Paul Bowles, in a preface to his novel Let It Come Down
, wrote about the circumstances of the book's creation:
In India the daytimes were devoted to exploration; I wrote at night, and my windowless workroom was far from satisfactory. The air was always several degrees above blood temperature, and the oil lamp felt like a furnace on my face. (The indicated place to work, of course, would have been the bed in the next room, save that no light could be lit there for the thousands of winged insects that would immediately enter. I went to bed in the dark.) But as writers know, intense discomfort often helps to induce intensive work.
He's speaking here of physical discomfort, but he is also making a larger point. Writing gains from the friction of the real world, of other responsibilities.
At the end of college I could have applied to MFA programs. I had written a novel as my undergraduate thesis, and it had won a prize. But it wasn't published; it had no chance of being published. It was an apprentice work. That I very much wanted to publish a novel was meaningless: I had not written a publishable novel. I was 21 years old. Like many of the students who did attend MFA programs, I had wanted to be a writer since I was quite young, and, despite having written a book from one end to the other, I was still on the outside of a room I wanted to enter — of a country I wanted to enter. The country of published writers. It had strong borders. The MFA was considered, as it still is, the most effective passport.
I had just spent four years in college. I had worked hard, I had had a job, etc., but college was not the real world; college bore no resemblance to the real world. I had learned nothing about my own limits. I knew that I wanted to write, but I had not learned what I was willing to give up to write. As my date of graduation neared, I applied to a single job: public high school teacher. I was accepted, and, within days of leaving college, I entered the summer training program in New York.
That first summer, I woke at 5 a.m. to write before the daily 10-hour sessions began. During those two months I completed a single short story. It was O.K. It earned me what is commonly called a "nice rejection," from, I think, the TriQuarterly Review. My work as a teacher began. (I was part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program; essentially, it is an educational experiment that fills gaps in the city's teacher corps with uncredentialed pedagogues.) Suddenly I had five classes of high-school students to attend to, at a large school on the corner of Grand Street and Bushwick Avenue, in Brooklyn. September that year was hot, and the air conditioners didn't work.
For months, I wrote nothing. I was overwhelmed by the work. As anyone who has taught knows, during those first months of teaching — during the first year — you lose the ability to make conversation about anything else; you become a brutal bore to anyone who is not, himself, a teacher. With other teachers, you talk about your students the way baseball fans talk about the players: "Jose's looking good this year."
What you don't do is write novels. I have no idea how many students in my college class went off to MFA programs, but some did, and they weren't worried about whether Jose was looking good that year. They were staring out at dancing cornfields and leading undergraduate workshops and writing short stories in peace. As it happens, one of my closest friends published a novel right out of college, and it had become an extraordinary success: it deserved to; he had written an extraordinary book. He gave me a direct view of the world to which I wanted to belong. Whether I liked it or not, I learned through him everything about publishing, and everything about what it is to publish a successful novel. I was able to imagine the experience vividly. He once phoned me in the morning as I was preparing for the first class of the day: he was calling from the studios of NPR, where he was about to give an interview.
Slowly, I found time to write; I made the time to write. It was a matter of discipline. I set aside a two-hour block of time in the evenings, from 8 to 10 p.m., for writing; at 7:55 p.m. I put on a half pot of coffee. For a while I went back to the novel I had written as my thesis and tried to rework it; it was a losing effort. Then I began something new and got about 30,000 words into it before realizing that I had no idea where the book was supposed to go. Winter crushed the city; we had a lot of snow that year. My commute in the mornings took about an hour, and I was out of the house by a quarter after six. The calendar shuffled along, I wasn't writing, the semester changed over. I had some new students in my classes.
Spring approached and I began to work on something new; a novel. It was short and I quickly completed a draft. Teaching was wearing me down; it was a depleting job. Quietly, I applied to other jobs; and, almost without admitting it to myself, I began keeping a list of PhD and MFA programs.
But sitting in the midtown offices of what would have been a less depleting job, I realized that it would have been more spiritually enervating to live at a desk for eight hours every day; I needed a job that meant something in and of itself, not a day job. And I knew, even as I was making those lists, that I had no interest in returning to school. The temptation of the MFA was evident: even if it was not quite the country I wanted to belong to, it was at least a colony. Yet I still recognized the distinction. None of the objections I previously held toward MFA programs had expired: I still wanted to live in the world; I still had faith in the ability of the world to instruct.
This is the Part One of a three-part essay; Part Two will be published tomorrow.