Recently I've been chastised for calling Philip Roth a misogynist. Yet, I think most women agree with me. Show me a female character in one of Roth's novels who is not a misfit, a dropout, or someone to be stalked by his male characters with the forward-swimming determination and energy of sperm.
Still, through the decades Roth has been brilliant, a dazzling wordsmith. Starting at university, I devoured each of his books through the 70's and 80's, and early 90's. But finally, a reader wants a female character with depth, someone teetering on the knife-edge of grit and hope. We want a woman who matches, even surpasses, the 'heroics' of the men.
I recently brought up Roth's name because, once again, he was mentioned for this year's Nobel Prize. Then I discovered an interview with Roth that fills me with unleavened admiration...and a little fear. His work ethics, his daily discipline, though jaw-dropping, are an object lesson for all serious writers, and interesting insight for readers, too.
First, the facts: all writers have a DIRTY SECRET. Added up, we waste YEARS of precious time. We tell audiences that most days we write from dawn to dusk. That we have no other life, no love, no money, no dreams. (This is partially true.) So readers tend to think of us as semi-saints, engulfed in the long swoon of inspiration, obsessively tapping out our stories day after day, year after year.
In truth, most of us live in a state of near-paralysis, wondering if we have enough brain-cells left to write another book, if our house will be foreclosed, if the dog will die from starvation. We waste hours triaging the mail, sweet-talking creditors, staring at strewn carcasses of manuscripts we never finished. We tap our fingers, waiting for our Muse, that moody broad who shows up late, or not at all. Or, we dilly-dally over a single, mediocre paragraph then sit back, stretch, and call it a day.
For serious writers, these are days of famine. We don't produce because we don't bear down, we've grown soft and distracted by what's outside our sphere of concentration: The Arab spring, the global climate, the Harvey Wallbanger of digital doodads. We've lost our hubris. Our Spartan animus. We've forgotten that barnacled, old word DISCIPLINE.
So here is Philip Roth to remind us what Real Drive is, what unalloyed discipline is. His regimen may scare the hell out of you, but it may fire your pistons, and inspire you to knuckle down again with blind determination. (Credit to David Remnick from his book, REPORTING. Knopf, 2006.)
From "Into The Clear: Philip Roth"
"He wakes early and seven days a week walks fifty yards to a two room studio [beside his house.] There's a lectern where he writes standing up, the better to preserve a bad back. There are free weights, a lifting bench, an exercise mat. He had quintuple-bypass surgery eleven years ago and is determined to keep in shape. He stays out there [writing] all day and into the evening. No telephone. No Fax. Nothing gets in. In late afternoon, he takes long walks, trying to figure out connections and solve problems in the novel that's possessing him."
"I live alone," Roth says, "There's no one else to be responsible for, or to. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually I write all day. If I want to go back to the studio in the evening, I don't have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don't have to sit there and be amusing or entertaining. I go back out and work for two or three more hours.
"If I wake up at two in the morning...and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. Then I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can't sleep and I want to work, I go back out [to the studio] and I go to work. So I work. I'm on call.
" I'm like a doctor and it's an emergency room. And I'm the emergency."
A selfish life? Of course. Artists are, by nature, selfish. A solitary life? For serious writers, solitude is considered a sacrament. Roth is over eighty now. Rumor has it he still follows the same daily regimen. One can only sit in awe. Or, one can be inspired.
Imua! Onward! And thank you!