The myth of the writer’s garret

I declare the ‘writer’s garret’ a myth. By which I mean that the image of the writer (usually male) working alone until such a point as their work is ready for publication, is less than half the story.

It’s a myth that intimidates the hell out of a lot of writers though. Indeed a writer friend mentioned to me this morning that she’s always felt less ‘professional’, somehow too needy as a writer because she isn’t good at writing solo for months/years/a lifetime on end.

I recently come across this photo of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov. Vera is typing up one of Vladimir’s manuscripts while he, meanwhile, rereads his index cards (onto which he hand-wrote his drafts). His writing is extraordinary, and he worked long hours as a writer, and was exceptionally creative and inventive. But Vera was also essential to that process. The great writers are never as alone as we’re led to believe.

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky

opening lines of Pale Fire, 1962

It struck me what a very partial truth is the idea—promulgated by some writers themselves, critics and compliant publishers— of the individual auteur, genius writer.

We writers like our garrets when we’re writing, but we also need to leave them. Many great and good writers have had supportive friends and very often wives, and thus have not truly been singular as writers. According to biographer and essayist Judith Thurman, Vera Nabokov was her husband’s

‘first reader, his agent, his typist, his archivist, his translator, his dresser, his money manager, his mouthpiece, his muse, his teaching assistant, his driver, his bodyguard (she carried a pistol in her handbag), the mother of his child, and, after he died, the implacable guardian of his legacy.’

Judith Thurman

Virginia Woolf had Leonard Woolf. She’d wander out of the ‘room of [her] own’ and he was there for her— to read her work, take walks, ensure she ate and slept and had the quiet or the noise that she needed, as best he could. (He wasn’t without his faults here. Sophie Cunningham’s wonderful new genre-bending historical novel, This Devastating Fever, explores some of them.)

Even the astoundingly prolific and confident Ursula K. Le Guin had a regular writing group of writers. Authors and sisters Liane and Jaclyn Moriarty share finished drafts of their work for encouragement and support. Gillian Mears shared work in progress with other writers, her ‘paper friends’, discussing her work, literature and self across a voluminous number of letters.

Like Nabakov, Gertrud Stein had the perfect writer’s wife. Alice B. Toklas was her admirer, reader, cook, household organiser, and intellectual partner. Deborah Levy stingingly sums it up: ‘Any young writer keen to find female literary role models whose lives do not end with suicide would be encouraged by how Stein was unfashionably good at life and happy in love.’

Ernest Hemingway also had Gertrud Stein as a reader and critic. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway had each other until their mutual admiration fell away and the critiques got too harsh. Fitzgerald also had his wife Zelda as muse and reader. (Zelda, however, did not ask Scott to read any of Save Me the Waltz before sending it to her agent.)

My point being that the genius writers most often don’t write alone.

James Joyce came down from various garrets (he and Nora were desperately poor) and spent time talking with writers and artists in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. (Beach went on to publish Ulysses.) Joyce’s famous Molly Bloom soliloquy in Ulysses is widely acknowledged today as being drawn from his wife Nora Barnacle’s own letters, yet ironically, is also said to evidence Molly’s ‘pure voice unmediated by irony or craft or literary artifice.’

The literary salons at which only the elite were invited are history now. The workshop is the modern, egalitarian salon. The need for conviviality, stimulation and shared passion hasn’t abated. Like artists from other media—be they musicians, visual artists, sculptors, composers— writers need feedback and conversation, the opportunity to debate ideas, to learn new techniques and to develop their craft.

Thus the deserved popularity of the writing workshop as a process and structure that supports writers to produce their best work.

But finding even one or two excellent writer friends/associates/colleagues to share your work with can be difficult. Very often we don’t have experienced and astute writer friends to hand. So when it’s designed and run well, a writing workshop can be a god-send; a place for generous critique, support, motivating deadlines and due dates. The workshop is a place to feel sometimes hopeful, joyous, excited, confident, even thrilled. Which is why the writing workshop has become a much utilised mode, both face-to-face and online, and more recently integrating zoom.

It is for these reasons that I’ve been leading writing workshops for over thirty years, since my first experiences of the workshop process as a student (then teacher) at UTS and Johns Hopkins University, and then for many more years as teacher at Macquarie University. My first novel Night by Night was finished in a writing workshop in the Writing Seminars’ MFA at Johns Hopkins University.

Over the years of my own writing and publishing, I’ve turned to particular writer friends and our regular exchange and close reading of work in progress. We’ve workshopped ideas, characters, publishing strategies, everything. I would never have finished redrafting and resubmitting my second novel Provenance without the writing group I was a part of back then. I’d be in a complete slump, ready to shove the whole work into a box under the stairs, feeling utterly talentless and miserable, that I’d wasted years of my life, and they’d assure me the effort was worth it. One small group of readers wanted me to persist. Provenance was worth it, but I needed both their astute critiques and emotional support to keep going.

My third novel Hopscotch was a far easier book to write because, at long last, I felt that I knew a bit about how to write a novel. It was a happier book to write, but I was wrangling five main characters. There was a great deal of talking about them as that novel developed, long before I began working with Picador’s editor Emma Rafferty on them. Across all these books and years, I was learning about the art of fiction writing through reading my workshop writers’ works in progress.

Workshopping for those times when you need to be out and not writing alone also helps many writers manage the emotional highs and lows of creating a unique work out of ostensibly, nothing but ideas. A well-run workshop is a safe space for diverse voices and perspectives, varied genres and styles.

As my writer friend went on to say,

‘Even a little bit of that workshop energy can be very invigorating for a writer’s work – for my work, I need it. I don’t need to be told I’m great, it’s the process of reflection on my work so that I see it fresh, that’s what the interaction gives me.’

My next small group writing workshop commences January 17, 2023. For more information contact me now.

Author: Jane Messer

Author, Mentor, Manuscript Assessor - The Bold Ink

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