Stephen Elliott Sends a Letter from Scotland
If you’re on the Daily Rumpus mailing list, then you already know that Stephen Elliott wasn’t kidding when he promised to send a letter every single day. He writes about whatever’s new on the Rumpus, or on his mind lately, or if he maybe needs a place to crash in the UK. They’re all fine and good, as daily mass emails go, but his most recent missive really stood out to me. He seems like he’s really firing on all cylinders right now, and so his letter is reproduced in full after the jump. After you read it, you’ll probably want to go to the site and sign up for the mailing list, so you too can get nifty notes like this every day.
Dear Daily Rumpusers,Where I’m at I can hear sheep and see rolling green farms out my window. There are mountains finishing the skyline, clouds sliding down their sides into the Atlantic.I was thinking today about some good advice someone gave me recently. He said, “Stick with it. Things will change.” It’s the opposite of how I’ve always lived, but he was right.I have a hardcover of my new book with me. It’s not out for a couple of weeks (the quickest way to a copy is to order it from me direct). I think it’s beautiful, the cover, the design. Everything reads better between covers. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written but I also wonder about how we value art. Will this book survive? I’ve always thought there was a separation between the artist and their art, but then I think of Norman Mailer who wrote some very fine books and one great book, or JT Leroy, whose books I liked; they were good, but not transcendent. JT Leroy was outed by Stephen Beachy and I just got a note from someone praising Beachy’s first book, The Whistling Song, which I hadn’t even heard of. She said it was genius, the last book she loved. (Here’s Beachy’s evolving statement on JT and here’s Beachy’s original expose)It makes me think about book readings, and how painful they can be. But authors love doing them; most authors love being on a stage, myself included. Where does that leave us, when searching through our motivations, where do we end and our work begins? We turn away from Hollywood, but our hearts want to be celebrities, just not the kind Perez Hilton makes fun of.This is a much larger topic, possibly the subject of a book, or at least an essay, and certainly not appropriate for an email. But the first thing is that their are many great writers. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s kind of nullifying. Even if the great writers are swamped by the intentional mediocrity of lazy artists and greedy executives, there’s still a lot of great writers. So here we are, putting our work into the world, begging for attention, and yet nobody owes us anything. We’re not special, not really. I don’t think I believe in talent. I think if you write every day for years and years, ten at the minimum, and you’re willing to be honest with yourself, then you’ll probably become a good writer.It took me a long time to come to terms with not being special. I was raised in a house that only appreciated things that were free. Hard work was for suckers. But now I know work is everything, and the key to that is finding what you want to do so the hours and effort come easily. There’s value in the paths of least resistance.So often we think we’re entitled. We’re entitled to readers, to positive reviews, to our share of the New York Times. We talk about a society that supports the arts, and the importance of reading. Well, yes, except it’s a little bit self-serving, and moves quickly to having children to support and moving into a new house.Is it fair that a writer who spends all of his or her time doing exactly what she wants, who wakes without an alarm, should also make enough to have children or own property? I mean, if we spend our days in coffee shops, doodling in notebooks, working with the poem and creating something that, yes, enriches society in some way, but surely we don’t deserve anything more than a small apartment, some food, and health care. I mean, if I could do exactly what I want with my life, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be much different from the life I lead. In other words, I’m already retired and I’m making a living from my hobbies. Every day I see someone doing something that makes me shake my head in wonderment and thank god that I’m not a busboy anymore, or some idiot’s assistant.I remember sitting at a computer waiting for calls for my boss on some temp job. I didn’t have to do anything except sit there and wait. It was still too much. I hid in the bathroom with the newspaper half the day. It was unbearable. And before that it was worse, hauling pianos for Joey’s Movers, bussing tables at Leona’s, driving a taxi.So part of me is saying, if you don’t have to work, be happy with what you have. But all of that is contradicted by the fact that writers aren’t happy to begin with. If you meet a writer that’s happy you have to be very careful. He might smile at you, teeth gleaming like a glacier. But by the third beer in the lounge, following the reading by the nobel prize winner who has just arrived from the Falklands, the happy writer will lean close. You will be blinded by his teeth, the whitest teeth you’ve ever seen, like an empty movie screen wrapped around your head. And later you won’t remember what time it was when you noticed your pockets had been slit open, and your wallet was gone.I apologize.