Richard Ford and the Writing Life
I am in Cincinnati tonight, having spent the week in Colorado Springs, very much on the road again. All next week I’ll be here in Cincinnati, which means I’ll finally learn to spell it, then home for a week, then Toronto for a week, then Halifax and Edmonton to round out the month. The first week in June, I’ll spend in Calgary, and then back to Edmonton for five days. This is my job.
It’s not, in my mind, a particularly hard job, although I know that it would shred some people, just as some other jobs would swiftly shred me. On the upside, my periodic bouts of heavy travel give me time to write. I have no kids and no obligations this week, just a soundproof suite, a bottle of George Dickel’s Tennessee Whisky,* a six-pack of Heineken, and a whole multi-coloured universe of … well, not really.
But I am getting some writing done, and some reading. I re-read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter on the way down to the Springs, carried Rock Springs in my carryon bag but didn’t get to it (next week I will), and am now reading Huey Guagliardo’s Perspectives on Richard Ford. That last is the kind of thing I have to take in small doses, as I am unable to read more than a paragraph or two without getting up and pacing around and responding to it. In any case, I am on something of a Richard Ford kick.
And for that reason, I appreciated Richard Ford’s Guardian thing on “The Writing Life,” which I read this evening. Ford has always taken a hard-nosed approach to the bullshit fooferal that surrounds writing. Asked how one switches gears mentally between writing short stories and writing a novel (he worked simultaneously on The Sportswriter and Rock Springs), he said (I paraphrase), “It’s a job. You do one thing, and then you do another.”
And here is Ford, true to form, simultaneously eschewing talk of art and vocation, and acknowledging that writing isn’t a particularly hard job, as jobs go. He has, I think, a healthy attitude, although writers less successful than Ford might well resent it. Writing is, ultimately, a job, even for those who, like me, have the luxury of writing what we want thanks to another source of income. And it is not a particularly hard job; for all our talk of taking risks, writing is nowhere near as hard or risky as commercial fishing, logging, or patrolling the country around Khandahar. It is, all in all, a pretty cushy gig.
And this is one of the things you find in Ford’s fiction: people are often defined by their work, and Ford respects hard work. Frank Bascombe’s job selling real estate in Independence Day and The Lay of the Land is cushy, and this forms part of his alienation, his disconnect from the hard and concrete. It is interesting that in the Guardian piece, Ford singles out taking tolls on the Jersey turnpike as a hard job, for this is Wade Arcenault’s job in The Sportswriter — and Bascombe sees Wade, sentimentally, as salt of the earth. Rock Springs, similarly, is full of people with hard jobs.
Somebody really ought to write an essay on that one of these days. But it will take somebody less lazy than me.
* I am aware that American whiskey is conventionally spelled with an “e”; in fact, I had this discussion with a certain copy editor of Combat Camera, and gave up because it wasn’t really clear that on some pages, Zane referred to Scotch, and on others, bourbon. Regardless, Dickel’s label is spelled in the manner of Scotch, and it is unavailable in Canada.