Does a Writer Need to be Selfish?

James Joyce forced his wife and children to live in abject penury for 17 years while he wrote Finnegans Wake--a novel that, when finally published, was almost universally reviled for its abstruse weirdness, and made almost no money for its author. Alice Walker’s daughter claims that her mother ignored her only child during her formative years while the author remained holed up writing in a cabin a hundred miles from the family home. At the time of Dylan Thomas’ death (from alcohol poisoning in a New York bar), he was having an affair with his touring agent’s assistant, having left his wife and children home in Wales.

These writers, all of them recognized as true artists of high stature, were heavily criticized by their friends and families for putting their work ahead of their personal obligations. While few would argue that ignoring one’s spouse or neglecting one’s children constitutes admirable behavior, were/are these writers inherently lacking in what might be considered common decency, or is “selfishness” a necessary characteristic of successful writers?

I don’t know the answer. I cringe when I hear about a popular YA author who admitted to missing twelve of her children’s birthdays because of her constant touring, but I also remember telling my son that he would have to find a ride to the nightly rehearsals for his high school musical because I was working under a deadline. We want to be good people, but sometimes it seems as if we’re at the mercy of some demanding and implacable despot that makes normal human interaction nearly impossible.

And it’s not just deadlines or the demands of agents, editors, and publicists that we must accommodate. The very nature of our work necessitates a certain degree of constancy. It takes time–although less time with each book–to achieve that state of Flow (see previous entries) in which our ideas come to us in a rapid and orderly fashion, making the act of writing effortless and pleasurable. Before then, writing a novel, which involves a number of different interweaving ideas, is like starting a locomotive. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and spinning of wheels with little result until the engine gets hot and the big machine starts rolling. If we only write once in a while (or if we’re repeatedly interrupted), then our writing is like a train that never leaves the station.

I’ve met literally hundreds of people who claim to be/want to be/might have been/ writers, but don’t write. And whether it’s true or not, they all say that the reason they don’t write is because they don’t have the time. I, for one, believe them. Time is our currency, and there’s only so much of it in every life. The TV ads and magazine articles that insist we can have it all are wrong. You can’t work 60 hours a week, raise four happy kids, have a terrific relationship with your significant other, maintain your standing as a championship skier, and write a novel at the same time. In fact, most of us can’t manage any more than two of the above activities simultaneously, and few even manage that well.

There’s the rub. How much of your time are you willing to give your (writing) work? How long does it take to get the wheels of your train moving? When should you stop after Flow finally does kick in? How much of your writing time can you sacrifice to promote the books you’ve already written? How supportive of your work are the people around you? How far do you push them before they feel resentful and betrayed by your selfish devotion to what they might consider your addiction to self-aggrandizement?

These are not easy questions to answer. The fact is, we can’t just be writers. We’re human beings, with human needs–for connection, affection, sexuality, propagation–as well as artists who understand exactly how demanding our art is.

Must we be selfish?
Yes, I believe so. To a degree.

Must we choose between writing and “real” life?
All the time.

How do we find the right balance?
I don’t know. Do we ever? Or is it always a struggle between Big I–the Master of the Universe who creates worlds with words–and Little I, father, mother, wife, husband, daughter, son, friend, employee?

Even the questions seem selfish.

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