Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.


Thirty-four years ago, within moments it now seems of selling my first story to a science fiction publication, I had my first poem accepted by a literary magazine, the Ann Arbor Review. I confess: This marked my beginning as a double agent. Henceforth, while living by day the life of a mild-mannered commercial writer, under cover of night I would carouse and cohabit with literary quarterlies.

Today I look up in surprise to find that I've published almost two dozen books, not to mention a blizzard of shorter work, pages like so many snowflakes falling faintly and faintly falling: hundreds of stories, poems, essays, translations, reviews and criticism, articles on music, introductions to others' books. Now, with all this practice, when people I meet anew ask "Have I read anything of yours?" I can refrain from laughing uproariously or bursting into tears—most of the time.

Friends and family, meanwhile, ask rather a different question, something along the lines of what I want to be when I grow up. And yes, you'd think that, well along in my fifties, I'd have decided.

The thing is, I always knew. This is what I wanted to be when I grew up. I've a splendid view from the cliff. Even if I'm feeling dizzy most days and the wind's forever building. One learns not to look down.

What I'm going to be talking about here over the next year or two is the writing life. I've lived as a writer now—quite a different thing from making one's living as a writer, I assure you—for almost forty years now. My earliest stories appeared in Orbit, Galaxy, Transatlantic Review. For a time in the Sixties I lived in London and edited New Worlds, wherein was published seminal work by J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Tom Disch, D.M. Thomas and many others. In the late Seventies and early Eighties I wrote extensively on music. These past several years I've given much attention to writing a series of mystery novels set in New Orleans and featuring a black detective named Lew Griffin. In between, I've worked extensively as a reviewer for places like the Dallas Morning News, L.A. Times, Book World, and Boston Review, and now do a regular column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I've shoveled out journalistic stables for various magazines and news! papers, have written literary and cultural criticism, have published dozens of translations including one of Raymond Queneau's novel Saint Glinglin.

As I'm writing this first column, a major collection of poems is just out from Michigan State University Press. About the time you're reading it, my biography of Chester Himes will be out from Walker and Company.

So: a most unusual life, this writing one. With no degree or teaching credentials, I'm always working without a net. Half the time I can barely see the tightrope. (And are those faces down there? or just empty seats, distorted by the light?) Small publishers bring out much of my work, poems, literary short stories and the like. Even with more commercial work I've never had the subsidy of a major publisher. I write these books for small advances, stepping stones that get me across the muddy field stretching before me, with yet another visible just beyond. One of many paradoxes of this life: in the past year, at others' expense, I've spent a week in France, two weeks touring the UK, and another week at a conference in the Bahamas. Two years ago, compliments of the producer, I summered in Paris and Brittany while writing a film. So while I still don't make much money after all these years, barely enough to live on in fact, the benefits are getting better and better.

What you do is, you bootstrap yourself out of bed every morning, make a cup of tea or a pot of coffee, and go back to work. Probably not like Robert Lowell in pajamas fresh from the dryer, or like Balzac in his monk's robe, but hey. The days unfurl, as indistinguishable as walnuts, into the distance. If we're lucky, every now and then a mirage takes form out ahead somewhere. Or we look up for a moment and imagine another caravan coming by. When people inquire how I find the discipline to do this, I remember Updike's response upon being asked the most difficult part of writing: Getting up the stairs and into the chair each morning. I simply remind myself, I tell them, that if I don't sit down and write, I'll have to get a real job. Grand motivation.

I was doing this when I was 21. I was doing it when I was 23 and again, or still, when I was 30. When I was 34, 40, 52. Yesterday morning. Threaded in, through and around all that, for short periods or longer, there were other jobs. But I was always writing, turning out at one pace or another short stories, book reviews, articles, essays; I was living my life as a writer. Chester Himes spoke for many of us: "No matter what I did, or where I was, or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer since I'd published my first story in Esquire when I was still in prison in 1934. Foremost a writer. Above all else a writer. It was my salvation, and is."

Confession having become to every appearance the order of the day, I should also report here my temporary visa as musician. Like Raymond Chandler I've the sort of mind that might make me a second-rate anything—though writing remains the only thing I do well. Back in Texas I played guitar, mandolin and Dobro with a friend who had been invalided out of the army after contracting TB and undergoing a lobectomy. Well into the Reagan-Bush dynasty, before such assistance sputtered and failed, he went on receiving a monthly payment. What he told me about those monthly checks always seemed directly relevant to my "career" as a writer. If they'd been a little less, Don said, I'd have had to look for work, get off my butt; and if they'd been a little more, I could have lived like a human being.

In a previous essay, "Pushing Envelopes," I wrote of my illicit literary double life.

I wonder sometimes, as I stuff yet another perfectly innocent envelope with return postage, or tear one open to find my manuscript bearing the hoofprint of the paper clip holding a form rejection to its bosom, whether this is not a silly thing for a 53-year-old, supposedly professional writer to be doing.... Reputation? I've had mine, such as it is, for years now, like a pair of old jeans; it's unlikely to be much affected by a poem buried among dozens of others in Driftword or Wormturn, or by a two-page story in Elephant Hump stating that its author needs no introduction. But I do go on, like some out-of-control, perpetual-motion existentialist making his leap into faith, nostrils pinched shut with finger and thumb, again and again. When recently a friend offered his definition of crazy as "doing the same thing over and over expecting different results," I cringed.

A self-interrogation I've not gotten over.

Years ago, at the height of the cold war, I addressed a poem to Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky. How could we go on writing these small, semiprecious, unread poems, dabbling away at literature, I asked, while all about us the world was coming apart, all these terrible agents and engines passing over our heads?

What is left for us, here
among our families, books and friends,
but to go on as we must.
There will be no more Tolstoys.
There's only the chance to do
what remains:
find beauty, try to understand, survive.

It was one of those marvelous passages that come padding about the corner wholly unanticipated, unplanned for, working their way up, through and out of the poem as pure gift, knowledge you never realize you have until the moment it appears there before you. I knew then. Not only that such lines, such connections, are the very reason I keep writing, but also that I'd just written the closest thing to a credo I'll ever have.

Find beauty. Try to understand. Survive.