Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the American satirical novelist, Joseph Heller.
Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents from Russia. Even as a child, he loved to write; as a teenager, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland and sent it to the New York Daily News, which rejected it.
After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk. In 1942, at age 19, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier.
After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU on the G.I. Bill. In 1949, he received his M.A. in English from Columbia University. Following his graduation, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in St Catherine’s Society at the University of Oxford in England, and, after returning home, he taught composition at Pennsylvania State University for two years. He also taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale.
He then briefly worked for Time Inc., before taking a job as a copywriter at a small advertising agency, where he worked alongside future novelist Mary Higgins Clark. At home, Heller wrote. He was first published in 1948 when The Atlantic ran one of his short stories. The story nearly won the “Atlantic First”.
He is probably best known for his satirical novel Catch-22. Set during World War II, it mainly follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home. The novel has frequently been cited as one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.
He died of a heart attack at his home in East Hampton, on Long Island, in December 1999, shortly after the completion of his final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.
On hearing of Heller’s death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut said, “Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American literature.”
I’m not sure that my motivations then for becoming a writer were worthy ones. I wanted to be a writer because I felt I had a gift, and I really wanted to make money and have some kind of status.
For the past month or so I have been trying very hard to get through Heller’s famous Catch-22. It’s not an easy read for me—a lot of characters and a lot of dialog, a lot of jumping around in the chronology of events, and a lot of military talk I don’t understand—but the author has become a bit of an obsession for me.
The fact that he wrote his books so slowly is interesting and gives me hope in my own endeavors. I also like that he wrote the books that he wanted to write, in the way he wanted to write them, and he was able to find success in doing it. He had a lot of strong political views, and while this book is a hard read for me, I feel it is an important one.
When I read this quote, it stuck with me; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just love the honesty of it. To say “Yes, I wanted to write because I enjoy writing but I also do this because I want to know what it is like to succeed and reap the financial and status benefits that come along with it” seems like a very taboo thing for a writer to be saying.
Everything I have read has said that writers should not concern themselves at all with money. That no one should go into this looking for fame. Everything I have read tells me that to do so means certain failure.
Now, I’ve only just started collecting ideas and getting used to the idea of being someone who is “writing a book”. Right now, and for a long while, I’ll be at this stage, the fun stage. The stage where everything is possible. The stage before I have to start thinking about what I can’t do.
For now, I am only dreaming of what it means to be a writer. I am a “newb” and a bit ignorant of what it will take and whether I have it in me to do this. I don’t pretend to know anything about what other writers think, or what our goals should be. I just like the honesty of this quote.
I love to write, and there’s a lot I want to say and a lot I want to make people think and feel. I want to write for all the good, and moral reasons any writer should want to write. But I’m human and as someone who concerns herself with who we all are deep down, where there are no expectations, where there is no good and bad, where there is no shame. Those parts of us that we hate to admit are there because we’re told they are “bad”. I have to be honest with myself and admit that I too dream of status and money.
If I’m honest, part of me wants to be a writer because then I get to say I’m a writer. I daydream about it. I think about the way people will say my name. My girlfriend will tell everyone she meets that she is dating Lisa Blair, the writer. My mom will be so proud of me; and she’ll tell everyone her daughter is Lisa Blair, the writer. People will read my books and tell me how good they are, how much emotion they felt, and how talented I am. Everyone will love me. People will look to me for advice, and they will hold me up as an example of intelligence and hard work.
I don’t like to focus on those reasons for writing but they are real, and they are motivating. I can’t deny that all the work I do is in the hope that that dream will come true, and a lot of the fear I feel is the fear that that dream will never come true. I don’t think it is “bad” to want the money and the fame. I think the reason we have to avoid focusing on it is that both the success and the failure of our work can be paralyzing.
I would guess that all writers have that part of themselves that is looking for money and status. That’s something we are all motivated by every day. We work our day jobs to earn a paycheck. We work hard to impress our bosses in the hopes we’ll get more respect, more responsibility, more power, and more money. It’s a human thing to want, a human thing to hope for, and like all other human things it’s not the wanting that is good or bad, it’s what we do to get what we want that matters.
Heller might have wanted status and money, but he didn’t compromise himself to get it. He focused on the goal and took his time to do it right. He put himself into his work and in reading his book I can tell that this was written the way it was because of who Heller was, not because of what the public may have wanted.
I hope to do the same.
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If you’re interested, here’s another quote from Joseph Heller that inspired me.
Oh! and the interview I got this quote from took place initially in 1981. If you have a little time, I highly suggest you read it. It’s an interesting bit of history and Heller’s views on the future of America echo some of our current concerns.
Featured image via Tracy O