Labors of Love


Our Daily Correspondent


Jessamyn West

To love classic children’s books is to love heroines with literary ambitions. Harriet the Spy, Betsy Ray, Anne Shirley, Jo March—so many beloved characters wanted to be writers at a time when their sex and circumstances made that hope seem remote and exciting. Not incidentally, many of these characters were based on their authors.

In her 1977 Art of Fiction interview, Jessamyn West—who would go on to write Cress Delahanty, featuring a young woman who dreams of writing—recalls that her parents did not support her career choice:

It isn’t the same as the young person who wants to play the piano, dance, or who is an obvious mimic. That child is seen to have particular talent, and he is encouraged, given lessons. But the poor kid who likes to read and write needs a vein of iron in him to keep at it. 

The writing life today isn’t generally perceived as the exotic unknown that West describes here—when did it change? Granted, there are many American parents who want more security, more familiarity for their children than a professional writing career can provide. But for West, a writer is a downright foreign specimen:

I’d never seen a living writer. I’d never met anyone who had seen a living writer. I thought that it was so God-given, so enormously strange and peculiar a thing that was visited upon a writer, that I surely couldn’t be one of those persons.

Even if someone has never met a writer today, a lot of people have seen Carrie Bradshaw or even Jessica Fletcher, making good and seemingly effortless livings with no social cost whatsoever. Indeed, Sex and the City in particular made writing an aspirational career; even if one’s dreams aren’t colored by visions of shoes and real estate, one might find it easier to pursue a writer’s existence than in ages past. Hannah Horvath’s parents may be emblematic of a certain privileged milieu’s encouragement of all artistic aspiration, but even outside the universe of Girls—even for those without support—the aspiration no longer feels like an act of rash presumption. Maybe social media helps, in that it confers visibility.

It’s interesting to imagine how many people were too timid or self-defeating ever to share their work, or how many never saw a writing career in progress, never had models: to imagine how much great writing never got done, or was never shared. Maybe what we have left is only the work of the toughest and the boldest—those with West’s vein of iron. 

In the interview, West shares some of her juvenilia: here’s one of the many potential plots she recorded in a notebook as a young teenager. 

A hobo walking along a road in Autumn. The air is crisp. Hobos don’t usually look happy. This one does. He is walking alone dreaming. He is going back to his only daughter. He has been away for a long time. He wonders if she is grown up now. It is almost evening when he reaches the town. A town of little homes. Their lights come on. He goes to the city directory and he casually asks about a girl named, blank, blank, blank. (I hadn’t thought of a name yet.) He asks if they will tell him where she can be found. The hobo is in a hurry to find her now. It is now beginning to get even a little chill. The lights of the girl’s house are all lit up. The hobo decides he had better look in the window. He does. He sees people and he realizes that his daughter is about to be married. This is a home of wealthy people. Then he looks at himself. He realizes that he is ill kempt, dirty, ill to look upon. The hobo stays to see his daughter come down the stairs. He thinks she would be ashamed to have a hobo enter and claim to be her father. So for her own good, before someone might recognize him (he has anticipated seeing her for years), with a muttered prayer for her he stumbles out into the gathering mist.

(She says she marked this one “fair.”)

But even then, she tells the interviewer, “I never thought of making money from writing. It never occurred to me.” And later, “I never saved a letter from a boyfriend under my pillow, but the first letter from an editor I kept there so I could wake up in the night to read it over again.” 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.