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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

getting by

What to say. There is quiet beauty out my office window. Some little birds, I can't tell which species, but they're flapping and hovering furiously like oversized hummingbirds around the holly-tree next to the neighbor's townhouse. Maybe it has berries on it, and they're harvesting them. And the leaves of the Japanese maple by our own patio have turned a deep burnt vermilion. They glow in the faint light falling from the white overcast.

I feel both busy and unproductive. I'm doing no creative writing these days, and feel the full sense of being stuck in neutral. Even pushing ahead on a seemingly infinite project is better than actually being idled. Of course writers, like other artists, must find ways to earn their keep. James Joyce, toward the end of his career, found a patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who was willing to support him while he worked on Finnegans Wake. Excellent woman! I doubt I'll ever be able to read more than snippets of Finnegans Wake, but I salute her gesture toward tending the flames of genius.

In his masterwork Story, Robert McKee says that the screenwriter must earn his living from his craft. Otherwise, the burden of trying to work on it while also supporting himself will eventually be too much.

I suppose he's right. But there's something to be said too for a writer's being (more or less) financially independent. True, many of the greatest works have been written while the writer was enduring terrible poverty. But I think about my own experience of earning at creative writing while working on The Odyssey. Financially I had my back to the wall while the show was in development, with two house mortgages and no other regular source of income. When people are pressuring you to change your ideas--make them worse--it's much harder to resist when you need the money. Time and again Warren and I had to beg the producer for advances on future stages of the work, just so we could survive. I didn't find it particularly humiliating, but I wasn't keen on it either. We were being toyed with by people with six-figure salaries, when, in one year, 1990 I think, The Odyssey provided us with a total pay of $8,000 each. Try paying off two mortgages with that.

I think also about an excellent documentary series Kimmie and I watched a few months ago, called The Other French Revolution, about the Impressionists. Most of them endured great financial hardship, almost starving their families as they pursued their art. Of course, as I well know, this could only be a source of family friction and pain. By the time they became old, however, they were vindicated, and mainly enjoyed good commercial success.

I'm sure there's no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. People have different needs, desires, beliefs, including artists. As artists go I'm relatively bourgeois, and like to live at a certain level of comfort. Others thrive on a bohemian lifestyle. However, I can get by on very little. But I can't quite get by on nothing. Not quite.

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