The archetype of the writer
It's frustrating. It's annoying. But it exists. At least, it did for me.
No. 99: The archetype of the writer
The archetype of the writer is frustrating and can often introduce unforeseen complications to an otherwise uncomplicated life. The standard portrait is that of a brooder, one who walks with his hands behind his back like a Taekwondo sensei, reads copiously, potentially smokes, wears tweed, and exists mostly in dark rooms illuminated only by lamplight.
Clearly, this archetype is ridiculous. But even though I’m well aware, the image still comes to my poor little mind sometimes, this version of the writer as a sedentary being, one who inhabits the brain more than the body.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Hemingway was, and is, such an interesting character.
At a time when the above archetype was especially persistent, Hemingway was powerful not only intellectually, but physically. Here was one whose blood was redder and flowed more freely. His hands, unlike the velvety palms of most writers’, were tough and calloused. He was unafraid to break a sweat, throw a punch, or carry a loaded handgun. He made it seem like beautiful prose was the natural consequence of a life lived passionately. And maybe it was.
But Hemingway was about as rare and exotic as any outdoorsmen. That is, not rare, but idiosyncratic. Only when measured against the bogus writer’s archetype does a person like Hemingway seem different from other men of his time. According to the framework, the desk is where your time should be spent, physical fitness is not as helpful as mental fitness, and, by the way, where are your spectacles?
Writers — we regret to admit — are not some cult of demigods beholden to a higher set of standards. They are people. Like every one else, they have varying tendencies and preferences. None are right or wrong when it comes to craft.
These come across as easy facts to me now. But they didn’t always. The writer’s archetype has regrettably wreaked some havoc in my life.
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The issue was this. How to reconcile my romanticized version of the proper writerly life with my love of athleticism? My physicality? My need to spend more time outside than indoors? Athletics were an important part of my life growing up. I loved playing sports, riding my bike, skateboarding. In the summer, our front yard became a sandlot where me, my brother, and the neighbors would play wiffle ball until sundown. At different times of the year, I would be on a soccer team, a baseball team, a basketball team, a swim team. As I got older, it became clear I had a knack for swimming. Freestyle and butterfly were my deadliest weapons. I won — a lot. My high school relay team set the pool record at a local university. I got college offers. I didn’t accept because swimming became very repetitive and I was after more creative achievements from life after high school, but I never lost my love of competing, pushing my physical limits, hitting full stride.
It’s wild, then, that I attempted to give up this side of myself in sacrifice to my writerhood. I had always written, but post-college I decided it was time to bear down on my craft, which meant restructuring my life to fit the writer’s archetype.
I quickly realized: suppressing an integral — and good — facet of your character for some external purpose is always bound to fail.
Which, actually, thank God.
My attitude hasn’t always been so graceful, though.
Back then, when those integral facets inevitably reared their head — whether through a budding obsession with riding my bike, going on long hikes, joining local ultimate frisbee leagues, etc. — I characterized them as distractions rather than things I deeply loved and had neglected.
Again, bad move.
Then I stumbled upon an interview in the Paris Review with E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and a frequent contributor at the New Yorker.
“Were you a voracious reader during your youth?” the interviewer asked.
I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, I have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read. I don’t like being indoors and get out every chance I get. In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.
E.B. White, writer of one of the best books ever, basically doesn’t read?
The interviewer went on. “Do you have a special interest in the other arts?”
I have no special interest in any of the other arts. I know nothing of music or of painting or of sculpture or of the dance. I would rather watch the circus or a ball game than ballet.
No. That was too good. A ball game rather than a ballet? Yes.
Then, “Can you say something of discipline and the writer?”
The things I have managed to write have been varied and spotty — a mishmash. Except for certain routine chores, I never knew in the morning how the day was going to develop. I was like a hunter, hoping to catch sight of a rabbit.
There are two faces to discipline.
If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.
The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds.
A zoo? A writer is like a surfer?
My outlook was changed.
I saw the writer’s archetype for the ridiculousness that it was. A writer is no different than the non-writer. When you decide to write, you go from normal person to normal person who writes. That’s it.
This gave me permission to think about my athleticism in a new way. It was a-okay to spend time on all my non-writing related loves. But also, those loves might teach me something about how to approach writing.
In college, my friends and I would lace up nightly and walk down to the local basketball court. Other contenders would do the same, which made for all the ingredients needed to cook up a pick up game. Once, post-college, my friends drove up to San Francisco from San Diego to visit me. We went to Dolores Park, where we found a court with some legit-looking players on it. With the old team newly reunited, we were required to ask the players if they were up for a game despite our being completely unprepared in terms of clothing and shoes. They accepted, and somehow, we emerged victorious.
But what in the hell does this have to do with writing?
When I sense fear or reluctance in myself as I approach the page, I try to think of my attitude towards basketball.
Am I afraid to hop on the court and shoot some hoops, or to ask a complete stranger go head-to-head?
No. That being the case, I should bring the same fun, loose, free-flowing attitude to my writing.
But it goes further.
When it comes to playing, do I give it my all, reacting to my opponent on the fly?
Is it the end of the world when I lose the game?
Haven’t I won many times before, simply because I was willing to play?
It seems to me now that so much of writing well is just being willing to play. ♦
HEAR: “A.M. 180” by Grandaddy. A great one.
READ: E.B. White’s interview with the Paris Review.
VIEW: The New York Times made an umpire mini-game. See the pitch, then judge it as a ball or a strike. It’s fun. And, not to brag, I went 7 of 7.
Brilliant once again, Matt. Being fully engaged in life is what surfaces the most interesting prose. Because it is real. Because it comes with that indescribable sensation of truth that drips from the external world onto our paper.
I've heard this seeming disconnect is essential to being highly creative. Speaking from my world, good scientific research is as much a work of creativity than just analytical thinking. My confirmation came from my chat with Dr. Michael Kosterlitz (He won the 2016 Nobel prize in Physics). Turns out, he was famous in the mountaineering world. The title tells you all.
More than half his lecture was about his legendary exploits in the Alps, and the rest about his Nobel winning research. And when I asked for advise, he didn't miss a beat: "You have to have something outside of science that you are truly passionate about. Else you won't have the creativity to progress". So not just passive hobbies, but active efforts in getting better at it. So you're on the right track I guess...