It’s easy to romanticize past eras, or other people’s lives and adventures, as far more wonderful and glorious than they really are, or were. The Wild West, from all I’ve read, was a really rough, uncomfortable place–especially for any women who tried to brave its dangers and discomforts. Venice, at the time of DaVinci, stank to high heavens from all the sewage. Even the “good old days” of the prosperous 1950s wasn’t all some people revise it to be. McCarthyism, segregation, and “mother’s little helper” pills for the legions of unfulfilled housewives all come to mind. And the glory days of Parisian artists and writers gathering in cafes and salons for soirees and artistic arguments about style, philosophy, literature and Great Ideas … well, they weren’t movie-set comfortable, either. Many of those writers and artists were living hand-to-mouth, in tiny, unheated garret apartments, which is why they spent so much time in the cafes, making bread, cheese and wine last as long as they could.
I found myself thinking about this difference between fantasy and reality, in terms of some of the life adventures we sometimes wish we were living, after reading a recent New York Times article about young struggling writers in New York City.
Unable to break into the traditional literary hierarchy (jobs at the elite magazines, and publishing contracts, are proving hard to find, even with masters’ degrees from prestigious universities), they are forming their own literary circles. The group profiled for the article meets regularly in an apartment/bookstore to discuss literature, philosophy, and Great Ideas.
Reading the piece, I had two thoughts. First was admiration for the young writers’ pluck in forging their own path when one didn’t readily appear in front of them. (Okay, I also had a fleeting thought that their efforts reminded me of Cleavon Little’s description, in the movie Blazing Saddles, of his African-American family crossing the Plains with an all-white covered-wagon train. When the Indians attacked, he said, the white folk wouldn’t let his family join their defensive circle of wagons. “So,” he said with a grin, “we formed our own circle,” as an image of a covered wagon racing around in a circle, all by itself, appeared on the screen.)
But I also had the thought that those famous historic bohemian writers in Paris–the ones lacking rich relatives or patrons, that is–had an equally difficult road, much as we might romanticize their lives now. I did a little browsing on some of their biographies and discovered that George Orwell, for example, was robbed in Paris and had to get a job washing dishes in a restaurant to make ends meet, paltry as his rent was. The good news was, that experience helped sowed the seeds for his first published book: Down and Out in Paris and London.
But those “famous” writers didn’t have doors opened for them because they had perfect pedigrees or graduate degrees, either. Even Gertrude Stein had trouble getting published, despite attending Radcliffe College (the women’s college associated with Harvard). So, really, what the young writers in New York are facing isn’t anything new. A good degree might get you a good conventional job, but artistic roads are almost always carved by hand … along with at least a good amount of sweat and tears, if not actual blood.
I’m not sure if there’s a direct silver-lining relationship in that (as in, the toughness of the road leads to better art), or if it’s simply that an artistic career path, like mountain climbing, is inherently challenging, albeit potentially rewarding. Yes, there are a few who strike it big early, and who seem to live charmed lives. And there are kids born to Rockefellers and Kennedys, too. Life has never, ever been fair.
But in their own way, those young writers in New York are living the dream–even if it feels a lot more uncertain, real-time, than their fantasies of living the literary life in the big city might have been when they dreamed the dreams that led them there. The trick, I suppose, is to recognize that fact in the midst of the discouragement and uncertainty that was always a piece of that dream, behind the rose-tinted views of it that come from knowing how it all turned out.