(McSweeney's / Believer)
US: Mar 2013
Picture this: a young, aspiring writer takes an obscure train from an outer borough to and from his job everyday, that he does hatefully, wastes entire weekend days in bed watching Mad Men on Netflix instant, wiles away the hours drinking with his friends instead of writing. In his darkest hour of despair he wonders to himself: “How many others are there out there? Are they solitary? Outspoken? How did they get published? Did they ever feel the despair that I feel?”
Because writing is such a solitary pursuit, writers adrift in the seas of the obscure and unpublished need anything they can get to defend themselves against the onslaught of ‘better sense’. This ‘better sense’ will come from all manner of sources that at one time seemed benign; friends, family, even the television. “What if it doesn’t work? What if I’m no good? What if I will have wasted all this time working on my craft, while everyone else I know schmoozes their way into impressive careers? I don’t even have health insurance. I don’t even have APC jeans!”
Fear not, intrepid explorer. The path is noble and trying. Solitude is the wellspring of the difficulty. Writing fiction is about breaching subjectivities and yet, seemingly paradoxically, it must be done alone. The writer must spend copious amounts of time blocked off from the outside world, merely imagining those strange beasts, human beings, as if they were little, black crawlers in an ant farm.
There is a particularly perverse pleasure then, in reading about the processes of other, more renowned writers. You get to know that you are not alone in pursuing this passion. Others have tread the path and come out successfully. Writers know well that when they tell they friends what they are doing during their creepy, hermetic nights, behind the friends’ encouraging demeanors they are laughing. Ignore their neoliberal myopia and take comfort in the words of your comrades in letters! The intimacy of the interview, coupled with the shared passion for writing you share with the subject, gives the reader a respite from the lonely life. It is the perfect type of camaraderie for someone who has sentenced themselves to a life led mostly alone.
Always Apprentices, published by The Believer’s imprint, follows in the illustrious tradition of The Paris Review in providing us with intimate, revealing and edifying reviews. There are descriptions of writers’ processes and habitats, which can be taken as pedagogical, curiosities, or merely biographical treats for the obsessive fan. For those of tested courage, Don Delillo can offer this consolation: “It was not until about two years into the book that I decided that yes, I was a writer, that even if this book doesn’t get published, I will keep writing.” One of the most desperate realities about being a writer is that for all but a select few, there will be little to no recognition or support. To hear one of the literary giants of the 20th century relate that he too worried about whether or not he was a writer, in the words of Homer Simpson, makes me feel like a big toasty cinnamon bun in bed.
For the budding writer about to enter college, Barry Hannah offers his advice: “I don’t really believe in a creative-writing major as an undergraduate. It’s a bad idea, terrible. I’ve met creative-writing majors from other places and they don’t know a goddamn thing. They’re the worst students.” The age old question of the MFA is, naturally, parsed by many, as well. Just looking for some insight into the messy morass of humanity? Mary Gaitskill is here to help: “It’s interesting what shame is. The best definition I’ve heard is that guilt is about what you’ve done , shame is about who you are.” The man with the monomaniacal vocabulary, Will Self, has one for you to look up: verglas. I’ll save you the trouble: n. a thin coating of ice, as on rock.
Interviews with writers can reek of the cloyingly meta. Reading about writers, who plumb the depths of subjectivity and reveal their own subjectivity to another person can feel like a reductio ad absurdum. David Foster Wallace once said something like the reason he liked reading novels was because they allowed him to feel less alone in the world. When they worked, he would read a passage or an idea written by someone else and would have the experience of “I’ve always known this but never said it.” Always Apprentices never feels like an academic exercise and delivers Wallece’s delight in reading in every interview.