Saturday, February 27, 2010

La Vie Bohème

In the electrifying, Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical Rent, an independent filmmaker, Mark, and his songwriting, HIV-positive roommate Roger, burn their beloved band posters and screenplays in a last-ditch attempt at heat and light. Too poor to pay the bills, they belt out in the opening number, “We’re hungry and frozen—some life that we’ve chosen!”

After examining my bank account this weekend, I have to agree: this whole starving-artist thing seems horribly overrated.

My plan this year has been to work part-time and write. A simple plan, but far from easy. So far, my novel is still at a wonderful stall. Funds are dwindling, my job is draining, and progress on my story remains an ongoing struggle. When I first heard Rent as a double disc in high school, the irony of burning what you love in order to sustain any kind of life at all—much less one that you love—did not escape me.

It felt oddly fateful.

Books and music, anything artistic, still ignites me like nothing else. When I need to steel my resolve, I look to people who’s work I admire—musicians as well as writers—for inspiration. When I first heard Rent, I hoped fervently that I would know something of the characters’s bitter, fighting spirit. As the award winning author of Bel Canto, Ann Patchett, wrote in her memoir Truth and Beauty, “When I was young and decided to be a writer, my understanding of the job description came straight from La Bohème...I, like Puccini, imagined the garret would be in Paris, which would give the poverty a glamorous edge.”

It is no coincidence that in the generations that follow, the garret is a drafty flat in NYC’s Alphabet City, and the show is not La Bohème, but Rent: a musical based on Puccini's opera. In these shows, the artists are heroes—more so because poverty and obscurity mark their struggles.

I will be the first to say it: povery is not glamorous. While I don’t consider myself poor, and many of my friends live paycheck to paycheck without being artists, the heart-stirring struggle that precedes every well-known artist’s ascent is not at all glamorous. It’s terrifying. Terrifying, because there is no guarantee of monetary success or stability, no matter the hardship. We’re conditioned to believe that struggle is only worth it if security or recognition follows.

For every writer I have heard of, whose words I live by, for every musician who has fueled my life, there are many more whose names and work I may never know, but who are doing the good work, the hard work. As acclaimed writer Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part…The act of writing turns out ot be its own reward.”

To all you struggling writers out there…

Love the best part.


Jennifer Ruden said...

The irony here is that this post is beautifuly written! I think a writer's process differs greatly from person to person. I think poverty sucks; I absolutely hate being broke. For some reason I need the tension of 'squeezing it all in' in order to be productive as a writer. My success at motherhood and my 'day job' is questionable, but I know I need and want all of it shoved into my day. Stick me in a room with a laptop and all the time in the world (and no money) I absolutely freak out. It took me too many years to figure this out. But I did. Finally. I need to make money. I love making money. And it is this money I make that supports my frantic, secretive, and often hurried writing.

Vasilios said...

As a teenager, I abandoned writing for the sole purpose that I saw those being published as being the "privileged" citizens of society. Why then should I bother, as I was neither "connected" nor of a "celebrity status". Even the honor of delivering newspapers required nepotism. I withdrew.

Then the computer happened. Ebooks became possible and vanity presses became respectable "self-publishing services"

Sadly, the marketplace has not changed much today. Celebrity written books are coveted by respected publishers and consumers, established writers prosper while the process of becoming established is hindered, and the priority of the government dictates that the majority of monies collected be reserved for military applications while the arts are given token support. Just as it was with the Sistine Chapel. As Michelangelo painted, war was waged.

But today, the process of information dissemination is in a state of transition because of the internet and the print media is so threatened. The mere fact that I have written this and it has not remained unread on my desk; that you have read it and evaluated it, has given me reason to write again, after having read what you have written and embraced your article's theme.