the New Yorker and in the occasional Marx Brothers script (the latter of which earns him automatic inclusion in any writers’ Hall of Fame).
He also had some salient advice for writers, not necessarily about the act of writing itself, but what writers had to look forward to in their choice of such a “shabby-genteel” career:
My vocation, it may have leaked out to you, is that of a writer, which means that I sit in a hot little room stringing words together like beads at so many cents per bead. It’s shabby-genteel work and, on the whole, poorly paid, but I’m too fragile to drive a brewery truck and I’m too nervous to steal … In the poolrooms I frequent, it has often reached my ears that the chief advantage of being a writer is that it allows you to sleep late in the morning. Don’t believe it. You can enjoy the same privilege as a night counterman in a cafeteria, and, what’s more, in that job you can always bring home stale Danish pastries for the kiddies…
That comes courtesy of a book called In My Opinion: The Seventeen Book of Very Important Persons. Apparently back in 1966, Seventeen magazine had an advice column frequented by the likes of Perelman, Philip Roth, Pete Seeger, and Joan Crawford (?!). Maybe teenagers read back then.
(H/T: Embarrassing Treasures)