The Work of Writing

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

Elizabeth Lutyens

It’s that time of year again. On April 24 we celebrate the birthday of Anthony Trollope (1815–1882), every writer’s role model for getting the job done. He wrote most of his 47 novels by rising at 5:30 in the morning, writing for 3 hours—250 words every 15 minutes—before going to his day job.

And because that job was as a civil servant, in the post office of all places, Trollope has always had my sympathy. I imagined that the only flights of fancy he experienced were in his head during those early morning hours; then off to the dry, dry salt mines of pettiest bureaucracy.

Although the story of Trollope’s writing/work travail isn’t exactly apocryphal, it is not as simple—as simply dreadful—as the short version makes it sound. Upon doing due diligence (taking my cues from The Trollope Society — www.anthonytrollope.com — rather than Wikipedia), I discovered two facts that might turn sympathy for this man into envy.

1. His post office job involved travel, and not just across town or country, but to Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, South Africa, the West Indies, and Central America. Through these journeys, he acquired a taste for seeing the world that led to personal trips to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Trollope was one of the most widely travelled men of his time. And everywhere he went, he wrote, and many of his novels reflect his familiarity with exotic locales.

2. He loved his job. The everyday job he went to in London was ripe with quotidian detail that found a way into his writing. In Framley Parsonage, Trollope describes the route of a letter from night mail cart to branch line train and then main line train, and finally via foot post, to its arrival on Sunday and being ignored until Monday “as the Framley people have declined their Sunday post.” When the letter finally reaches its destination, and “on that wet Monday morning, Mrs Robarts was not at home,” the journey of a piece of mundane mail becomes the story’s inciting incident. Write what you know, and he did.

Heather Newton, a member of the Great Smokies writing community, also writes what she knows. [Please see Tommy Hays’ “Good News Has Its Place,” this issue, for more about Heather.] Unlike Trollope though, instead of confining her writing to three hours a day, she wrote her first novel in what she describes as “seven years’ worth of Fridays.” On other days, she was a lawyer. In the Spring 2011 issue of The Great Smokies Review, Heather wrote, “I believe that being a lawyer has made me a better writer. From my work as an attorney I know what it is like to have a child taken away by Social Services, to be struck by lightning, to have one’s body wear out working at a manufacturing plant—all things that have shown up in my fiction.”

Writer-as-worker musings continue in this issue of The Great Smokies Review. For example, Wendy Kochenthal’s poem, “Production Pots, No More,” considers the problem of creative work that becomes driven by the necessity to produce: “Imagine painting 6 round plates / laid out in an assembly line / losing desire for radiant red, butterscotch yellow, bone black lines.” In her author comment, Wendy says: “I felt I had lost my creativity and my sense of self for the sole purpose of selling my pots.” But she “was inspired while reading about archetypal symbols,” and that inspiration, combined with the work itself, guided her to a higher writing place.

Also in this issue, Mark Prudowsky (“Writers at Work: The Poetics of Electricity”) discusses the confluence of everyday working with writing. “In some ways, my present means of paying bills—chasing electrons (much easier when I was younger, quicker)—is similar [to achieving concision in writing]. Someone calls me when half of a house or a restaurant is without power. I ask what happened and when, trace the circuits to find where the problem resides. I gather the facts, focus on a solution, make the repair, get paid, and move on. Again, concision.”

Recently, a writer told me that if he ever won the lottery, he would do two things: work out and write. I thought that his plan did sound like paradise, except that my workouts would consist of longer walks, more yoga classes, and (see photo) felling dead wood. And then, with all those extra hours in a day, freed at last from the nuisance of necessity, I would write.

Or would I? Would you? What would Trollope do?

For more about Elizabeth, go to www.elizabethlutyens.com

Previous post:

Next post: