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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Michael Mewshaw and John Jerome: The stress-filled world of the workaday scribe

For most of us it's a romantic image, that of the freelance writer, this person who has no boss, who works when and as he or she wishes, "book-worming," as Robert Lowell wrote, "in pyjamas fresh from the washer each morning," though in fact it's more likely to be jeans and a T-shirt too long away from the washer.

Never mind that he or she has no health insurance, is forever suspect to the IRS and neighbors (Why doesn't he have a job? Or as Tom Waits put it: What's he doing in there?), and may invest weeks or months in projects that generate little or no income.

Part artist, part hawker of wares, the writer hovers half in and half out of the world, withdrawing from the world to spend hour after hour, day after day, in monklike solitude in order to describe it, going down to the well with his handle-less bucket.

"To be a writer," John Jerome remarks, "is to be a shuttlecock in a badminton game, one racquet of which is naïaut;ve optimism and the other a cynical despair."

All of this helps account for our fascination with writers' memoirs, a very particular kind of gossip.

The range is broad indeed — broader still if we include novelizations such as Muriel Sparks' Tremor of Intent, or the interstitial admixture of fiction and memoir offered up by Paul Theroux in My Other Life. There's Heroes, a wonderful, seemingly forgotten memoir by Joe McGinnis that details his failure to write the very book we are reading. Another favorite is travel writer, journalist and essayist Jonathan Raban's wide-ranging, confessional For Love & Money.

The two upon which I want to focus here are Michael Mewshaw's recent Do I Owe You Something? (LSU Press, 2003) and John Jerome's decade-old The Writing Trade (Lyons & Burford, 1992).

As writer and as reader, I find myself equally attracted to the high modernist tradition — to all those Pynchons and McElroys dedicated to pushing narrative and language to its utmost — and to commercial writers scrambling simply to tell the best stories they can and earn the next advance. All my life I've read Theodore Sturgeon and Walter Tevis alongside Joyce and Faulkner, Jim Thompson and Chester Himes alongside Dostoevsky and Cendrars, and have been, in every way, as interested in the former writers as the latter.

Mewshaw's memoir rings in towards the upper end of the scale. The largely anonymous author of nine novels, five nonfiction books and numerous magazine pieces, early on he absented himself from the States to live abroad where he courted acquaintanceship with great writers as adamantly as he did editors who might create, out of thin air, his next paycheck.

Thin air, he reminds us again and again, is where the full-time writer forever resides. Skittering from place to place — Paris, southern France, Rome, Tangier — he wonders how he'll make rent, feed his family, finance the next writing project. And if anyone will care.

"What follows," he remarks in his prologue, "is a chronicle of my efforts, frequently headlong and humbling, to meet writers and make myself into one."

The emphasis, sadly, is on the former. Eschewing chapters, Mewshaw elects to drape the skin of his personal story on the bones of sections relating encounters with signal writers: George Garrett, William Styron, James Jones, Harold Robbins, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark, Anthony Burgess, Paul Bowles, Graham Greene, Gore Vidal. Whether finally this is homage, higher journalism or a rarified form of name dropping, each reader will have to decide for himself. For this reader, at least, fetching as I find some of these portraits, Mewshaw is strangely absent from this book about his life and about what is, presumably, most important to him. His wife and children are pale ghosts, his books are rumors. What one looks for everywhere, and fails to find, is passion.

Subtitled "A Year in the Life of a Writer," John Jerome's The Writing Trade is, like the author himself, four-square and practical, and goes about its business with little hoopla or fanfare, offering us a rare portrait of the workaday, working, "invisible" writer. Jerome struggles with deadly-dull magazine assignments, waits helplessly for news of book projects as he borrows from the bank to pay property taxes, frets over weather and providence.

Out of Jerome's bottom-line pragmatism emerge marvelous epiphanies, as when he remarks that he has spent most of his life trying to be different, to exempt himself, when all along his work was telling him how alike we all are, and how intertwined.

He admits early on the novelty of thinking about the creative process. And perhaps due to that freshness, he comes up with wonderful observations, metaphors and insights — noting, for instance, that one seven-and-a-half page manuscript required eighty-seven discarded pages.

"I'd prefer to rewrite — I do in my fantasies — as if bolting together a spherical diving bell. Too much torque on one nut will cause it to gap somewhere else; I want to work my way over the surface systematically, pulling a sentence taut here, finding then a little more slack over there, on the other side, to take up. When I'm done, I should be able to dip the product in a tank and find it finally watertight."

Or this, reflecting on how odd it is that speaking directly and honestly to his wife of twenty-five years should be so much more difficult than addressing a multitude of readers:

"But it is precisely that shearing away of writerly tricks — deceptions and poses and personalities and identities and self-conceptions — that I want as a writer to pursue most assiduously."

It's only when he is writing that he feels wholly alive, Jerome says. Then everything begins to connect, his life becomes unexpectedly integrated.

"Can't keep my mind on it without writing it down. Can't stop writing. That's okay. We're past the solstice. The sun's coming back. I have this wonderful deal."

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