A review of Writers on the Job, Tales of the Non-Writing Life edited by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

Writers on the Job, Tales of the Non-Writing Life
Edited by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins
Hopewell Publications
244 pages, $15.95 USD, publication date July 2008

Twenty story writers, novelists, poets and essayists have written these sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, accounts of the jobs they’ve had to take in order to keep body and soul together while pursuing their writing dream. It’s a sad fact that for every best-selling author, there are hundreds who achieve publication only to attract a minuscule audience, and thousands more who aspire simply to be published. This book serves as a reality check for anyone who perceives the writing life as glamorous, lucrative, or fun. In fact, after finishing this book, a reader would be inclined to ask , ‘Why the hell would they bother?’ And that’s the rub. They bother because they are writers, because they must write, because words are the currency they employ to explain, understand, and enhance their lives.

Writers on the Job documents such unwriterly jobs as delivering blood samples, flipping burgers (in one case on LSD, with predictable results), waitressing, dressing up in a bunny suit and handing out candy, practicing law, joining the military and entering a war zone, process serving, babysitting, contract editing and teaching, dish washing, pet sitting, taking court transcripts, stenography, secretarial work, trainee hotel manager, and working as a gas station attendant. Robert Gover’s contribution, ‘On the Way to a Fortunate Misunderstanding’, documents how his 1960s novel (dealing with an interracial sexual relationship) was passed from agent to agent, publisher to publisher, with all demanding changes based on their own prejudices and limited understanding of the work. Further, ‘Northern reviewers tended to assume the story was set in the South; Southern reviewers assumed it was set in the North’ (p.92). The lack of a jacket photograph on the book led to him becoming ‘accustomed to the greeting, “Oh, we thought you were Knee Grow!”‘ and he had to produce ID to attend his own book signing – which would be funny if what he’d already been through to get the novel this far wasn’t so tragic.

Susan Tekulve describes the various ruses she employed with her family in order to continue taking English subjects at college rather than Psychology in order to indulge her obsession with writing and literature. Meanwhile she takes a variety of jobs, in a factory, as a psychologist’s file clerk, until, unemployed, she moves back to the family home. Her grandfather remarks, “She’s outta control … What’s she gonna do with another degree in poetry?”, before resignedly writing a cheque to ensure she has a warm coat for the coming winter (p.176). This seems to be a recurring theme for these American writers. In a culture obsessed with money, that judges people’s worth, and even godliness, on their income and possessions, how can a serious writer survive psychologically and continue to produce while knowing those around them often perceive them to be layabouts and losers who should get ‘a proper job’? This is familiar territory for almost all serious artists, and there is no one answer. But perhaps reading books such as this one can help.

As David Memmott writes, (and I concur), ‘The idea of working myself to death for a bigger house or a newer car did not sustain me nearly as much as art, music and poetry. I didn’t care so much if I left behind an inheritance so much as a legacy … It was more important to me for my grandchildren … to be able to glimpse something of my living heart and mind and spirit than to pass onto them a stash of silver and gold’ (p.155). But this is a writerly stance, and one wonders if Memmott’s descendants would ultimately rather have the cash, or if they will look back with pride on his literary achievements. I guess it depends on whether they also are foolish enough to pursue a career in the arts.

The final essay, “What can Mailer – and Dickinson, Rousseau, Conrad and Geisel – tell us about how to earn a living as a writer? – An Afterword” by William Warner, discusses the personal and financial circumstances of the listed writers to demonstrate how even the most successful or revered authors have suffered the demoralisation of trying to live and work in a society that values money more than art, and have often had to compromise. He believes that in America, ‘the current mood is demoralizing’, and counsels writers and artists to make decisions about other non-writing work with their eyes wide open to the consequences for their art. He also points out that ‘for economic reasons, well more than half the US population is for all intents and purposes excluded from literature, philosophy, MFA programs’ (p.242) – a point that helps place this text squarely in the ‘interested, wannabe writer advice’ category rather than one for a general readership. But this so-far ‘failed, layabout Australian writer’ loved it.

My only real criticism was with the standard of copy-editing, which, sadly, seems these days to be universally poor. But particularly in a book by and about writers, I wouldn’t expect to find ‘you’re’ confused with ‘your’ (p.181), ‘quite’ with ‘quiet’ (p.235), and question marks used in sentences that aren’t questions (pp.203-4). If only the rest of the world still believed these things mattered as much as we writers feel it matters, this ‘layabout’ might be more employable as an editor!

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).

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