Tuesday, Nov 9, 1999 5:00 PM UTC

The Writer's Life

A titan of American letters reflects on his timeless art and the sacrifices it exacts.

The Writer's Life

Behold the Writer on Writing. Oh, how that very question — How does the writer write? — rings in my ears, unasked but clearly etched across the eager faces of the steady stream of hopeful young acolytes who make the long trip up here to my little outpost in the country. “Please,” they seem to beseech, “what alchemy, what ethereal fire transforms our wordy soup of glottals and fricatives into language and that language into writing … your writing, Mr. Rakoff?” Why even attempt an answer when so few truly agree what constitutes writing? Surely, the act is not merely confined to those moments, all too rare sadly, when pen is taken in hand, digit raps against typewriter key or, in my case, when I speak into this cunning little recorder or dictate aloud to Caitlin, amanuensis in excelsis extraordinaria, whom I plucked lo these many years ago from that fiction colloquium at the New School. [CAITLIN: REMIND REMIND REMIND ME ABOUT THE BLURB FOR TOBY WOLFF. DO NOT LEAVE THE HOUSE THIS EVENING WITHOUT MAKING ME COME UP WITH SOMETHING!]

All is Writing, I tell them. And, of course, Writing is All, I tell them, as well. For me the “writing” of my day begins the very instant I open my eyes, even before perhaps, when I sleepily hear my wife Jane, pathological early riser that she is, get up to dress and start breakfast. A writer’s cortex kicks into gear even then. On cold mornings, that calming interval of staying warm among the labial folds of my eiderdown, mesmerized by the whorls of frost upon the windowpane by the bed — the only sounds being the hiss of the wood-burning stove in the kitchen and the regular whack! whack! of Jane as she chops more wood outside — that, too, is writing. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

I tend to write best with a little privation, a numinous absence, a lack to push my thoughts forward: that hour of growing hunger before Jane fixes lunch; a brief period last summer when Celia, our youngest, shut the piano cover down on Caitlin’s fingers and I was forced to bang out an entire chapter myself on the old Royal; during the frozen-earthed silence of winter. Especially during winter.

Luckily for me, winter comes early to these parts. Autumn’s end is signaled by the grackles, those cacophonous weird sisters, those ludic brigands, their greasy black pin feathers brilliantined in the sunlight like the multi-hued spumy plume upon an oily puddle, laying waste to the damson plum in the yard. (Once, sitting in my Nakashima chair in my study, I watched for hours as Jane tried to wrap the oft-stripped fruit tree in meter upon meter of protective plastic sheeting. How many times did she fall from the ladder in her efforts that day? Strange the details that evade memory. And all to no avail. The birds still, like robber bridegrooms, absconded happily with the small, stone-hard purple hearts.) Not six short weeks thereafter, do the clouds come scudding across the low mountains to the North carrying with them the cold winds and the immense hibernative quiet. A little hardship: so good for the writer.

Above all, the writer must write for himself. Accolades and external laurels can be lovely but prove wanting in the end if the inner yearning to write (and write and write) is lacking. No sooner had we moved up here than, for example, Jane — talk of her National Book Award nomination for poetry and the attendant vicious gossip about the jealousies of the two-artist couple still buzzing on the carrion-glazed lips of that pack of vultures we call the literary establishment — stopped writing almost entirely. I always wondered at her much-professed time constraints. Was it a flagging desire, perhaps? After all, I often tell her, writers write.

O larkspur! O hawthorn!

Just as Meg Ryan, in “You’ve Got Mail,” waxes panegyric about “bouquets of pencils,” [CAITLIN: HAVE I THANKED NORA FOR THE AMARYLLIS? LET'S DO A NOTE SOONEST IF NOT] so I, too, even though I have not used a pencil in years, will spend a meditative hour arranging my bouquet. This, too, is writing: Red blue yellow yellow blue green yellow blue; yellow blue yellow green blue blue red yellow; yellow green blue blue blue red yellow yellow, I go on and on only to look up hours later to find the sky fading into indigo, the pale column of smoke rising from the wood fire Jane has lit under the washbasin out back.

The noxious, detergent fumes of the machine-bruised garment choke me and keep me from my work. I sneeze and become rheumy-eyed and quite sullen and I am not a man given to truculence. Give me the elemental, tidal smell of the clothesline, the fragrance of sun, of hands lovingly snapping a garment in the breeze to pendulously sway on the line and then suddenly, gloriously, the wind rushes in, a momentary presence in the shirt, a Woman of Air puffing out that dress. What visiting soul, what shade? My muse, perhaps?

But the breeze filling the clothes on the line is colder these days as they grow ever shorter. Jane’s hands will be red and raw from the effort. No matter, supper can wait. Perhaps I shall rise from my desk early and make Jane a cup of tea! Ah, the too-giving writer is the doomed writer. My curse, alas.

I look down at my pencils. Those steadfast wooden soldiers. There is no judgment in them. “Go,” they say. “There shall be work tomorrow. Tonight you can sit in front of the fire, your lips grow dark from purple wine. Go.” It is a good day. A writer’s day.

[CAITLIN: THEY WANT 1,000 WORDS. I THINK THIS IS ABOUT THAT. FOR WHAT THEY'RE PAYING ME, I'M NOT ABOUT TO BUST MY ASS ON THIS ONE. I BET THEY GAVE JOYCE CAROL OATES AT LEAST $5,000, LIKE SHE NEEDS THE MONEY. A FEW FINAL THINGS BEFORE YOU GO: CALL UP GOZZI'S IN GREENWICH AND ORDER AN ORGANIC TURKEY FOR THANKSGIVING. NOT THE WILD, THE ORGANIC. THE WILD IS TOO TOUGH. IT SHOULD PROBABLY BE A BIG ONE THIS YEAR. THE DIDION-DUNNES MIGHT BE COMING. ALSO, FIND OUT REMNICK'S WIFE'S NAME -- MAKE SURE HE EVEN HAS A WIFE; HE SEEMED A LITTLE RAREFIED AND SUSPICIOUSLY TRIM WHEN I MET HIM, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN -- AND LET'S ORDER ONE OF THOSE PASHMINA THINGS FOR HER. CHECK TO SEE WHAT COLOR WE SENT TINA LAST CHRISTMAS, WE DON'T WANT ANY DOUBLING UP. THE GIRLS WANTED TO SEE SOME ANIMALS AT THE FARMER'S MARKET, THEY SET UP A PETTING ZOO OR SOMETHING. I TOLD THEM YOU'D TAKE THEM, I HOPE THAT'S OK. I'D ASK JANE BUT THE "MISTRESS OF THE MANOR" IS, AS ALWAYS, "TOO BUSY." BEFORE I FORGET, I HAVE SOME NOTES ON YOUR STORY. SOMEONE'S BEEN READING HER ALICE MUNRO A LITTLE TOO CLOSELY, DON'T YOU THINK? NOT TO WORRY, WRITING TAKES TIME, CAITLIN. AND WE'VE GOT LOTS OF THAT. SEE YOU IN THE MORNING.]