A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has. – Howard Jacobson
Have you ever read a book that just didn’t do it for you, but had one character, one scene, or one line that has stuck with you forever? You’re going through life, feeling sorry for yourself that you don’t have more time to write, and then BAM. You remember a line from a book you had otherwise forgotten, and you thank God you read it?
That’s how it is for me with the line above from Jacobson’s prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question. The book itself was only okay to me. The characters, meh. Kind of endearing, but kind of annoying, too. The story was not funny in a laugh out loud kind of way, but was witty, in an internal chuckle kind of way.
But that line. I have come back many times to that line. And it made the whole reading worth it.
I met with a fellow writer this morning to trade critiques, and our conversation gradually transitioned to where to submit, who pays, who doesn’t, you could pitch it this way for this publication, that way for that journal. She is far more seasoned than I am, and when I asked whether her writing contributes substantially to her family income, she responded, “It doesn’t supplement my husband’s salary, but it pays for my writing studio.” And I was instantly jealous. A writing studio! God, how I’d love a studio. A room of my own, with a window seat, and light on my face, and a door that closes.
But more than that, a designated room would mean that writing was more than a hobby. That it was something serious, that I had time to do, that I wasn’t squeezing into an hour here, a half hour there. I’ve got 17 pieces I have started, then abandoned when it was time to wake the kids up, or volunteer at the school, or shop for groceries, or meet the school bus. By the time I get back to the essays, the mojo is gone. I’m not with the feeling anymore, and I can’t finish.
At these times I get frustrated. I fantasize about having large chunks of time to focus on writing, to research, to finish pieces, to edit, to polish. I go into my head, mulling all those incomplete essays, thoughts for this one jumbling with ideas for that one, and I think, if I were alone, and didn’t have all these responsibilities, I could take care of these. I could get them out, get them done.
A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.
And then that line from The Finkler Question snaps me back to reality, reminding me what it would really mean, at this stage in our family’s life, if I dedicated that kind of time and mental focus to a life of words. Because that line, regardless of its context within the novel, is about more than the emptiness of fame and fortune, or the loneliness of the writer’s life. It’s about throwing yourself into something so deeply, dedicating so much of your attention to this passion, or job, or hobby, that you risk losing contact, sacrificing closeness, with the most important people in your life.
There will come a time in the not so distant future, when our children leave home, and there will be silence where their voices once were. Like the writer in The Finkler Question who lost his wife, I will rattle around in our empty house, with all the time in the world to write, and every room will be a room of my own. I will think of the pies I made with our daughter, of reading The Old Man and the Sea with our son, of answering their questions about sex and bad words, and I will give thanks for that single line in an only okay book. The line that reminded me to take my time, to enjoy my kids. A woman can be lonely in a room of her own, no matter how many readers she has.
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. “Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Jacobson’s wry, devastating novel examines the complexities of identity and belonging, love, and grief through the lens of contemporary Judaism.” (Publishers Weekly)
10 thoughts on “Have you ever learned a critical lesson from an only okay book?”
Not certain I can relate to your conclusions– A Room of One’s Own was instrumental in my development as a woman and as an author– but that has to do with time and place in ones life. At this stage, I need that space, that time, to develop and know who I am. Someday, I hope to open that space and time up to others– partners, maybe children. Still, it’s a lovely thought (and very well written I might add).
Not sure an okay book ever really struck me– I’ll have to think on it. Very interesting question.
You are wise to make space for yourself, Britta, to develop and know who you are, especially as a writer. Whenever I read from A Room of One’s Own, I regret that I didn’t take better advantage of my time alone when I had it, that I didn’t learn that I want to write until I was nearly 40. It is precious, that solitude and time for exploration, and the fact that you are putting yours to such good use is one of the reasons I admire you so much.
That’s such a lovely thing to hear– thank you so much. It means a lot, especially coming from you.
This post really hit home with me. I’ve longed to “be left alone to write” and yet I think about all the things I would have missed. I found ways to meet in the middle. You are right when you say we have plenty of time when the house is empty. Will we write then or perhaps start a new adventure?
Excellent, excellent, excellent blog. And you are exactly right!
Andrea, there is an author here in Minnesota named Mary Gardner. She has been writing for about 30 years and she teaches classes at the Loft Literary Center. She did not start writing in earnest or professionally until she was in her 40s and all of the kids were out of the house. Keep doing what you are doing. You have time and talent.
What a great reflection. I too feel the same way. I wanted nothing more to be a writer my entire life and my parents steered me away from it when I went to college. I’ve always kept a journal and wrote a blog for as long as I can remember. I long for the days to be a considered an ACTUAL writer. I’ve convinced myself it will be much later in my life to hold on to the hope. It crazy how sometimes one line from a book can leave such a HUGE impact. Crazy to think that as much you want something and have dreamed of it for so long – no sacrifice is worth losing touch with the people closest to you.
Love this post!
The only thing that comes to mind is reading those LM Montgomery Anne books when I was a girl. To this day i don’t know what Ipecac is but Anne treated a croupy baby with steam. This helped the throat to stop constricting and the lungs to open up. I did the same a couple of decades later with my croupy young son. I turned the shower tap on and closed the door to keep the steam in. It worked a treat.
Can I just say, oh my gosh, I wrote a piece once about the Empty Nest Syndrome where in my case post ENS I found me at a loose end and as free as the bird in her empty nest to write in whatever empty room I chose.
Children absolutely must come first, but don’t be totally unprepared when ENS arrives to bite you on the bum. Keep up with some writing. An idea here, an angle there and some notes. Maybe a couple of hours in the evening if you get your second wind. Even when your time is freed up there is never going to be the perfect moment. Catch your moments when you can. 🙂 Sorry for the ramble. I loved your post.
Well, here I am in my empty rural nest as my wonderful son now lives in town near his work….however, his bulldog pup is staying with me for a couple of week and my elderly cat is totally in a snit about that, so i’m not doing a great deal of writing….but…of course, i can. Retirement is a blessing after the long haul of working and raising my son on my own. It was a blessing to have a teaching job and a healthy child and some creative outlets along the way.
I’ve read Jacobson’s short stories (Whatever It Is I don’t Like It…is the title)….now I’m reading Vonnegut * my son’s favourite)…..
enyoed your writing room post which is all about what is important….at the time.
Comments are closed.