How to Be a Writer Without Writing
GEOFFREY BUSH is a writer who has lived most of his twenty-four years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1950 he was graduated suninw ram laude from Harvard; the next two years he spent at Oxford an a Rhodes Scholarship; and now lie is back at Harvard as a Junior Fellow. He has recently completed a critical study of the idea of nature in Shakespeare’s plays; and like so many other young American writers who have made a temporary home in universities, he is trying to find out whether the creative and the academic life can be reconciled.
by GEOFFREY BUSH
THERE is one problem which faces any young writer: how to make sure that people know you are a writer. There is no use being a writer unless people know you are; unless people know you are a writer they think you are like anybody else.
Most young writers are not, at the moment, actually writing. They would be, of course, if they only had the time. In the United States young writers are too busy getting married and living like anybody else. They have been too busy over since their last year in college, when they took an advanced composition course and wrote a symbolic play which was almost produced by the university dramatic club. The play was about a machinist’s mate and a waitress cast away on a desert island, and symbolized the plight of the liberal intellectual in the current political situation.
They are planning another play, a religious play, about a waitress and a truck driver. The waitress in both plays symbolizes Female Endurance. They have been planning the second play for three years, and every weekend they take a couple of hours off after Sunday dinner and instead of taking a nap they sit in the warm sun in the garden and draw up an outline of the scenes and make sketches of the costumes. Costume sketches are of vital importance to a play. The idea for the play came to them just before they got married — in fact the urgent necessity of writing it down at once occurred to them the very night before the wedding, and as soon as they have a free summer they’re going to get it out of their system. The symbolism is all worked out; they only need to put down the actual dialogue.
When you are not actually writing, the best way to make sure that people know you are a writer is to look as if you were suffering. Writers are more sensitive than ordinary people, and they suffer more. Another way is to join one of the different groups of American writers, like the Liberal Intellectual Writers, the Angry Proletarian Writers, or the Great Writers. Angry Proletarian Writers write about the inability of waitresses to understand intellectuals, and Liberal Intellectual Writers write about the inability of intellectuals to understand each other. Great Writers live by themselves and write about the Guilt of the South.
A large number of young American writers are at the moment temporarily connected with universities and are called Graduate Student Writers. Graduate Student Writers live with a wife and two children in an apartment building or small hut; they write more verse plays than any other low-income group in the United States. These plays are written in a verse so subtle it could almost be prose. The principal character is called Theseus and represents the Artist in Modern Society; modern society is represented by the labyrinth. The theme of the play is a stirring call for the freedom of the human spirit, and the action closely resembles the graduate school Ph.D. course.
In the tiny stalls where they work in Widener Library, Grraduate Student Writers read the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, but at home in their huts they have a complete series of the Partisan Review. Occasionally their wives give dinner parties for other couples who come over from neighboring huts. The husbands sit until late at night discussing Rimbaud and confessing fiercely to each other thal they have not been able to entirely free their work from the influence of St. John of the Cross; from time to time they glance at their wives, who are in the opposite corner discussing babies, and realize fondly that their wives represent Female Endurance. When Graduate Student Writers go to the movies, they go either to Italian movies about the futility of life or to cowboy pictures. Cowboy pictures are the archetypal form of the American Morality Play and are a sign of an indigenous Renaissance in Hollywood. Graduate Student Writers go to the movies once a week; they have been going to the movies once a week since they were little boys and saw Gene Autry every Saturday morning for thirty cents. At the moment they are not writing, but their position at the university is only temporary. Some men have held temporary positions at a university for forty years.
LITERARY life in American universities, however, is not so well organized as it is in English universities. In England vv riters have older (radii ions to fall back on, like the Tortured Catholic tradition or the Jolly Life-Force tradition. The university where English literary life is most thoroughly organized is Oxford.
Oxford literary life involves two antagonistic groups, the dons and the undergraduates. There are a great many different types of don at Oxford, each highly developed. The Tutor Don can be seen at eleven o’clock every morning disappearing into a coffee shop on the High and shouting to an undergraduate, “What you say about the Great Vowel Change may contain some elements of truth, but consider—” The Kindly Old Don gives tea every Wednesday for his old undergraduates, who are now bank managers. The Guerrilla Don is a small, shy don who lectures on Greek antiquities; only half the university know that during the war he led an underground movement in Thrace disguised as a Turk.
Oxford dons are confronted with the particular literary problem of how to be a widely known scholar without actually publishing. At Oxford it is not considered polite to publish; this is incomprehensible to American scholars, who every six months publish large works on Shakespeare’s Idea of Nature. Most Oxford dons publish nothing but detective stories, in which their colleagues are disguised by being given different first names. Other Oxford dons publish short reviews which annihilate books published at Cambridge. Philosophy dons publish nothing at all, being unable to decide whether language has meaning.
All Oxford dons in English literature are working on a definitive edition of a minor Elizabethan poet. The last scholarly edition of this poet was made from an imperfect manuscript in the library at Cambridge. The don has been working on this edition for twelve years, but cannot complete it until another don in South Africa has concluded his work on Elizabethan handwriting. Occasionally Oxford dons give lectures, at which their aim is to eliminate the audience; some Oxford lecturers achieve this end with remarkable speed. Then they retire to the Bodleian to do research on interesting points missed by the Cambridge editor in connection with the Elizabethan copyright law. The best scholarly editions of minor Elizabethan poets are the ones which contain the largest number of references to the Elizabethan copyright law. When the dons come to an especially knotty problem in the copyright law, they look out the window at the New College garden, with a thoughtful frown, for hours on end. The New College garden is always exactly the same. So is their edition. They will never finish it, and they know it: you can tell that they know it when the frown is a little more thoughtful and the shoulders are a little more bent. They can’t seem to make the final decision between Text C and Text E. On these evenings they hurry back to dinner in the Senior Common Room and choose between port and Madeira with particularly judicial care.
The only other people who use the Bodleian are old ladies reading books about heraldry published in the late nineteenth century. These old ladies wear squeaky shoes and possess some of the most powerful intellects in Oxford. At teatime all the old ladies in the Bodleian depart; they walk down a crooked wooden staircase, out a small stone archway, and go home to the red brick buildings where they live all alone in North Oxford. There they go up to their combination bed-sitting rooms on the fourth floor and make themselves a cup of tea in a small electric kettle. Sometimes on their way home the bells of Magdalen and St. Mary’s are echoing in the narrow walled alleys; in the winter it will already be dark, and families in lighted windows will be having tea together.
Undergraduates never go to the Bodleian, except at night, when they climb up the outside. Instead, Oxford undergraduates organize themselves into literary societies, like the English Club and the Poetry Society and the Dramatic Club. These societies meet in a chap’s rooms for a bit of a talk; usually they meet in a chap’s rooms for a bit of a talk about once a week. Once a term they invite T. S. Eliot as a guest. Every Oxford society invites T. S. Eliot as a guest, and every term his secretary writes that Mr. Eliot has just left for New York. Most literary undergraduates belong to one or more of these societies, and some undergraduates go to university lectures as well, unless the dons can prevent them.
Literary undergraduates at Oxford fall into three principal categories. The members of each of these groups are easily identifiable as writers and cannot be mistaken for ordinary people. The first of these groups is the New Critical Writers. The New Criticism began at Cambridge, came to the United States, and is at length, after thirty years, reaching Oxford as a dangerous new movement. Dangerous new movements always reach Oxford thirty years late; young Oxford radicals live in the heady atmosphere of the dangerous new movements of the early 1920s. New Critical Writers wear tweed jackets and old corduroy trousers. Anyone at Oxford who looks like a tramp is a New Critical Writer, unless he is a tramp. Small secret meetings of the New Critical Society are held in chaps rooms, where members pass out mimeographed copies of short poems by W. B. Yeats and other radical new poets. In the first year at the university, before they became too critical to write anything themselves, New Critical Writers wrote short difficult poems about garbage dumps and original sin. These poems begin “This is a dry month.” The most advanced New Critical poems are compressed into a deceptively simple verse form, often that of the nursery rhyme.
Some New Critical Writers are Americans, whose poems are shorter and more difficult. Most Americans, however, belong to a group of their own, which is fairly recent. American Writers are at work on a novel and usually come from Princeton. They have large hands and serious expressions and their novels are about the meaning of life. They have already written three long unpublished novels about the meaning of life. During the day they sit in Oxford tea shops staring at their empty coffee cups and discussing dichotomy. They speak slowly and earnestly and are anxious to discuss philosophical questions with English undergraduates. English undergraduates avoid talking about the meaning of life; either they are not interested, or perhaps they know it too well already.
American Writers are not, at the moment, actually working on their novels. During the last few months, ever since they arrived in England and began to eat nothing but cabbage, their philosophy of life has changed too profoundly for them to do any work at all. Before they can start work again they need to get some basic problems settled in their minds, like the nature of reality.
The third undergraduate literary group exists nowhere but at Oxford, and there it exists in large numbers. This group is the most subtle of all, the most effective, and the most sensitively disciplined: it is the group of Well-Dressed Writers, in the great English tradition of the nonplaying expert. The Well-Dressed Writer is completely unaware of the New Critical or Tramp Writer, and he regards the American Writer as an interesting curiosity. He wears a fancy waistcoat, a jacket with two vents and four buttons, and Edwardian pegged trousers. His particular talent is arguing at weekend house parties about authors whom he has never read; the author whom the greatest number of Well-Dressed Writers have not read is Ronald Eirbank.
Well-Dressed Writers have a special vocabulary whose three most important words are “perverse, “irritating,” and “mystique.” Their favorite author is the one whose mystique is the most irritating. Well-Dressed Writers are found in one of two bars, the Randolph or White’s; the waiters in these bars are irritating and perverse. Occasionally for a week or so all the Well-Dressed Writers in Oxford go to a small pub on St. Giles, like the Bird & Baby, which has been found to have a mystique. After ten days they all depart, leaving the owner and his two regular customers in bewilderment.
There are two bonds between these three groups. The first is that they are not at the moment actually writing. The second is that they are all suffering. You can tell that they are suffering from looking at them. The New Critical Writer is suffering from the ambiguous polarity of original sin. The American Writer is suffering from the meaning of life. The Well-Dressed Writer suffers from an increasingly perverse irritation at all meaning. But it is possible to tell, from the plain, honest way in which the New Critic wears his baggy trousers, from the stern, brave stare with which the American Writer eats a coffee roll, and from the unconsciously graceful gesture with which the Well-Dressed Writer allows his brandy glass to be refilled — it is possible to tell that from their suffering they have learned a Great Truth.
Someday they’ll put it down on paper. If they only had time, they’d do it right now. Meanwhile, to everyone but the English, it remains a mystery who continues the creative and scholarly history of the greatest literature in the world.