Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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MAY 25, 2012 11:24AM


Rate: 21 Flag

I had no students today, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have been working.  On days like this, my company allows you to ask for one-time sessions with any clients who want to do extra hours or intensive courses. There aren’t always these kinds of teaching slots available, but it would make sense to ask.

But I never do.

Instead I cherish these stolen hours.  I’m alone, no pressure in the world, no one to answer to.  I can eat regular meals, without worrying about my IBS causing problems.

This is worth a lot of money, to me, but a part of me knows I should get myself together and start being more responsible.  I’m thirty years old and have about $200 in my bank account – and though I’m a parsimonious person, that amount is quickly diminishing.

But today I got up and had a lovely leisurely morning in the partial-darkness of our apartment, whose shutters are closed against a typical late spring heatwave.  I ate breakfast like a normal person, something I can’t always do.  I answered emails, took care of an administrative thing that needed doing.  Then I got dressed and went to see Walter Salles’ “On the Road.”

I didn’t think Kerouac’s masterpiece could be made into a movie at all, but when I saw the trailer a few weeks ago, it seemed worth checking out, even so (the shot of the scroll manuscript won me over). Now that I’ve seen it, I can say I definitely prefer the book  a thousandfold. But the film is a good companion piece, and it had a very nice look to it, as well.

While watching the movie, what struck me all over again was the lives of its three major protagonists, who are alter egos of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady.  These guys are in their twenties, maybe by the end of the movie, early thirties. They take small, shit jobs on occasion, but often have no money in their pockets. They’re too busy living and writing (and fucking and drinking and getting high) to actually work.  There’s another famous writer in the film: Marcel Proust, whose novel Swann’s Way is the travelers’ constant companion.  Proust also led a life in which he had no regular job: he lived off his family’s wealth and wrote.  

As I watched Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac furiously scribbling on notepads in his bedroom in his mother’s house, I realized again that as far as work goes, there are different kinds of people in this world.  Most people can go to work day in, day out, with a little vacation and weekend breaks.  Others have a calling – be it writing, or visual art, or music, or religion, and so on – but can still hold down a job.  And then there are those who only seem to be able to do that one thing they’re passionate about.

When you look at Marcel Proust or Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, you don’t think in retrospect that their lives were a waste because they had no steady employment. …Well, unless you don’t like their work, I guess.  But for those people in the here and now with that same situation, it’s hard to say.

When I left the theater, the weather was hot. The sun shone down on the Parisian sidewalks.  The pollen from the trees blew in the dry wind, irritating my eyes.  Inside me, it’s the same. I feel burnt out, as the saying goes, done with my job, ready for just about anything else.  I feel irritated that I even have to go and teach anymore.  It’s not this particular job – it’s anything I’ve ever had to do.  Except writing.  Even now, on this free, stolen day, I’m writing.  

But there three main things that worry me.  The first is, no matter what ambitions and goals I have as a writer, it’s pretty hard not to feel lazy and a bit ashamed of myself.  I’ll be going on a trip to Italy with my family in a few weeks, and I have no idea how I’ll pay for food and such while I’m there.  My boyfriend will handle our expenses, but that just feels terrible and sort of wrong, regardless of whether or not he can afford it.  I always tell him I’ll pay him back when I think I should be putting in money, and whenever I can, I do.  I also know that the things I do for him in our everyday life (like that administrative matter I had to do deal with this morning) are probably worth a top-notch personal assistant’s salary.  But still, this isn’t how I’d planned to be.

The second worry is whether any of it matters.  The act of writing is truly holy and beautiful, and worth every moment.  So I guess that answers that. But then you look at it from a different perspective, and you say, you, madam, are no Jack Kerouac – and not just because you don’t drink Benzedrine-laced coffee, if you know what I mean.  It’s hard to tell what any writer will end up accomplishing, but it would seem a bit dumb at the end of my life to be broke, with no savings and no stable employment history, and to not even have gotten my writing, right.

And thirdly, and most troubling of all, maybe, is this worry, one that weighs me down far more heavily than the other two:  I have an opportunity to try to make a living with words – content writing, journalism, copywriting, etc. – and there is no reason why I don’t just sign myself up for independent worker status and do it.  But what if writing for others takes all the joy out of writing for me? So here I am, holding back from something that might actually work.  On the reasonable side of things, I know that if I did get bored with these kinds of jobs, I could always go into tutoring again – maybe by then, the break I’ll have taken will have done me some good.  But the fear quickly tarnishes that bright, hopeful thought: If I can’t make it with writing, either financially (a likely outcome, actually), or, more worryingly, mentally and emotionally, where the hell does that leave me?  I feel like I’ll have run into a wall.  Right now, by not changing my life, I’m safe, with hope around me like a warm coat or a cool breeze, depending on the weather.

Jack Kerouac doesn’t seem to have worried about his career prospects very much.  He seems to have gone through life without even considering most of the things I’m obsessing over, and just focusing on living and writing.  I wish I could absorb that attitude and be done with the angst.  ....It all makes a compelling argument for coffee and Benzedrine.

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jump in with both feet while you can,girl. better to have tried at what you love,even if you dont suceed,than not tried at got a whole life yet to get stuck in the 'make a buck' rut....good luck...
Coffee's OK, maybe one Ritalin a day is good, too, but you can see what might happen if you're not careful, from Jack's and Neal's tragic examples. But you are right about writing being a holy pursuit, Alysa, and you capture well the angst of the sacrifices, both material and psychological, in following that pursuit. But holy is holy, after all. We are not alone.
Wow, you have made me look again. And I will pluck my eyes out once again. Everything is sacred and nothing matters. Except Love? Alysa, you are not a trivial person. Yes, yes, yes, write for your Divine Source, your Love. It is your prayer.

Or can it also be, as you suggest, a dangerous expedition from which many never return?

Only you know how you burn. Whose way you light is for those who will see.

If you strove for fame alone, you would have looked to the Kardashians, the goddesses of the Trivial Pursuit.

If you strove for wealth alone, you would have to be ruthless. Just pretend to be ruthless for a moment and think.

And I feel like you are tutoring us all with your observations, and of course with your Fiction salon.

And now I realize that your post is how you work it all out. But you are not alone in this, and so you help others.

Alysa, I think we have to pursue writing in whatever way works for us, as individuals. The drinking and drugging of writers past was a a career in itself, and is or was romanticized as the "way of the serious writer." In our reality, writing stoned is not the way to go, at least not for me. Most of us live in a different world with bills to pay, obligations to family (sick and other), and no silver spoon dangling from our lips. I try to write every day, whenever I can--in the morning, on my lunch hour, after work, in my office "downtime." Keep plugging away, Alysa. I've got 2 decades on you, and I haven't given up on myself yet. xo
Paul Cezanne lived off his father's money for the whole of his life. van Gogh lived of his family and Gaugin lived off his wife and van Gogh brother until he left for Tahiti where he lived off the natives and ex-pats and they all have Universities and Museums named after them... so what's your problem?
What a great piece that also tugs at my heart. I understand your worry in that there came a time in graduate school where I began to hate reading and writing, and it was the worst feeling, especially since I had decided to become an academic so I could "make a living" doing the things I felt most passionate about. Irony! So I guess I'm saying, to an extent, that your worry isn't necessarily misplaced. But on the other hand, you never really know until you try what it can look like to live your passion. I tried doing PR writing for a while and quickly realized that it was way worse than academia, haha, so I got out of it. One thing I know for sure--you are an immensely talented writer and thinker. :)
$200? Congratulations! You should throw a party!

I've been involved in the legal side of the production of some of Kerouac's works, primarily the collage film of readings from Big Sur. It's interesting how he parcelled out the rights to his works to individual heirs rather than throwing them all in one pot. I guess he thought of each of them as a child--or maybe a pet.
Well, this makes being 60 feel a little better. From 30 years down the road, I don't have any great advice except that it's better not to have regrets. So figure out what you would regret and work back from that.
And enjoy whatever stolen hours you can find.
It's hard to give advise to someone you don't really know, but maybe an example can be useful. My wife is communications director for a private school and does their magazines, newsletters, handbooks and press releases. I did plenty of writing in my career, but it wasn't my mission, if you know what I mean. She sees me here at the keyboard tapping away for OS and whoever and asks why I am doing it. "Because it is fun," I reply. "When I retire (September) that is the last thing in the world I want to do. I am through with it." For what it is worth. R
I've gone in and out of hack work writing -- taught writing workshops for corporations for 10 years and made a good living, ghostwrote, did brochures, manuals, guidebooks, articles. But love the freedom I have now, and am lucky to be able to have it now.
the thing about writers is this: you can't not.

writers cant live a 'not write' life. and while the writers life is occasionally a burden or a curse, i never find myself longing for a 'not write' life. its how i make sense of the world, how i find the sacred in me & others. i suspect writers who dont write go mad...
I'd bet that that Kerouc etc did worry we just didn't read about it. Those were wilder times and more conducive to art. Now smoking is seen as grotesque and hack writing gets way too much respect.
You are still young and all your worries and concerns make perfect sense when considering the reality of things vs. your obvious passion and talent. Don't give up ever because you are not just spinning your wheels or wasting your time. I just know it. How do I know it? I just do, dear.
I keep the book on my nightstand; always have.
As soon as my kids left home, I quit the marriage, job, everything and, except for few necessary lapses to get a little money, I've just enjoyed myself ever since. You don't have kids ...and if you did, perhaps your boyfriend would make enough to take care of you-all. At any rate, enjoy yourself is my advice. You took a flyer going to Paris to live. You can take another!
Boy do these fears sound familiar. It's hard to maintain belief in our abilities when they aren't rewarded monetarily. I also never intended to be "support staff" for someone else's life. And although my husband truly appreciates all that I do (i.e. the two hours on the phone with the IRS today and the making of a cake and a pasta salad for a cookout tomorrow), and during the times I'm working outside the home for long hours, he's a little silly in his helplessness -- I hope one day to measure my worth with some financial reward of my own.
Alysa, I relate so much to this, and I have never once wished I'd led a more career-oriented life that I didn't love.
I love my wandering, artsy, writing, reading, children first-type life, my part-time jobs all fitting around my children's needs when they were young enough to need me. I still would not change a I am so appreciative that I did take silent hours for myself to just be me and do the things I love most -- that I didn't wait until retirement age to enjoy travel and free time.

That said, it would be so nice to be twenty years down the road from you as I am now -- and know I had a way to cover the dentist bills -- Sorry for the dash of cold water, but this is not a good experience at any age.
So...think of the dental future ahead of you *and* stop, smell, and write about the roses??
Kerouac's writing was aspirational.

On the road was a dream. The reality? I'm sure you have experienced a hangover. And the rest.
I felt this post, intensely. If you are allowed to bring just a little bit of your magic to the paid writing opportunities you have, I believe you'll be fine. Then again, I'm weighing in on something I know nothing about. You really are one of the better writers in the world. Maybe there's a point to leap and trust the net will appear.
Jack Kerouac et al didn't have biological clocks, either. ... I just read a story in the NYT about a male author who admits openly that he never had children because he didn't want them to become "an excuse for failure." ... Seems like women, and even men, can't have it all. Right now, you are free to pursue writing and anything else. Enjoy it! At the same time, remember, "Life is what happens while we make plans for the future," as Lennon famously said.
I would think there is room for both, while waiting for a door to open.
I enjoyed reading "Dharma Bums" when I was in college. Recently I read some of his later work, the Mexico City poems, but I wasn't nearly as impressed. He seemed rather lowbrow, and burned out. I think its good to have a calling, and yours seems ideal compared to Faulkner's post office position, or one of the other humdrum jobs that famous writers have held. I still love the Beats, especially William Everson and Gary Snyder.
John Lennon's motto long before he had any success was "Death before work!" He lived first and never asked questions later. He took what he needed for life without compunction, the harmonica you hear on early records shoplifted from a store in Germany.

And even after the greatest artistic output in human history, he still sang in the end of "People say I'm lazy, dreaming my life away". It's only our soul we take in the end.
These are hard questions and I'm glad you've started pondering them now, because you're very smart and can probably find your own best path and "happy medium" given time.
You might, you know, actually be as good, in your own way, as Jack Kerouac was in his. You have a highly original and moving writing voice.
I always feel very emotionally invested when I read these pieces of yours - about conflicts regarding money, feeling "lazy", living with the conflicts between day job, artistic life and IBS, because I've experienced so many similar situations, dilemmas; guilts...
There have been times in my life when I had standard nine-to-five jobs (the sort that "everybody" is supposed to have) and I felt like they were just killing me, physically and emotionally. People always ask me whether I "want a full time job" (my current job being what I'd call "long part time," - 30 hours per week including lunch hour). I know I'm supposed to say yes, but really, the answer is no. What i really want is a part time, flexible job that pays a lot more than the one I have now. One that pays enough money while still giving me the time I need for my mental and physical health. SIGH.
It's harder to survive as a Bohemian than it used to be, especially in the USA. When I was born, my parents were able to support me and themselves (in Greenwich Village, where you now have to be ricj to live) on part time jobs, while devoting most of their time to writing (Dad) and painting (Mom). They were also both going to school. Again...SIGH.
At 50, I'm trying to do my best to be "sensible" in some ways. I just put $5,000 of the $10,000 I got in my divorce settlement into a Certificate of Deposit. That CD represents the entirety of my retirement fund, so far. And I'm someone who would really love to be able to retire and not need a job at all! The other $5,000 went to pay off the remainder of my college debt.
I'm going on and on. I wish we could found a commune for the terminally artistic and unindustrious. Maybe some really rich person with IBS would fund us...
I have nothing to add except trust your instincts and take every leap of faith you can. You never want to look back at a life filled with "if onlys." And you are too talented not to try.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, advice, and kind words, guys! I think this weekend has been a turning point for me, in great part due to your comments. I'm starting to see things a little differently. Thank you so much again and to those of you feeling the same way I did when I wrote this (and still sort of do), good luck. Here's hoping we'll all figure things out - or they'll work out on their own!
Haven't been on OS much lately, but always gratified to find you've posted yet another lovely, thoughtful, and beautifully crafted piece. I write for others (I'm procrastinating on a press release right this very moment!). I don't recommend it. Rita Mae Brown once wrote that writers should take physically taxing, not mentally taxing, jobs, to save their mental energy for their work. I believe she renovated houses to earn a living. There's a lot of sense in that piece of advice.

Also, I take all those hard-drinkin', free livin', devil-may-care, anything-for-my-art writer-men with a grain of salt. Even today, there are huge gender differences in what men and women can get away with and how they are perceived. Sexism goes a long way to keeping the competition in check, unless you just believe that there was simply no woman in existence during the Beat generation with the talent and intelligence to be the equal of Kerouac or Ginsberg.