by Will Johnson
“I think the reason there are a lot of novels about How Mean My Mother Was to Me and all that shit is because the writers may have learned something called ‘technique,’ but they’ve neglected to have a life. What the fuck are they gonna write about?” – David Mamet, GQ, April 2008
When you think of a writer, what do you see? Maybe an eccentric elderly woman, her librarian glasses perched at the end of her nose? Maybe a twerpy twenty-something hipster on the bus, carefully balancing his MacBook on his lap? Or do you still think of Ernest Hemingway, barrel-chested and drunk, with a shotgun slung carelessly over his shoulder?
These days, anyone can be a writer. Literally. We’ve never been so inundated with opportunity; whether it’s posting an angsty navel-gazing rant on your personal blog, writing an award-winning novel or just venting in your local newspaper’s letters section, it seems like writers are everywhere.
In his interview with GQ in April 2008, David Mamet talked about learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for the first time. He was in his sixties, and took up the martial art to research for his movie Red Belt. Over the course of a year, he grappled with and learned from some of the finest fighters in the world.
Mamet is almost as well-known for his crass, controversial views as for his prolific, award-winning writing career as a playwright and screenwriter. But you have to give it to the guy: he hasn’t neglected to live his life.
I read the article about him after my first year at UVic, as I was about to leave for the summer. I’d landed an internship with The Whitehorse Star, and I was suitably terrified to spend four months in the Yukon. I repeated Mamet’s words to myself as I boarded the plane. I thought about them when I was assigned to a four-day river trip, when I interviewed Jack Layton and when I smoked salvia for the first time on top of a rainy mountain in Dawson City. I thought about his words when I fell irresponsibly in love with a lesbian drifter I met in a hostel.
What entails a “full life”? Does it mean taking off for far away countries or putting yourself through grueling ordeals? As a writer, does it mean following in A.J. Jacobs’ footsteps, and using yourself as a human guinea pig? Or maybe it means taking a dangerous journalism assignment, like a tour in Afghanistan. You could spend a weekend sleeping on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, so you can write a compelling editorial. Or, like Diablo Cody, you could take a job as a stripper—just to see what it’s like.
But there are the exceptions: Alice Munro is the first that comes to mind. Reading over her life story, you don’t see any crazy experiences or rough gigs. She got married a couple times, had some kids, flittered in and out of academia, and basically wandered from one coast to the other for the course of her writing career, which spanned over four decades.
Munro is easily the greatest living short story-teller we’ve got. Period. Her entire life is a defiance of Mamet’s hypothesis; rather, her stories map the extraordinary inner lives of some of the most fascinating and complicated characters ever conceived of. She’s not writing about celebrities or larger-than-life characters. She’s showing us housewives and university students. In her stories, Munro shows us the extraordinary beauty obscured by the mundane details of our day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, each of us has to decide what type of writer we want to be. Are you a Jack London? A Margaret Atwood? Maybe you’re a Chuck Palahniuk or a David Sedaris or even a Jeanette Walls. The longer you think about it, the more you realize that there is no such thing as an archetypal “writer”.
We each have our own lives to lead, and whatever other people think of us, we’re all looking to lead a worthwhile life.