Lucy Kellaway on Writing Right

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times is my new literary crush. She writes acerbic, funny, insightful things about language and its (mis)-uses. Think George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ for the 21st century.

A brief excerpt from one of her recent FT columns on the troublesome issue of bios…

The other day I was invited to a dinner for non-executive directors to talk about women on boards. Even though I would much rather watch MasterChef on the television than go out and discuss this most worn-out of subjects, I said yes because I liked the person arranging it.

Before the event I had to send in a “brief bio”, so I dashed off something like: “Lucy Kellaway is a journalist at the FT, on the board of Admiral and has written various books.” It was short, to the point and based on a model favoured by Ronald Reagan. A friend told me he had seen his delightfully succinct bio at a grand do in the 1980s: “Ronald Reagan is President of the United States”.

In due course I received a list of the other guests’ bios and saw how outlandish my single sentence looked among the short essays they had submitted. I now see that there is a problem with the Reagan model: it doesn’t work quite as well if you aren’t president of the US. Indeed, the less important you are, the more words it seems you need. But looking at these bios – containing facts like “x played intercollegiate basketball three decades ago” or “y serves on the boards of 17 charities” – made me wonder about this trickiest of literary genres. How long should they be? What should they contain? It seems that the bio is trying to do two things: to say who you are and to show you are different from (and more interesting than) other people. Most overdo the first by being too long, and underdo the second.

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The Myth of the Writer’s Life

Keats House in Hampstead, North London, is a dangerous place for a writer. Walking through the spare, clean rooms; admiring the sketches of his boyish, elegantly wasted face it’s hard to feel anything but crushing inadequacy.

Keats was more than a Romantic poet. He was the apotheosis of popular notions of what constitutes the “writer’s life.” From the giving-up of a profitable career in order to write poetry, to the dying young, broken-hearted and far from home, Keats marked out territory generations of writers and wannabes have struggled to claim. In our minds, tragedy authenticates talent. We roll an envious eye at Hemingway’s suicide, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s tear-and-alcohol stained romance, and Flannery O’Connor’s terminal illness. Perhaps it is because we secretly long to be not only the tellers of stories, but also the heroes. Maybe the impulse to lionise flawed lives is a defence against overwhelming expectations (“I, too, would be a literary giant if I could escape the suburbs and spend my time drinking rum in Old Havana.”) Whatever the case, the unthinking acceptance of clichés about the “writer’s life” is absurd and dangerous.

Dangerous, because it creates and artificial distinction between writing and life, and diminishes the achievements of writers of every caste. Ian Sansom notes that his literary hero Flann O’Brien, “had a proper job and took his family responsibilities seriously” then adds lugubriously that, “in the end he was destroyed by them… [and] descended into journalism.” What arrogant nonsense. O’Brien wrote surreal, brilliant books that prompt other novelists to call him their literary hero. Why is it a cause for complaint that he also had a family and a profession?

Many great writers reconcile their art with other vocations. Edith Wharton was a designer before she was a novelist (her first book was about architecture) and she spent World War I in France doing relief work. George Orwell didn’t just write about the Spanish Civil War, he went to Catalonia and carried a gun. The truth is, few writers are exclusive. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf both wrote brilliant modernist literature. He did so by spending twelve hours a day at his desk; she also ran a printing press, gave lectures, and wrote spirited anti-war essays. That doesn’t make her less of a writer; it makes her more of a person.

Therein lies the nonsense of romanticising the short, solipsistic, stymied writer’s life. “Suffering doesn’t ennoble,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, “Why should it?” And if it doesn’t ennoble, why should it inspire? Conflating talent and tragedy asserts the unprovable theory that bad lives make good books. If Scott Fitzgerald were happy he wouldn’t have written Tender Is The Night but he might have written something better.

Mythologising the “writer’s life” is alluring because we can use it to justify recklessness, self-hatred, chemical excess, and emotional cruelty. All of which have a certain bent appeal. The problem with looking for artistic validation in unhappiness, though, is that only the unhappiness is guaranteed; the art is still up to us.

Quote of the Day – Bruce Springsteen

You can find your identity in the damage that’s been done to you. Very, very dangerous. You find your identity in your wounds, in your scars, in the places where you’ve been beat up and you turn them into a medal. We all wear the things we’ve survived with some honour, but the real honour is in also transcending them.
— Bruce Springsteen