On Freedom, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Middle Class Fantasy

Am pondering on the essay the above author has recently written as well as the commentary (which I find more interesting than the writing).  A torrent of electric, self analysis of a curious emptiness.  I wonder about one comment especially – ‘Elizabeth Wurtzel knows how to write, she just has nothing to write from’.

Does one has to live a certain way of life to write?  Does great writing require talent and observation besides commitment, nothing more?  No matter what circumstances a writer is in, or how hemmed about by a sense of futility, the writing would well through the cracks, surge like a flood of blood from under a shut and bolted door – will it?

One thing that vaguely annoys me is her wholesale dismissal of the kind of life many of us live – you know the house in downtown suburbia, the husband, the regular job and the superannuation.  It reminds me of a reality TV show I saw once about people living as early Victorians in a country manor.  In it the resident hermit in the garden warms his hands before a fire in his cave and says to the TV viewer that he has to make his apparently free and easy life look enviable to the others supposedly trapped by a mesh of invisible conventions in the warm, snug house.

So, that freedom…  That supposed rush of supreme self-actualisation one gets when there is nothing left to lose.  My late 1970s undergraduate English literature texts were full of it.  Bohemians and artists over especially since the 19th century Romantic period have declaimed that same old song, rejecting the trappings of a conventional life for the uncertainty of a total commitment to their creativity.

Except that in reality there is no life without uncertainty anywhere – not even in the most deathly of suburban McMansion lands – and then it all becomes some insane, nitpicking argument about degrees.  Even the bravest of us would agree that uncalculated risks are only what idiots take.  And when you talk about compromise:  well reality is one long series of compromises, from being flung amongst some rocks on X patch of red desert sand at birth and having to settle for being physically unable to fly onwards.

But are we talking about work or lifestyle here?  Because neither Bob Dylan, nor Janis Joplin, nor Elizabeth Wurtzel (who have all chanted about the virtues of Freedom and Having Nothing) have nothing.  All of them have works of art in the public canon.  They have done the kind of work they’re rather good at and have certain intangibles – ‘human capital’ as Wurtzel herself puts it.  How many other people have embraced this Freedom is Nothing myth, tried to live that life and failed because they just didn’t have the talent or if you like, the egotistical obsession?  And how dumb have they been?  It makes no sense to throw away everything you need to survive.

Actually the whole essay seems to read like a long goodbye, as if the what is not said – that her life is now on a ledge – is settling upon her heavily, inevitably, bleakly.  The realisation that settles like a black crow on the shoulder, that one is no longer young and that having completed the full circle of that cycle of youthfulness, must face that scythed stubble on the field, the shadows behind past actions and inactions now sharply delineated in the blazing noonday sun.  Everybody has to face that uh-oh moment.  Why  are her golden self-affirmations in the face of Gotterdammerung so different from all the supposed lies about happiness told in suburbia?

From this perspective, I might conclude that Wurtzel’s essay is quite possibly one long rationalisation.  But if it makes her happy, well that’s alright then.  With her essay, she’s written herself into the kind of life that’s right for her.  Personally though, I’d rather be able to travel to Vietnam than sit on a park bench wondering about where to find another place to rent.  Getting the money together from my monotonous and demanding but well-paid job is admittedly a drag, but time in life sometimes has a way of stretching itself out quite generously and there are stories along the way.  Stories about men going to the mines in Mongolia, to Africa and braving the dark heart of New Guinea, scientists on their way to Antarctica, soldiers back from Afghanistan, people with terminal cancer on their last trip, Asian women entrepreneurs, humanitarian refugees arriving speechless and dazed to a strange, new country…

I am in my early fifties, with the spectre of mental illness having blighted the vital early part of my adulthood.  But I recovered – enough to be able to live a fairly normal life with the help of regular medication and psychiatric counselling.  For the rest of my life.  Nothing else works.  At age 25 my flesh became like everybody else’s and by then I did not care about the terribly real dreams, which had mocked, manacled and imprisoned me.  All I wanted was a commitment and engagement with the world of Reality, or else all was lost.  And some backbone.  Alone, friendless and tentatively reconciling with family, looking for a foothold in the bitumen and cracked concrete streets of an indifferent city, my only thought was of practicalities:  to get a job, get a decent place to live and get some education and training to get a well-paid job.

Despite its suffocating frustrations, the full-time 9-5 job meant a lot to me.  A good place to rent and call my home, a regular rhythm to my life, contact with other people and I met the man I eventually married there.  A regular salary also meant being able to afford travel – and so we traveled together, driving and camping around the country, climbing mountains, walking through gorges and exploring deserted, wind-swept coast-lines.  We went overseas – to the UK, to France and Italy wandering through ancient cathedrals and waking up frowzy with uncomfortable sleep in the car, to the glory of Rome’s skyline in the pink-flushed dawn.  We have a daughter.  We have completed university degrees.

I believed this dream of freedom way back then and crashed through a floor in the universe.  Today I scratch out time for writing through the cracks in the day.  I love my husband and our daughter.  If the pieces of my life were all put together, wouldn’t they mean nothing more than a statistic to the casual stranger who does not know the meaning in it like I do?  Isn’t suburban life – the owned home (in our case a two-bedroom unit), the car, the job, the weekly shopping all just a means to be doing the same thing generations before have all done, ie living?  Even though happiness in any situation, can at times be a hard ask.

I have a cousin about my age, never married or had children, who has throughout her adult life resolutely refused to do anything but what she wanted to do.  She announced a resolution one New Year ‘to be true to myself’.  She has never held a job for very long and has spent just about her entire adult life on the dole.  She has developed severe scoliosis that admittedly limits what she can do for a living.  But still, I have a work colleague who is in a wheelchair.

She lives in a large, graceful rented old Queenslander house with a male friend and housemate, in a rural outer suburb in Brisbane and at present is devoting her time to keeping chickens.  She has taken up art, which she is quite talented at and her parents have paid for art college courses she attended.  She tried a university course, insisting on doing the full-time on-campus study and then wondered why everyone was so much younger than her and why no-one wanted to talk to her.  So she packed it in.

I am one of those who just took the damn job.  And later just took the damn meds.

‘…Two roads diverged in a wood and I/I took the road less traveled by…’ says the poet David Frost.  Only ironically the roads turn out to be pretty much equally tough going.  I’m not looking for some kind of moral gratification out of Wurtzel’s story and sincerely believe she is not going to Hell.  She’ll probably be alright, keep moseying on and writing stuff, visiting her therapist, doing her thrice weekly gyratonics and tweeting for a good while yet, despite all her moaning to the contrary.

While I will still be slogging along in the same old mercilessly lacking in opportunities job, unable to get anything I like better, probably retrenched – as my husband already is.  So much as I’d love to take the redundancy, feel it my duty to keep income coming in.  So really, in a way I feel that road is just as hard – just the way Frost said it would be.

Some denizens of the New York City writing scene have written articles of self-righteous mockery on Wurtzel’s piece reminiscent of the bitchery mentioned in Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Winter Trees’.  ‘…Free from abortion or bitchery/These trees seed so easily!…’ I think it goes, thus encapsulating that black New England history of murderous witch-hunting in the evocation of those dark, gnarled and twisted trunks and limbs.  To that I append an extract of a reader’s comment found on one of the blogs:

‘…To me it is the essence of vacuous careerism to admire “a place in the literary scene” as a separate entity from having interesting things to say or an interesting voice to say them in. *That* is a sense of entitlement, to want to be a writer as a middle class lifestyle choice rather than out of some sense of having something unique — a voice, a point of view, a use of language — to contribute in writing…’

Indeed a lot of the animosity toward Wurtzel seems to comes from acute envy at her apparently effortless success, rather than her writing – which Katie Roiphe describes as ‘incoherent babbling’.  It sounds like it’s the fame thing and the busting of little balloons from hard-working middle-class New York scriveners everywhere at the sheer injustice of someone writing ‘…For a while after my first book came out, I went home with a different man every night and did heroin every day—which showed my good sense, because the rest of the time I was completely out of control…’ – and getting paid huge amounts for it.  And a place on the literary scene.  She never had to sales pitch mouse pads!  Oh, the outrage!

But come on, injustice does not stop there.  There are far far worse injustices around to bear such as the idiotically cursory Mars Bar advertisement one of the world’s richest families trots out to market it’s one small, utterly useless, junk food product.  And what about all the beautiful women who wind up in movies and owning diamonds and huge chunks of Californian real estate?  There’s just no point in getting upset about injustice, there’s just too much of it.

I am too much of a certain age to care very much for fame at this stage and have for years pondered reasons as to the point of writing at all – apart from my own crashing lack of courage, a voice or whatever it is that gathers words from the abyss within.  Fame is a nice fantasy, but against the backdrop of a multi-faceted, ever-changing universe seems just as Emily Dickinson mocked, nothing more than ‘a frog bowing/to an admiring bog’.  The important thing is to live.

Lately I’ve been thinking writing is an art and have been fascinated in the possibilities of writing like people paint, taking my note-book and sallying forth to Circular Quay one sunny free day to ride the ferries and wander in the Botanical Gardens to write about the trees, the water in the harbour etc.  But writing also is about sparking ideas and making connections and meaning out of the patterns of reality one perceives and wonders about.

Sometimes I don’t understand something until I write about it and maybe that’s why Plath never commenced a poem with an ending line.  She would sketch out an idea and begin with that to leave open the possibility for discovery.  Then again, I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the 17th century philosopher John Locke in the opening lines of his essay ‘Concerning Human Understanding’:  ‘…It’s searches after truth are a sort of hawking and hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the pleasure.  Every step the mind takes in its progress towards knowledge, makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least’…


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