The Secret Lives of Writers

Via Andrew Sullivan I discovered Daphne Merkin's review of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers by Lesley McDowell. Writing in The New Republic Merkin begins her essay with this insight:

The intimate lives of writers have always had a special attraction for readers, perhaps because we imagine that people who can shape ideas and arrange scenes on the page should be able to offer us some special insight into how to order our messy off-the-page lives. This has rarely been proven the case—writers often seem less, rather than more, gifted at the mechanics of everyday existence; all the same it has not stemmed our interest in finding out what Sylvia said to Ted or why Simone pimped for Jean-Paul. This interest speaks, I think, to a dream of coherence—a matching-up of intellect and emotion, of romance and reason—that continues to inspire us even as it eludes our grasp.

I think this is quite true. When I was an aspiring writer, I did a lot more aspiring than I did writing, and part of my aspirational regimen included reading the biographies and autobiographies of my favorite authors. Through trial and error, I discovered that behaving like Norman Mailer would never make me a novelist (although it possibly would a felon). Most of these writers were geniuses on the page, but as exemplars of how to live the good life they fell woefully short.

Our society talks a lot about the naivete of holding professional athletes up as role models, and it's a concept all but the very young and the very stupid can understand. The ability to acurately putt a golfball or throw a touchdown can be the result of exemplary hard work, but it's just as likely to be the winnings of some genetic lottery. Tiger Woods might offer us lessons on the importance of relentless practicing in order to achieve our professional goals, but come on: He was driving Titleists a hundred yards when he was just a toddler. You can spend your entire life on a driving range and never attain Tiger's abilities. So why should we ever have imagined that his prowess on the golf course qualified him to do anything except help us improve our backswings?

Writers are different. F. Scott Fitzgerald could string together effortlessly beautiful sentences (the equivalent of Tiger sinking a twenty-foot putt), but his true genius was his ability to understand the human condition in surprising and deeply insightful ways. As readers we ask, how did he come by this knowledge? And as aspiring writers we ask, if I do what he did will gain the ability to understand the motivations people hide not just from the world but from themselves? Like other talented authors, Fitzgerald appears on the page to be someone who knows something worth learning about life and how to live it (to quote an old REM song).

That's why it's so shocking to discover that, in functional terms, Fitzgerald was more of a psychological and emotional mess than anyone this side of Lindsay Lohan. Read Matthew Broccoli's biography, and you'll meet a man whom no sane person would emulate (least of all romantically). And yet he seemed to know things in his fiction that he was incapable of applying to his own behavior.

In Fitzgerald's case, of course, we have no excuse for projecting our grand expectations on this deeply flawed genius. This was, after all, the author who wrote:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale about the tragedy we summon down upon our heads when we fool ourselves. You can't say F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't warn us.