Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quote of the Day (Dawn Powell, on the Travails of Writing)

July 20 [1931]. “When writing was a hobby I wrote five to seven hours a day regularly. Now that it is a profession, I find it almost impossible. Is it because I am tired, in bad condition, worried by finances, or, as I suspect, because my life is complicated it takes all my energy weaving in and out of it?”—Dawn Powell, The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965, edited by Tim Page (1995)

Whenever a writer—such as, say, myself—begins to experience a crisis of confidence or world-weariness, the best cure is to reflect on the life and work of novelist Dawn Powell (1896-1965). Her diaries represented not only her reminders to herself about literary aims, but also signposts of a hard, bitter life spent pushing against the force of circumstance—her own frequent poor health, her husband’s drinking and inability to provide for the family, her son Jojo’s growing mental instability and eventual need to be institutionalized, and throughout—something more and more people can relate to now—the constant battle to stay afloat financially. (In the end, the last battle was lost, as she ended up buried in a potter’s field.)

Amid all the self-doubt, as vented in passages like this one, however, there are numerous passages of finely detailed observations, spiked with the kind of sardonic summary that could only be delivered by a self-described “permanent visitor” (she came originally from Ohio) to New York: “I am still so amazed at the brazenness of people—completely New York people—who only remember you when you’ve gone into your fourth printing.”

Novels such as Turn, Magic Wheel (1936) and The Locusts Have No King (1948) turn this raw material into golden form, as she narrates tales of artists, writers, editors, actors, and socialites all thrown together into the pursuit of love—works that have drawn acclaim from writers like Edmund Wilson in her own time to Gore Vidal and John Updike in ours.

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