In the current Sept/Oct issue of Poets & Writers, there is an article by Jesse Browner on choices entitled “Lives of the Civil Servants.” In it, he discusses being reminded of his youthful fantasy of a writer’s life of bohemian freedom by an essay about Geoff Dyer, a British novelist and critic who celebrates living in harmony with one’s desires. Both Dyer and Browner are defining freedom here as being “unburdened by responsibility or specialization…as free as a butterfly, and get[ting] paid to do so.” This life—apparently achieved by Dyer—twinges in contrast to Browner’s life as a translator-writer, parent, spouse, and owner of a dog that wants walking.
Acknowledging both his self-pity and potential ingratitude, Browner admits to the dangers of airing such an argument. He assumes many would consider his negotiation of this conflict successful, since he has recently published his fifth book. He imagines younger writers might even come to him for advice on honing their divided attention.
The question that haunts him is one I find myself asking periodically: how much better would my work be if I could devote more time, resources, whole-heartedness to it? I fault myself at times unmercifully for wanting anything other than to be a vessel for great writing. Other times I revel in listening to the pancake house stories of my elderly neighbors. My mother was awarded “Best All Around” in high school. I threw that notion of balance along with her favorite adage of moderation onto a pyre of willingness to sacrifice for art. But I continue to approach the fire almost daily with questions of what goes in, what stays out. Browner concludes he will never know how his writing would be improved if his career or personal life had asked less of him, nor does he necessarily want to look at his family or such choices as if he might change them.
Still, if he has tucked the question in bed, I want it laid to rest. The nagging desire to re-evaluate my commitments returns with timing I have begun to suspect. It rises when I could be grateful that someone wants me to attend her sporting event or when I have longtime friends in town. It robs me—and whoever is around while I’m asking it—of my focus, my presence in lieu of something I justify as dedication.
The need to stake out boundaries or assure one’s future greatness gains momentum precisely when one is busy being ordinary, pouring apple juice, rubbing someone’s shoulders. It is legitimate to strategize goals, to plan, to accommodate, to ask sacrifices of one’s loved ones and to offer them. But only in the moment of choosing between a soccer game and a literary reading is there more than an abstract Hamletian waffling. One would do well to recognize in that moment of decision the tension is between one’s wants as well as those of others.
Desire is reactionary. One reconciles each dynamic only to be transformed by it, and to transform it. Watch the churning engine carefully: it crunches like breakfast cereal each measure of fulfillment only to leave the belly empty. There is no center to hold or fail to. That’s freedom—not a state so small it goes untaxed by the needs of community. No writer can be separate who would be integral.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks, Farm and There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man. She won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest for The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, which is forthcoming.