A Freelance Life for Me

Earlier I was reading Elizabeth at Fluent and she had mentioned how she had recently left her full-time reporting job so she could write freelance and have more time to write creatively. A year ago I felt as she did: “I put my whole self into it . . . The problem with my job was that I could not put my whole self into it. A part of me was . . . always wanting to spend more time writing creatively. I have been frustrated by my lack of time, and specifically by my lack of writing time.”

After nine years of daily journalism, I had become just as frustrated as she was; I was writing — sometimes relatively creatively — regularly for my job, and trying to write my own stuff at home. The job had other stresses and frustrations, details of which I won’t go over here. Largely, though, I was frustrated by the lack of time I had to write creatively; it was Catch-22 for me — I had to work full time to support any creative writing I did on my own. Then came an opportunity to teach writing at a local community college here in Central Texas. It was an adjunct position, so also theoretically gave me time to write freelance. But, the time wasn’t there. On days I wasn’t teaching, I was grading three sections’ worth of papers. Hunting freelance work dropped low on my list of things to do.

Then came the surprise — my classes for the spring semester didn’t make, and I was out what was essentially serving as a full time salary. At the same time, I began to pick up freelance gigs, one of which was fairly steady, at least until the editor moved on. None were lucrative enough to make it worthwhile to try to write freelance full time, not without substantial savings, and I had to spend time between writing assignments looking for full time work.

Now I have a full time job as an editor in textbook publishing, and while I’m working with words, editing is never the same as writing (except I do write an awful lot of copyright permission requests, keep track of freelancers by e-mail, and write an occasional business blog post). I’ve been missing writing regularly — I have this blog, and I’m beginning revisions of the final draft of my novel. But writing for pay — writing as a journalist, I’ve missed that. I’ll be getting to do that part time again as a freelancer; I’ve picked up a column for a new arts paper, The City Review, in Waco, Texas, where I live. I’m looking forward to my first story — I’m planning to write about the Texas Book Festival in Austin the first weekend in November. It’s exciting to get the opportunity to write more, and I hope to begin picking up more assignments with the Review as well as trying to get assignments and pitch stories to any publication that will have me.

And if anyone has any suggestions for future stories, or freelance resources, let me know — I’m ready to write, and I need the extra money.

Todd

The Woman Question

Throughout 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley notes what seems an obsessive theme in novels, at least the novels of Europe and America in the 19th and early 20th centuries: What are we to do with women? Against that question she says Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is one of the first novels to address the counter-question: “Why is there a problem?”

Smiley says Chopin answers this question honestly with the actions of protagonist Edna Pontellier. Edna awakens to her sensuality to Eros and art, rejecting her bourgeois life — husband, family, entertaining, formal visiting — and, indeed, scandalizes her family and neighbors by moving out to a home of her own to pursue painting. At the same time, Edna yearns for two men, Alcee Arobin and, in particular, Robert Lebrun, whom she has fallen in love with, though that love is never erotically consummated.

As with several female protagonists in 19th century novels, who turn against bourgeois life — Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary — Edna makes the choice of self-sacrifice over losing the new life she has chosen for herself. Chopin, Smiley says, depicts Edna’s choice of suicide with sympathy, as if the decision were triumphant acceptance on Edna’s part of holding on, no matter what, to her awakening. Smiley writes, ” . . . Edna recognizes that once she has awakened, it is better to sacrifice her life than to sacrifice her new sense of herself.”

The last few paragraphs are lyrical as Edna swims out to sea. Chopin doesn’t exclude the sensuality she’s used throughout the novel, even during Edna’s last moments:

She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.

The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

As sensual as that passage is, there is foreboding, too, with the waves “coiled like serpents.” Edna’s Eden is going away, choked off by symbolic serpents. In the last paragraph, she experiences a moment of terror as she goes further and further out. While the decision to take her own life is a strong one, it is still suicide, the action of the fallen women of Tolstoy and Flaubert, women with whom we feel empathy, but not sympathy, at least that’s what the novelists want us to feel, and nothing more. Edna’s awakening, though triumphant, is still futile for its time. At another time, later in the 20th century, Edna may have found some other way to maintain her new sense of self. And yet, she may not have, as women still have to wonder, Why is there a problem?

Eight Things

I was tagged by Helen Ginger of Straight From Hel to write eight things about myself and my writing that you may or may not know about me.

  1. I made a C in my first freshman comp class at Temple Junior College (now sans Junior), but I made a B in the second semester, which was much more interesting because it was an introduction to literature course, and not anything at all like the rhetoric course I taught last year. I’m comforted by the C: I understand Tennessee Williams made an F. Freshman comp doesn’t make great writers.
  2. I read grammar and punctuation books regularly. I really hope whoever reads this will find it irresistible to buy me the illustrated Elements of Style, now out in paperback, or Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite, or both, if you’re really feeling generous.
  3. I also have an obsession with books about writing, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft.
  4. I like to write in the mornings, specifically around 9 or 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Writing in the evenings is difficult, but I can, and have, done it, both at work and home. Sometimes you write through the tiredness and stress. Sometimes that ends up being the best writing.
  5. I am a voracious reader. I will read almost anything, though at the moment I’m preoccupied in my reading with my 100-novels project. Of course, I tend to keep more than one book going at a time.
  6. I’ve learned more about writing and literature and reading literature outside of grad school. Too much critical theory is taught in grad school.
  7. I’ve been slacking lately, only writing these blog entries. But that is about to change, as I’m about to embark on the third draft of my novel.
  8. I’m getting married in December.

An Empty Room or An Empty Room

In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. LeGuin writes about the power of repitition as a narrative device. She refers to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and how early in that novel Woolf describes the title character’s room at Cambridge: “The description of  Jacob’s room at college is light in tone, seeming not very significant.”

It’s a description used to set a mood: Outside the room the “feathery white moon never let the sky grow dark …”; inside, the empty room the air is listless, so listless only a fiber creaks on an empty wicker chair, but the room itself is alive with a photograph of his mother, books, shabby slippers, the room of a college student, and one that won’t be empty for long; Jacob is outside smoking.

But Woolf repeats the last two sentences of this description word for word at the end of the novel.

“Listeless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there.”

This room, however, will remain empty. The war has come, and Jacob won’t be returning. All that’s left is an old pair of his shoes. The image of an empty pair of shoes for an empty room is what we’re left with at novel’s end: “She [Betty Flanders] held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”

A powerful image, poignant and telling of the world to come after the war. Woolf has moved us to the pivotal moment of the 20th century — World War I — using repitition of phrases, but changing the tone to change the mood.

Such a device is one of many Woolf uses in her novels to tell stories without using a traditional plot. LeGuin makes a strong argument that stories and plots are separate and that plot isn’t necessary for a good story to be telling.

Plot is a marvelous device. But it’s not superior to story, and not even necessary to it. As for action, indeed a story must move, something must happen; but the action can be nothing more than a letter sent that doesn’t arrive, a thought unspoken, the passage of a summer day.

She is right, but I’ve often thought Woolf and other modernists took their experiment too far; Woolf almost not only eliminates plot, but story as well, and story is propelled by character, and in Jacob’s Room character is hard to know, as E.M Forster famously noted.

In what sense Jacob is alive — in what sense any of Virginia Woolf’s characters live — we have yet  to determine. But that he exists, that he stands as does a monument is certain, and wherever he stands we recognize him for the same and are touched by his outline.

Jacob really is a monument, an outline of a character, drawn only to be a symbol of the tragic end of an era and a way of life.