On my refrigerator, stuck to the side with magnets, is a piece of paper, about eight by seven inches, with the upper margin torn and ratty from where I ripped it out of a magazine about 20 years ago. It is crinkled, brittle, stained with drops from some past kitchen mishap. (There have been a lot of those over years.) On it are some of my favorite quotes about life, love, sex, marriage, death, and writing. Writing is last, under the part about death, which, in very great hindsight, should have triggered some primal warning in my snake brain. It didn’t. Twenty years ago, I was too excited about writing, publishing, and a career in the field of my dreams, to catch such subtleties. I was also, I suppose, too young to heed the darker warnings beneath such simple nuances as positioning on a piece of paper. Since I just figured them out this morning, that particular wisdom has just caught up with me.
Five up from the bottom, is Mario Puzo’s advice for writing a best-selling novel.
It is among the most amusing—and most sad—things about writing I’ve ever heard. Mr. Puzo said, “Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you cant start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.” At the time I tore the paper from the old magazine and stuck it to my fridge, I thought Puzo’s quote was uproariously funny, sly, and twisted, so I’ve kept it all these years. Along with Abraham Lincoln’s quote about writing and thinking, “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I ever met,” I still think it is amusing, but now, after all these years, Puzo’s quote is far more poignant than hilarious.
Puzo was saying that life and relationships should never get in the way of one’s dreams. He is claiming that love is far less important than positioning on the New York Times Bestseller Lists. He believed that time alone with his typewriter (there weren’t many personal computers 20 years ago and he likely said that years before the quote made print) was more important than time with family, lovers, and friends. I beg to differ.
Being a writer is the most solitary occupation there is, right up there with being a hermit—though admittedly (well, usually) with better living conditions than a cave might boast. I do like my microwave, heating pad, memory foam mattress, iced tea maker, whistling tea kettle, television, and refrigerator, even thought the front doors of the latter have rusted through (design flaw, and a rant for another time).
Writing is the most joyful, sad, amusing, controlling, commanding, riveting occupation I can imagine, yes. But it is lonely. Relationships matter. They are the sap of life that rises through us and gives our writing deeper meaning. They support and cocoon us, adding richness and variety to lives that otherwise would be, well, hermetic. Relationships also give us a chance to support others, grow, learn, and find deeper meaning in life that would be arid and barren without them. Writers should cultivate deep and abiding relationships with others, and, yes, put them before writing. We should, must, walk away from the keyboard and live, love, suffer, and grow. And when we walk back to the novel or story, it will be imbued with new depth and intensity and wisdom.
Most relationships. Not all of them. There the exceptions to every rule. This week, my life has been touched by people that one should walk away from if possible. So I want to offer a little advice. Nothing so pithy and witty as Puzo’s advice, but a bit of understanding I’ve finally accepted. (I’m a slow learner, by the way, so it’s something I should have learn long ago.) Some people should not be in our lives. Some people should be pushed away and shut out. Some relationships should be broken. Because they damage our lives, our psyches, and our writing.
Have I deliberately pushed some relationships back and away because they interfered with my life and my writing? Oh yes. And some people need to be out of our lives no matter our profession. Unless one is a counselor, or enjoys being needed by the needy, there are some relationships that need to refused or kept at arm’s length. Toxic people, people who are emotionally broken or damaged and demand of our time and give nothing back but heartache, people who are angry and call us on the phone and tell us how miserable their lives are—all the time, over and over—and who never seem to grow through their pain, yet won’t seek help, people who are users, takers, abusers, yes, these people often need to be pushed gently away—or even a good bit less than gently. When younger—when I put that list on my fridge—I seemed to attract and collect such needy people, but over the years I’ve realized that some folks just want to steep in their own misery, or they’d seek help and change. And so I did. Changed that is. I started pushing such people away. I’ve ended some relationships over the years because they interfered with my writing and my living.
But I’ve cultivated the relationships that matter: husband, family, friends. I’ve suffered with them, shared joy with them, and grieved then they were lost to me. And it is friends and family who have made life and writing worth the living.
So, I suggest that, with the exception of poisonous relationships, we ignore Mario Puzo’s advice, humorous or not. Writers need people. We need to love and be loved. Even when it’s hard and sometimes interferes with our goals of word count, publishing, and bestseller-dom.