Drawing the Line: The Thought-Based Writer vs. the Action-Based Writer

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to gathering and using your material: you can either devote your life to your writing, or you can go out and live your life (and then, theoretically, find the time to write about it). No one seems to think that straddling that line between life and art is possible––not Yeats, at least, who wrote in “The Choice”: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work.”


Consider Hemingway and Fitzgerald: contemporaries, compatriot expats, fanged friends, an odd couple known for the disparities between their writing processes. Hemingway famous for titles other than “writer”––“soldier,” “journalist,” “alcoholic”––and Fitzgerald famous for his devotion to his literary life, his psychoanalytical work (and also for alcoholism). They’ve become mythical figures: the writer who lives, and the writer who writes. But reality belies the myth––Hemingway sat down to write when the time came, and Fitzgerald found plenty of time for carousing.


A better example of the writer devoted to art would be Philip Roth, the literary giant who announced his retirement from writing a few years ago. He spent most of his life living alone, studiously avoiding the distractions of visitors, phone calls, emails in order to focus solely on his work. Philip Roth whose output was prodigious (twenty-seven novels, most of them thick); Philip Roth who gave back a kitten because it took up too much of his time. He devoted his life to his art, he said, to “the exclusion of nearly everything else.” And finally, approaching eighty, he decided enough was enough. It was time to see people, learn about the America he inhabited, get out a little. To live life, in effect.


The word “sacrifice” crops up often on both ends of this debate. Roth sacrificed much of his physical life to produce an oeuvre that will surely endure beyond our lifetime. But many other writers, choosing not or unable to go this route, complain they feel they have to sacrifice their work for the demands their life—and other people—make on them. This hinges particularly on gender: Alice Munro, much-beloved writer and recent winner of the Nobel prize for literature, was unable to spend much time writing until her forties, and has still had to come to terms with the toll her writing life (and also lack of it) took on her young children. The brilliant short-story writer Lorrie Moore, in response to criticism that her recent work felt lacking, pointed out how incredibly difficult it is to run a household and find the time to write, polish, write obsessively. (And Munro, of course, has also recently retired, citing a desire to live a normal life now.)


Then you have writers like Karl Ove Knausgard, who write constantly and prolifically, but examine and draw upon every instance of their life to produce their work. Or Joan Didion, also prolific, whose prose imparts a clear sense not just of having worked hard and devotedly but also of having lived much and well. Time and again, writers veer toward choosing life, in the end. And making art is a part of life, is human nature.


Of course, as I write this from the living room of my parents’ house, where I am visiting, my father walks by and pulls an exaggerated face at my laptop, at which I have been staring for hours. “Close that thing!” he says. “Get a life!”

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