Gish Jen on the False Dichotomy Between Life & Work

“Want to get a coffee?” my sister asked after I had just settled in at my desk.  It’s inevitable: the moment I finally get into the flow of writing, something interrupts.  An offer to get a coffee, a phone call, an invitation out.  

“Should I go?” I wondered to myself.  I wanted to focus on my work.  After 45 torturous minutes of writing and rewriting sentences, I had finally found a rhythm.  But did I really want to pass up an opportunity to get a cold brew with my sister?

If you’re a writer, you understand this unbearable tug-of-war between life and work.  On one hand, you want to RSVP a resounding “no” to every invitation out.  You’d much rather work on your novel than go to a pool party or out for brunch.  In many ways, you resent life itself: the million and one daily occurrences that intrude upon your work.  You despise the demanding ring of the telephone, the incessant irritating ding-ding-ding sound of mail in your inbox.  You harbor borderline irrational resentment for any errand that forces you out of your house.  For the writer, Dante’s nine circles of hell is taking your car to the mechanic or waiting on hold to talk to a representative at AT&T about your phone bill.

On mornings like this one, I entertain fantasies of abandoning my real life and retreating to a secluded cabin in Big Sur.  Among the quiet hush of redwoods, far from the commotion of city life, from the distractions of technology, from the infuriating interruptions of other people, I could finally get down to work.

But other times, I resent having to choose between life and work.  Every minute I spend in my fictional world is a minute I’m not spending in the real one.  If I choose to spend my afternoon rearranging words on a page, I’m not exchanging intimacies with my husband or seeing my brother for his birthday.

In her essay “Inventing Life Steals Time, Living Life Begs It Back,” one of many insightful pieces in Writers on Writing, Gish Jen explores this seemingly irreconcilable conflict between life and work.  Despite her success as a writer, Jen almost quits.  “Is writing worth it?” she wonders. Is it worth it to live on the page but not in real life?  Mired in existential crisis, she writes, 

“Last year I almost quit writing.  I almost quit even though I was working well, even though I remained fascinated by the process of writing— the endless surprise of the sentences, and the satisfaction of thoughts taking form.  I had a new book I wanted to write, the book I am now writing, which I knew to be a good project.  I knew, what’s more, that I was not written out, something for which I have perhaps morbidly always watched: I have long vowed not to keep on past the point where I ought best to stop.  

I was not there yet.  Still, I almost quit because I felt the writing life was not life, because I felt I was writing instead of living.”

Ultimately, writers are caught between worlds: the real one they inhabit and the imaginary one they construct.  As Jen observes,

“There is never enough time for writing; it is a parallel universe where the days, inconveniently, are also twenty-four hours long.  Every moment spent in one’s real life is a moment missed in one’s writing life, and vice versa.”

For the writer, writing and not writing are equally excruciating forms of torture.  When you’re writing, you’re wondering whether it’s any good, you’re comparing yourself to other writers.  Your day consists of trying to wrangle your wild, untamed thoughts into a comprehensible order.  You might labor over a single sentence for more than an hour.

But not writing is just as much torture.  Not writing is wishing you could be writing, it’s being physically present but mentally elsewhere.  You might be at a dinner date with your boyfriend, but you’re actually in your short story, wondering how to propel the plot further.

Jen intimately understands the agony of the writer’s life.  In a passage of emphatic anaphora, she writes,  

“To write is to understand why Keats writes of living ‘under an everlasting restraint, never relieved except when I am composing.’  It is to recognize Kafka’s longing to be locked in the innermost room of a basement, with food anonymously left for him.  It is to know why Alice Munro describes the face of the artist as unfriendly; and it is to envy Philip Roth, who, rumor has it, has sequestered himself in a cabin in the Berkshires.  He is writing, writing, people say, writing without distractions, only writing.  To which the news part of us asks: Is that a life?  Can you really call that a life?”

To write is to enter a Faustian bargain of sorts.  We might not sell our souls to be writers, but we exchange invaluable moments with our loved ones for more time at our keyboards:

“Writing competes with…life and shortens its run.  I struggle not to hurry my time with my children; I endeavor to lose myself with them even as I squeeze every last minute out of the rest of the day.  I calculate; I weigh; I optimize.  That I may lose myself again in my work, I map out the day, the route, the menu.  I duck, I duck.  I hoard the hours and despair in traffic jams.  Worse, I keep an eye on my involvements.  I give myself freely to others, but only so freely.  I wonder if writing is worth this last price in particular.”

Is writing worth the sacrifice?  For Jen, the answer is “no.”  Writing— she feels— has become a jealous, too possessive lover.  Determined to live again, Jen puts down her pen and spends her newfound freedom gardening and making up for lost time with loved ones.  

But after awhile, Jen misses her old paramour.  Writing had been a way of ordering the shattered fragments of her life into a coherent whole. Without writing, life didn’t feel worth living anymore:

“Yet I found life without work strangely lifeless.  I wish I could claim that I went back to work because I had an exceptional contribution to make to the world, or because I found the words to dress down Old Man Death; but in fact I went back because life without prose was prosaic.  It seemed as though someone had disinvented music— such silence.  I felt as though I had lost one of my senses.”

Jen had been living in a false dichotomy of either/or: either she lived or she wrote. But, she soon realized, she could live and write. Encountering an island of ice on a walk, she discovers an apt metaphor for the relationship between her work and her life:

“I walked past a reservoir in the spring and saw an ice island.  This was gray-black and submerged enough that it could have been the reflection of a cloud, except that it was covered with birds.  The birds were ankle deep in the cold water; pointing in all directions, they seemed, despite their concerted stares, to be scattered.  The island was something I’d seen and admired every year, but when I looked at it this time, I saw that it was transitory yet permanent, that its islandness depended on the water, which would destroy it and create it again.

The water and ice were antagonistic, but not only antagonistic.  The water was of the ice, after all, and the ice of the water; the water gave rise to the ice.  Their relationship was what James Alan McPherson might have called one of antagonistic cooperation.”

Ultimately, life and art aren’t armies in constant battle. They aren’t enemies— in fact, they can be great allies to each other: the mundane matter of life offers material for our art; making art makes life, at least, makes it worthwhile.