For the last three hundred years or so, prose writers have, from time to time, glanced over in the direction of the poets for some guidance in certain matters of life and writing. Contemplating the lives of poets, however, is a sobering activity. It often seems as if the poets have extracted pity and terror from their work so that they could have a closer first-hand experience of these emotions in their own lives. A poet’s life is rarely one that you would wish upon your children. It’s not so much that poets are unable to meet various payrolls; it’s more often the case that they’ve never heard of a payroll. Many of them are pleased to think that the word “salary” is yet another example of esoteric jargon.
Ann Arbor has always been a place where creativity thrives. Colorful murals, graffiti art, and whimsical fairy doors grace downtown building exteriors. Filmmakers, musicians, architects, poets, painters, publishers—artists and writers from all over the world are drawn to Ann Arbor for its diverse community, educated population, and vibrant campus atmosphere.
Some may be surprised to hear this position. After all, I harangued writers for over-relying on the small-talk topic of “What have you been reading?” Hopefully, this contradiction goes away by the end of my defense.
All of this is to say what so many writers have already said: it’s hard to write a novel and act like a human being. You can’t have a foot in both worlds, half in and half out of your mind. So some writers go on a solo retreat, some writers drink, and some writers wake up to write while polite society is still sleeping—in any case, they find a marker, something that signals that they are no longer in the old world.
Writerly small talk is no less terrible than all other kinds of small talk. I expect that the coffee table or cocktail conversations of botanists, estheticians, and Sunday school teachers all have their own fallback question, their own version of a polite follow-up after the “How are you’s” have been exchanged.