Discipline and Reward: A Writer’s Life

CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN has been writing for close to four decades. She began with essays about music and musicians, and these formed her first book, FRIENDS AND FIDDLERS. Music led her on into biography, and with the publication of YANKEE FROM OLYMPUS she achieved national recognition. She speaks from experience in this paper, which was prepared for the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

IN 1920, I sold my first piece to a magazine. I have been writing fairly steadily ever since. And fairly steadily I have been asked the same questions:

“Do you write at regular intervals, or do you wait for inspiration?”

“How do you manage with children, husband, household, and find time to write?”

Intrinsically, these are not foolish questions. They only come to seem foolish after years of repetition. Actually, I think writers like to answer this particular questionnaire, if you can catch the writer alone, when his colleagues cannot hear what he says.

Now, in answering these questions I shall go beyond them to talk about discipline, about the rewards and sacrifices of a writer’s life. I shall speak out of my own experience, though I have no way of knowing if my experience will prove of value to anyone besides myself.

That is the risk I take: the risk of boring my audience, the risk of ridicule from overexposure of the person, the risk of being shrugged off and dismissed with what a scholar friend of mine calls the gesture of the Hapsburg lip.

This is the risk we all take when we walk on stage, or send our painting to be exhibited, our manuscript to a publisher: the risk of public exposure. It is no small thing, the incurrence of this risk, and it runs from beginning to end of a writer’s life. After thirty-five years of writing for publication, I suffer from it more than I did in the beginning. As one gains in reputation, the risk becomes somehow larger, or one thinks it does. Consciousness of it generally strikes in the night when one wakes. Actual physical sweating takes place, loud moans are rendered, and the question is put, “Why in God’s name did one undertake such a venture, such a presumptuous, enormous, unlikely book? Why can’t one be content to live an anonymous, respectable life?”

Well, I can’t. And neither can anyone who intends to write. Perhaps this fear of the public is healthy. I think I like writers to be afraid. They can show their fear by a noble defiance in their work or by a beguiling charm and grace in seeking to win their public. At least these fearful ones are not writing for themselves alone. They are seeking to communicate, and their fear is proof of it.

Nevertheless this fear is something to wrestle with, especially in the beginning, at the outset of a career. Women writers are notably tender in this regard, possibly because women are trained, from the cradle, to please. It is the quite practical business of women to please. One way or another, most of us women get our living by it. “Oh no. Mrs. Bowen,” young women writers say to me. “Oh no! I mustn’t write that scene. I couldn’t put it on paper as I have just told it to you. I can’t describe that child, that man, that mother, in such terms! Even in a fiction story, I can’t do it. The characters would recognize themselves.”

The writer, I maintain, cannot afford such reservations. He must find a technique that will let him describe anybody, anything, any situation — a technique that will permit him to use all his experience of living: tragic, comic, embarrassing, obscene, cruel, beautiful.

Few writers are born with this technique. They must search until they find it. The search, if it teaches nothing else, in the end will teach them to know themselves. Actually it is a little difficult to separate, for purposes of definition, the technique of writing from the techniques of living — which is another way of saying the style is the man. I have no patience with that view of writing — a quite prevalent view — which looks on style as a trick and on the great techniques of writing as a bag of tricks. I have heard people say to a writer. “Ah, but you could describe that man! I envy you. You could tell that incident as it really happened. You have this gift of words.”

These people seldom tell a writer, “You have this gift of perception, this passionate concern with life and living, that enables you, or compels you, to watch and learn.”

Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind him. I said this for the first time in Yankee from Olympus. I was trying to describe how Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, the judge’s father, felt when, as a young man of twenty-two, he began to write, and I quoted a letter from Oliver to his friend and former classmate, Phineas Barnes:

March, 1831

I must announce to you the startling position that 1 have been a medical student for more than six months. ... I have been quietly occupying a room in Boston, attending medical lectures, going to the Massachusetts Hospital and slicing and slivering the carcasses of better men and women than I ever was myself or am like to be. It is a sin for a puny little fellow like me to mutilate one of your six-foot men as if he was a sheep — but vive la science!
I must write a piece and call it records of the dissecting room, so let me save all my pretty things, as plums for my pudding.

My book goes on to comment:

Oliver Holmes was finding himself. Action was important; one’s blood called for action, whether it was the slicing of carcasses or the shove that sent a wherry from boat-slip to river. But what really mattered was to remember the slicing, remember the glint on the river beyond the bridge’s shadow. Not to remember dimly, as a vague, completed pleasure. The act of memory must be one with the experience itself. While the thing was happening, Oliver experienced it with a joyful, painful vividness, phrase by phrase as it were, dimly conscious that later when, pen in hand, he called upon these phrases, they would come back to him.

It was a kind of double living, the success of which could be proved only by Oliver’s readers. Strangers, reading what he wrote, must feel as Oliver had felt. If they did not so feel, then Oliver knew that he had failed, and his own experience turned to ashes within him. There was in this no shred of altruism; Oliver Holmes had no desire to give boat trips to the poor of Boston or to the rich. He was an artist and acted from the artist’s necessity to record and thus fix forever — shake off forever — the impressions that crowded so mercilessly, demanding release.

I maintain that this double living, these hours and scenes twice experienced, make up the inevitable sign of the natural-born writer. There is a compulsion to relive everything, repeat conversations to oneself, mimic a speaker’s accent, tone of voice, gesture, as carefully as if one were rehearsing to do it before an audience. It is an odd practice and serves no immediate purpose, certainly. I sometimes think it derives from sheer love of life, or infatuation with life, even the parts of life that we hate and fear. The practice takes its toll, also, in fatigue, a peculiar exhaustion. A double life is a double burden.

But it has also a double reward. Writers live on this honey, this marrow or this poison which they store up. Or if they don’t live on it, most assuredly they could not live without it. Deprive them of that peculiar nourishment and they wither, lose their identity, develop asthma or commit suicide.

I have sometimes wondered about composers of music, in this respect. If we writers see things in reflection, in our mirror as remembrance and hindsight, whence comes the musician’s vision as expressed in sound? Man is not God, the original creator. The music that man writes must surely be an echo of something, a transcript of some suggested sound, some heroic tuning in to spheres the rest of us cannot catch or remember.

However that may be, I happen to think a writer’s life is the most privileged there is in our society. It is a life exciting, varied. If success comes, it is a life that lends itself to expansion both materially and spiritually. Expansion, surely, is what counts. Expansion is the prize of life. And, as with all of the best things in this world, the writer pays for that prize every inch of the way. Let us say he pays by the establishment and acceptance of certain disciplines, more rigorous than the disciplines that other people follow. I will try to describe them.

THERE is a channel down which your work pours. That channel must be kept clear, freerunning. At all costs it must be so kept. Pain does not clog it, necessarily, nor misfortune. Unrequited love can loosen the dam and let the torrent down. These are the brief, rich experiences of life, the very stuff that flows and rolls through that channel, tumbling and roaring so the person can almost hear the noise.

What clogs the channel, I would say, is laziness, inattention, timidity, the propensity to lie to oneself, to avoid looking straight at a situation — perhaps at the situation of your own work, the story or chapter you have just finished or thought you had finished. The most scrupulous honesty is necessary, in a writer. No matter on what level he operates, a total honesty is called for. To know what one is doing, to ask oneself from time to time, Why am I writing this book? Am I doing it for money? Have I chosen the subject because the name of Tchaikovsky or Oliver Wendell Holmes will sell a book? Whom am I trying to reach with my message, and have I a message? (You have, or you shouldn’t be writing.) By a message I do not mean a moral. I mean a central idea which caused you to write your piece in the first place. Or your story, or your book, or any particular chapter in your book.

If that central purpose is strong, it will allow you considerable leeway, considerable wandering to and fro on the page. Even if the central idea seems small to start with, if it has validity it will gain weight like a snowball, and in the end will roll and carry the writer along as passenger.

I am trying to say that your central story idea need not be noble. It can be frivolous or shabby. But it must be looked at honestly by the writer. There can be no cessation, during composition, of this honesty or purpose. No cessation of caring. No slacking of this high wire on which you have elected to dance. No turning to easier, less hazardous matters.

The writer simply cannot afford to slack off. Not while work is in progress. Usually, after a book is moving steadily, the subject itself takes charge, as I have said, and the writer need not think about “not caring.” A momentum has been generated, a high level of tension. Now tension, or intensity, is not pleasurable for human beings. Our American world has latterly discovered this and spends time and considerable money trying to get rid of tension, which is looked on as harmful, like a virus. How to relax, how to go to sleep, how to feel easy. It makes one smile, somehow, all these books and tracts, instructing us how to rid ourselves of the most valuable trait that some of us are endowed with.

A healthy person is tense whenever he is doing something difficult, or when he is getting ready to do it. The writer does not, of course, consciously flex his muscles. Unless he is a fool or a poseur, he is not consciously tense, although, sitting at the typewriter about to start his morning’s work, he may find himself drawing some very deep breaths. The writer is in the position of a person who has accepted a grave responsibility, a task that is within his powers — his best powers — and which he has dedicated himself to accomplish.

Dedicated is a big, expensive word. Yet I am quite sure that all writers have a sense of dedication, once their work is really under way. Not dedication to perfection or to martyrdom or to produce a “great work.” That would be silly, I just mean dedication to finish what we have begun, to the best of our powers.

This in itself is a quite fearful responsibility. It means that the writer must live, during working hours, at the peak of his capacity. If one’s best hours, best productive hours, are, say, four out of the twenty-four, it means that the other twenty hours must be ordered to this effect.

SUCH a discipline can be extremely irksome over a long period of time, the more so as it is selfimposed and can be so readily broken. Irksome is too weak a word, if the job is a long one — say, five or six years. Painful describes this discipline more exactly. Anxiety goes along with it, anxiety lest you break rhythm and the momentum be lost. If you are a morning worker, with your best hours from, say, nine to one, your afternoons will have to be devoted to outdoor exercise, neglected housework if you are a wife, the tender loving care and feeding of family or whatever is necessary to make daily life go on, clearing the decks for tomorrow morning and keeping you in top health besides. With a man the routine will be only slightly different. For housework substitute chopping wood, putting up screens or storm windows.

When five P.M. comes, if you are a biographer or historian you will have to stop what you are doing with fly screens or hemlines and begin reading for tomorrow’s writing or for next week’s or next month’s writing, depending upon how you plan your research for a long book. With a pencil in hand, making notes or marking passages, you will read on and off until ten o’clock, when you go to bed. I myself usually climb in bed with my notes in hand for tomorrow’s start, read them over casually, trying not to think, and turn out the light. I am a firm believer in the action of the subconscious during sleep. At supper or dinner that evening, you have not overeaten because it would disturb your sleep, and you know from experience that eight hours of sleep are necessary to put you through a morning’s work, though you know also, from experience, that you can afford to miss one night’s sleep occasionally. But not two nights, unless you are prepared to sacrifice your work on the third morning.

Long ago, when I was in my twenties, I came across an awe-inspiring saying, in French: “If you abandon art for one day, she will abandon you for three.”

It is true. It is all too lamentably true. At the time, I was studying the violin, and such abandonment resulted in mere physical disability. Clumsy fingers, a general playing out of tune. I find it applies equally to the nonphysical business of writing biography. Even with Friday’s notes sitting on your table staring you in the face — a map to guide you into Saturday’s territory — even then, if you skip Saturday’s work, on Sunday those selfsame notes will likely have gone dead. They will sit there, avoiding your eye. No message comes up; they are cold script. There is a strange psychological twist to this — with me, at any rate. If Saturday’s interruption has been forced from outside, something I could not help, like going to the oculist, I work every bit as well next day. Probably because I have sat in the oculist’s office raging and impatient, with my chapter never out of mind. On the other hand if I succumb to invitation and go out to lunch, an interesting lunch on a working day, I am ruined. Or even an interesting dinner, which should not, practically speaking, interfere with morning working hours at all. But a dinner party means what shall one wear, or going to the hairdresser, or even looking in the shops for a new dress, and this is fatally distracting. Giving a party is the finish, in my judgment, to several days’ work. Randall Thompson, composer and professor of music at Harvard, told me he can’t write music in the morning if he knows he has to go out at noon to Harvard Square to buy cigarettes.

That’s not a pose. I am sure of it. What the writer needs is an empty day ahead. A big round quiet space of empty hours to, as it were, tumble about in. Hours that must be filled, hours that force one to think, to get the words on paper. Oh, let the writer do his living in between books! And let him not be afraid, if he is young, that life will pass him by because he is alone in a room, thinking. If he fears that, he should take up some other occupation than writing.

The necessity for empty hours ahead, empty days, applies not only to so-called creative work, but to reading and study, when it is serious. Take Sir Edward Coke — a passionate student of law and history. Coke recognized the danger of interruption. “Therefore,” he wrote, “I allow not to the student any discontinuance at all (for he shall lose more in a month than he shall recover in many). . . . Knowledge of the law,” Coke goes on, “is like a deep well, out of which each man draweth according to the strength of his understanding. He that reacheth deepest, he seeth the amiable and admirable secrets of the law.”

Substitute, for the word law, the word life, and the quotation can apply to any writer.

For myself, the discipline works also in reverse.

I dare not overwork. Let me write for too many hours, sit too long at the typewriter, and rubbish emerges on the page. During a five-year book, I dare not let myself stay at it indefinitely, let alone slack off. If I am writing an exciting key scene — say, the trial of Sir Walter Ralegh in two chapters of six thousand words each — by lunchtime I may be going great guns, the channel free, tide high, waves slashing and slapping

But I dare not keep on except in rare cases; for instance, near the end of a scene. Even then it is dangerous. Fatigue will betray me and I shall spoil my scene with sentimentality or bombast. When I am tired I write as a drunken man might write, deceived into spurious ecstasy. Spurious ecstasy is easy to achieve But it is not communicable. It has no momentum. Apparently, a quite raging momentum is necessary to propel the written word, cold print, from one person to a number of other persons, all of whom are strangers to the writer. I think the young writer should always remember that he is writing for strangers. And strangers require to be won. So when lunchtime comes, I tamely stop and eat. Upstairs though, by myself. I am not quite ready to emerge altogether and plunge into the world. After lunch I read over what I wrote in the morning, correct it, add marginal notes of things I have left out or facts that need checking historically. Also, if at lunchtime I am still primed with ideas,

I put them on slips of paper marked with the next day’s date: “Ralegh’s arrival for trial at Winchester. Horn at gate . . . lead scene with coach uphill. . . . Only 2 days between R. and his fate.”

THE writer of a long book dares not leave much to chance. I myself don’t risk leaving anything to chance if I can help it. I doubt if any serious professional artist leaves things to chance. He cares too much. Chance, to the amateur or the beginner, probably implies inspiration. He tells himself that tomorrow morning at nine, or eight, or six o’clock, he will awake inspired, with the lead into chapter twenty set out plain in his mind. And it will happen like that, if the writer orders his days and his nights in such a way as to let it happen. There is a natural, developing rhythm to a writer’s life, a fallow time and a productive time. The fallow time applies not only to periods when a writer is between books, but to the months or years when he is in full production. In each period of twenty-four hours, the writer needs time to be quiet, to let his story arrange itself in his mind. If he is rushing about or making love or going to parties, I maintain the story won’t arrange itself. Why should it? I have little patience with writers who think that books can be turned out in a hurry. They can, but not good books. I have quite as little patience with publishers who plan books to be written in a hurry. This of course does not apply to timely, newscomment books about a Suez crisis, a civil rights bill. Nor does it apply, of course, to newspaper writing, or news writing in a magazine, particularly a weekly. That’s something else altogether, maintaining its own tension, a good healthy kind of tension, the experience of which can be salutary to academic writers who sometimes take too long to finish their books.

Last spring I went down to Kentucky to report the Derby for a sports magazine. Actually, I don’t think I learned a thing about writing, down there, although I expected to. I look on that experience as a reward rather than an exercise— one of the rewards which are sure to come if a writer keeps at it long enough. All of a sudden you get an offer, a strange, unlikely offer which pays good money, better money than your legitimate line of writing. You hesitate, doubting if you can wander into fields so far from your accustomed beat. Yet, once you have accepted and turn your mind in this new direction, a pleasing thing happens. Your writing techniques, acquired over the years, come busily to your rescue, walk right up and permit you to make this diversion into strange country—without, I may say, even the slightest dislocation, mental or spiritual.

But I would not have accepted that Derby offer in the middle of a book. Not while Sir Edward Coke was in progress. Not for any money, even the Sports Illustrated kind of money, which is what I got. To do so would have been asking for disaster. It would have been a rending in pieces of what I had built.

I HAVE been talking about concentration, about dedication straight through the twenty-four hours while work is in progress. You might well ask. What about the part-time worker, who must keep a job and write at night, or in such odd moments as he can find? I am sure that for him the same principle of concentration holds. No dichotomy here, as the college professors say. The daily job slides right down the chute into the literary feed bin. Anthony Trollope did not write about the post office, nor Charles Lamb about India House. One man loved his job, one hated it. Yet the job hours for these two seemed rather generative than destructive. A writer can be quiet in the midst of tumult, if he so wills.

It is absurd to mention one’s own experience after such names as Trollope and Lamb. But I well remember a time in my late twenties when I wrote a novel during the hours of two P.M. to four P.M. every day for a winter, the only hours I had alone. The rest of the time I thought about it. I don’t know whether to say this with pride as a writer or with shame as a wife and mother — but the other twenty-two hours were spent automatically, as an underfed prisoner might spend the hours waiting for his one meal. By the time two o’clock in the afternoon came round, a heavy backlog of material had piled up. I had walked about the house with my story all morning. I knew it by heart. For better or worse, it came out on the paper with a rush.

Psychiatrists call this way of life escape. To live in two worlds and to look upon the dream world as the real one can make reality into illusion. Doctors tell us this is dangerous. The reason it is dangerous, I suppose, is because it allows so wide a margin for self-delusion. And self-delusion has no place in the mentality of a writer.

Actually, writing is escape. And what I say is: More power to it! A writer’s regime, a writer’s outlook, can reduce certain nagging moralisms to dust; certain rigid, boring values to hash and nonsense: the notion, for instance, that housework is ennobling to women, or at least instinctive to them, as scuffing leaves to clean his bed is instinctive to a dog. Love of cooking is thought by many to be a secondary female sex characteristic. So is the exercise of following little children interminably about the yard and liking it.

If I had not been a writer, these moralistic conceptions would have defeated me before I reached the age of thirty. Writing saved me. (Talk about rewards!) The housework still had to be done and done cheerfully. The children still had to be followed round the yard. But these activities, repeated day after day for years, were no longer defeating because they were no longer the be-all and end-all of existence. They had become incidental. I had something else.

And I kept it secret, until it leaked out of its own accord, which is the best way for writers to make their debuts: publication first and talk afterward. It was not until 1 had had two Books-ofthe-Month — in the year 1951, that is—that I dared sign myself on my voter’s registration card as writer. I used to put housewife. By no means from modesty, but because the Devil might be looking over my shoulder. I might spoil the luck.

It can be seen that I have wrestled with this problem head on. I maintain that it exists, in one form or another, for man as well as woman, whether it takes the shape of mop and duster or some more masculine business. Always, in early life, the writer’s decks are cluttered and must be cleared. That it is possible to clear them is indeed one of the great rewards of a writer’s life.

Another reward, less easy to define, and almost shocking to express in words, is this: If you are a writer, no emotional situation can defeat you for very long. I don’t say that as a brag or boast. Nor does it imply heartlessness. What it does imply is that every experience of life feeds the writer. Wasn’t it Tolstoi who said a man could not truly be a writer unless he had spent time in prison? That used to discourage me a little. I take comfort in the fact that there are in life prisons without iron bars and that I have inhabited them. In the lives of all of us there have been weeks, perhaps years, when we were incarcerated, locked in — and to our own minds, locked in unjustly. Have you read the life of Florence Nightingale, by Woodham Smith? Miss Nightingale was not a writer but she was a woman with a single idea, and the case applies.

What an amount of living it takes to make a writer! I confess there is in your born writer a quality almost monstrous. A quality of outrageousness. People are suspicious of writers and artists and with good reason. It is outrageous to use life as writing material. It is outrageous to be infinitely curious, to stand looking at life with eyes wide open and then turn round and paint what we have seen. It is outrageous to be so direct. Yet directness is part and parcel of the writer’s curiosity. There simply is not time to make the journey the long way round, which is the courteous way. One’s husband, one’s children are sometimes embarrassed. “Do you have to know the plumber’s life story?” they ask. “And must you, for God’s sake, tell him yours, besides?”

The answer is, of course I must! If 1 don’t tell mine, or at least part of it, the plumber won’t tell his. Not the part I want to hear, that is. Why should he? One-way exposure can be humiliating; there must be give as well as take. Writers seldom choose as friends those self-contained characters who are never in trouble, never unhappy or ill, never make mistakes, and always count their change when it is handed to them.

I WOULD like to speak for a moment about the writer’s workroom, the furniture and equipment that surrounds him as he works. I think this is important. First of all I will say that your born writer, your talented writer, can write anywhere if he has to. But I don’t advocate discomfort. Discomfort is costly. It uses up energy that might better be turned into print. To me, nothing that helps is extravagant. Nothing, not electric typewriters, not long-distance calls, not taxis to libraries to save time and strength nor a Pullman scat if one intends to study on the journey. I remember being teased, six years ago, because when I flew to England for research on Coke, I had a berth on the plane, at vast expense, and undressed and went to sleep. But, on the night of my arrival I was to have dinner with a London barrister, a stranger to me, who I hoped would become interested in my Coke venture and take me in hand. Was I to arrive all worn out, which for me means being timid, apologetic — a woman to be avoided, not helped?

I am not advocating luxury. I advocate the buying of time and energy. And I ask you, is there a better way for a writer to spend his money than on the things that will save time for him, and energy? The writer must gamble on himself, right from the beginning. Every day, every hour, almost. This is hard for those of us who are not gamblers at heart, or whose nature is to be unsure of ourselves and of our talent. But life is very, very short. The writer cannot afford to miss a minute of it, merely for lack of equipment. I would not stress this nor take so much time over it if I had not been shocked again and again by young writers bringing me badly typed manuscripts or pages with gaps to fill later “when,” they told me, “a certain reference book would be available.” Or writers who cannot undertake a biographical piece or book because they haven’t the money, they say with a sigh, to go to China or Milwaukee to do their research.

Nonsense! Somebody exists who is just waiting to send you to China or Milwaukee, if you want to go badly enough. Lacking money, haven’t you something to trade or pawn? When I was young I used to get my typing done by teaching the typist’s wretched, unmusical child to play the violin. One time a book I was writing required that I go from Philadelphia to Buffalo. My fare was paid by an innocent club of women to whom I gave a lecture on chamber music, illustrated (I hate to say it) by playing on my violin. They gave me fifty dollars. I still remember how I sweated over the letters I wrote to get that lecture assignment.

There are ways and means. Don’t ask editors or publishers to help you, unless you have a good half of your manuscript to show as earnest of your ability. Figure out a way for yourselves. I am impatient about all this. I don’t want to hear sad stories about lack of opportunity, and I don’t want to see manuscripts that are unfinished for any of the above reasons. If I am tough about it, it’s because I have been through this mill, myself. I know the excuses, and I know the answers to the excuses.

Write! And let writing get you out of your difficulties. Let writing be your discipline. And your reward.