I wonder why I find the notion of living “simply” in a place like Eugene or Taos or whatever unappealing. I thought the isolation was unappealing, and the inability of doing some things I like (traveling, not living in a “subculture” fashion) due to lack of money, the sense of being outside the swim of things and therefore producing things (writing) that betrayed that lack of sophistication.
Then I realized that although those things are important, that was not really it. If I could live in Paris, say, and Be A Poet, at the cost perhaps of money, I might very well do it. Well, why? It’s not just the romance of it, which is a factor. It’s because just like Cowley and Stearns and his crew thought (then later backtracked on), America is a simply terrible place to be a writer. Why? Because if you say, “I am a poet” then Americans will think — even if you truly are pretty good — that what you really said was: “I am a fool, a nobody; I have no real role in society; poet is just another word for someone who lacks the self-awareness to do something with himself.”
The problem is that this is usually right. In France though, and in Spain, and probably other countries, if you say, “I am a poet” what they hear is: “I have dedicated my life to understanding our humanity, God and death, and making beautiful things that improve people’s lives; I will act out of the ordinary — bohemian — because that’s necessary for me to do my job, for me to fulfill my socially-recognized role.” And they nod. Ah, ha. I see, that makes perfect sense. It’s sensible.
That’s not to say that you are the same as an insurance salesman. Far from it. But you are not a bum. Those societies are much more likely to recognize what you’re doing as worthwhile and allow you latitude. Maybe that’s because unlike America you didn’t have to work-or-die, society developed more slowly, letters were part of the sense of self of peoples across Europe. I don’t know. But I know that no matter where I was I would want the capacity to live like a human — buy clothes, food, travel, have savings — but here in America you do not have an identity — well, not one that I would want — without money. Also, as a grown up, I am unsatisfied merely imagining. Still, I would be more satisfied somewhere that imagining and imagination were not so perilously smeared together.
In other words, what I need is significance. It is impossible to gain significance from writing that no one ever sees. It is possible to gain significance in America through your work, your clout and the way you physically manifest your culture. The problem is, significance has two sides, outer and inner. Work in America — well the work I currently do anyway — can only provide the outer significance. When I told S.P., for instance, who is a smart fellow, that the job I interviewed for in Seattle could lead to a permanent job with Microsoft he thought that sounded top drawer. Why? Because it had outer significance. Working at Microsoft was something someone who had their shit together did, not something a loser did. But since I don’t find a reward in the work itself, it is only half the necessary daily requirement of significance. However, as I said, there is not outer significance in writing stuff that no one sees, and after a while the inner significance fades, then fades out. Why? Because although writing is an internal art in its composition, it is external in its use. One writes in order to be read. Now, I write for myself as well. Why? Because it straightens out my thoughts, releases pressure. That’s useful to me. But its not significant. I cannot in good conscience face the wind at sunset and proclaim (in voice over to a swelling Mendelsohn concerto): I am a writer! I am not a writer. I wrote, that’s demonstrable. But I’m not a writer. A writer is a position. I do not have that position.
Well, I could go on and on. My point again, distilled, is, yes, I hear what people are saying about not trading one’s health for money (No Blood For Oil!) and I will watch out. Unfortunately what I really want — a good living or maybe “life, lived well” — is only available in America with proof of purchase. What do I like? Travel, wine, good shoes, conversation, good food, music, nature. In the Europe I imagine it does not cost much to get these things. In America, it costs a great deal. Except for real conversation. That is unavailable for any price.