Below is an entry from the journal I kept during my recent trip abroad. It touches on the theme of being a writer, especially an amateur one, and the importance of support from those around you. The piece was spurred by my visit to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Enjoy.
Writers are often sustained by generosity, especially the vast majority who cannot and do not live exclusively off their writing. The greatest generosity that aspiring writers can be shown is perhaps the simple gesture of reading their drafts and providing some insight into the reader’s point of view. It’s never easy to offer this favour, as most simply have better and more important things to tend to than reading the amateurish ramblings of some bum attempting to be the next Marquez or Bellow.
It’s a nearly saintly act to give up one’s own time to seriously read and critique a friend’s writing, especially considering that though there are so many great writers, there are about one thousand horrible or mediocre ones for each of those greats. Think of these figures when a friend asks you to read their writing and you’ll have before you a true test of the strength of your relationship.
There’s also the matter of space, which Virginia Woolf emphasizes in her brilliant A Room of One’s Own. Writing is indeed essentially a solitary pursuit before the business aspect of the profession comes into play. A writer needs to somehow make a living, perhaps through something bland and typical, in order that they can continue writing and maintain a solitary space that provides for both intense concentration and for letting one’s mind wander. One can often settle into coffee shops and public spaces to write, but I think the process always brings itself back to one’s own space, both in the physical and mental sense. It’s all the better if the room is filled with books, therefore also serving as a space for inspiration and for learning from the masters of the craft.
Shakespeare and Company, the only exclusively English language bookshop in Paris, has made generosity towards writers its mission since its inception. The space can be incredibly cramped, especially during a busy hour, as was the case during my visit, but it manages to house a shop on the lower floor and a reading room upstairs. Writers also still have the opportunity to live in the store and write their masterpiece in exchange for working in the shop, the perfect place to spur literary inspiration.
Ernest Hemingway notes the kindness of then owner Sylvia Beach, who allowed him to borrow books from the shop despite his not having the funds to pay the membership fee for the shop’s borrowing system. Beach would also waive fines that Hemingway accrued from borrowing books. Reading is the nourishment that keeps writers writing, much like physical exercise and training keeps athletes at their best, and Ms. Beach gave fuel to the fire that would light Ernest Hemingway’s brilliance without asking for anything in return.
Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and countless others would find solace at this tiny bookshop when they were destitute artists rather than exalted literary legends. In no small way, by giving writers a home and by daring to sell Miller’s Tropic of Cancer when it was still banned and labelled as pornography, Shakespeare and Company gave the world the gift of these masters through simple generosity and an understanding of what writers need in order to flourish.
My visit to Shakespeare and Company was therefore something of a pilgrimage. I was coming to a place that believed strongly in literature as a force for good in the world and writers as worthy of support. It seems like such a fanciful thing to say, but perhaps it’s true that the next Miller or Hemingway is out there and might be in need of some help in the form of feedback or a place to crash and get some work done. That generosity may well lay the foundation for the works without which our lives would be infinitely poorer. I know fully well that literature isn’t going to cure disease or conquer injustice, at least not entirely on its own in the latter case, but it is part of what makes us whole, and I don’t think we would want to be without it.
I know that I’ve been the beneficiary of such generosity. Writing, whether or not it is widely read or commercially viable, is a rewarding undertaking, but it certainly has its pitfalls. It’s time consuming, usually not financially rewarding, often mentally draining, and yes, a bit lonely when you’ve been doing it for ages. Putting your thoughts and soul on paper, or the web, and submitting them to public consumption and scrutiny can also be nothing short of daunting. To have the encouragement of friends, family, and teachers as I do plays no small role in keeping me writing.
Though I’ve said in the past that I would always write no matter what, a statement I do not detract, I believe that the willingness of so many around me to honestly read my writing has played a large role in encouraging me to strive for improvement and in instilling within me a sense that when I write, I am sharing something that might impact others and that attention to quality and detail are thus imperative. To have a sense that you fill a niche in people’s lives, however small and minuscule, and that your writing is supported, is a gift. Our bookshops, our libraries, our schools, our friends, and even some strangers, give writers that gift.