LIKE EVERY WRITER dissatisfied with his lot — by which I mean pretty much every writer — Jesse Browner suffers from Geoff Dyer envy. The idiosyncratic Brit (Out of Sheer Rage, Jeff in Venice, But Beautiful) has, writes Browner with self-professed envy, “succeeded in living out his youthful fantasy of carefree bohemia, unburdened by responsibility or specialization, and has been rewarded with fame, glamour, and the admiration of his peers. Apparently, Dyer has found a way to live as free as a butterfly, and get paid to do so.”
Browner, on the other hand, is a civil servant and family man, who arises every day at 4:00 a.m. to write. As he makes clear in How Did I Get Here: Making Peace with the Road Not Taken, his wise, thought-provoking and engaging treatise on how to accept the life we’ve chosen, he knows he’s fortunate.
The book grew out of an essay Browner published in Poets & Writers (September/October 2012) called “Lives of the Civil Servants: The Choices We Make,” written on the occasion of turning 50, the age of reckoning. Despite the American obsession with “reinventing” yourself in midlife, by 50 the die is cast. You are who you are, and the choices you’ve made, or have failed to make (so surprised are we to realize that failing to act is also making a choice), have yielded the dividends commensurate with the investment. Surprise!
After graduating from Bard College, Browner was living la vie bohème on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, reading manuscripts and screenplays for a talent agency during the day and bar-hopping at night. In late 1980s, on the pre-gentrified LES, his was a life of edgy, arty glamour where “Just crossing the Bowery was like an exercise in urban warfare, but then you got to the Jones — a tiny box of heat, light, and chatter on a block where a single footstep would echo for weeks.”
One day a friend told him about a freelance translator job at the United Nations where, for a few hours a day, he would sit around waiting to see if anyone required his services (he is fluent in French), for which he would be paid a full day’s wages. Who could pass that up? Browner eventually found himself employed as a full-time linguist with juicy benefits: six weeks of paid vacation in addition to sick leave, health insurance, rent and education subsidies, a generous pension. He had also by this time gained an accomplished and supportive wife. One thing led to another, and the marriage was followed by children and a mortgage; soon he found himself squeezing his writing — his life’s work — into the wee hours of the morning. That he has produced four well-received novels and a cultural history of hospitality, as well as a handful of notable translations, including a biography of Celine, and Happiness by Matthieu Ricard, matters not. By choosing love, tranquility, and comfort, in How Did I Get Here? he despairs that he has sold himself out on the most fundamental level. “Think how happy you’d be now, and how good your books would be, if only you’d have been more selfish,” he mourns.
Browner takes pains to be inclusive. He spreads his existential net wide enough to include anyone for whom necessity compels a choice between following his bliss and having and supporting a family, but his anguish is specific to a particular teeth-gnashing, navel-gazing, and surprisingly robust subculture: the writer with literary aspirations.
The contemporary “successful” author is one whose books are hotly anticipated, whose cunning masterpieces or intriguing flops are always a publishing event. She is short-listed for prestigious awards. She wins prestigious awards. The winning of the prestigious award lands her book on The New York Times Best Seller list, where it is the only book with any literary merit. The lecture circuit beckons. She earns five figures a pop to stand in front of a sold-out crowd offering the same thoughts she did in the last city. She lands all-expenses paid guest artist gigs in exotic locales. Equally prestigious A-List film directors option her next book before it’s published. She is offered a producer credit. She sits on the set in her personalized director chair. The Oscar-nominated movie catapults her previous novels (as well as the new one) back to the top of the bestseller lists. Oprah calls. (If you are Jonathan Franzen, you make a hash of it by insulting her, but that only further burnishes your reputation as someone to be taken seriously.)
There are maybe 11 writers on earth who’ve managed to garner this type of notoriety. “If you’re interested in being famous just for the sake of it, you’d be a moron trying to do it in my line of work,” writers Browner. And yet, plenty of us are morons, evidence that none of us have even a passing acquaintance with statistics.
Beneath our desire to have a voice in the cultural conversation, to be widely read and discussed, lies a mysterious compulsion. Browner’s essential pragmatism doesn’t prevent him from equating the writer’s calling with a medieval vassal serving his liege lord — “[. . .] both because you need to do it, but also because you do not doubt that you were born to serve and that the universal order is somehow appeased and upheld when you do so competently and willingly.”
This ability to serve your own calling generates a sense of fulfillment. The more fulfilled you are, the less your success or lack thereof bothers you. Success, Browner reminds us, is a label slapped on us by the world; but only we know if we are fulfilled. The trick, of course, is carving out enough time in order to write with enough energy and focus to experience fulfillment, which brings us back to Browner’s essential quandary: if you do not choose a life that prioritizes your work, have you in some fundamental way betrayed yourself?
Browner is a droll and erudite tour guide through his self-inflicted agony, diving deep into the broader unanswerable questions everyone eventually asks. What if I’d declined that job offer? Gone to law school? Married him instead of him? Moved to L.A.? Had the baby? Not had the baby? Said no to the in-laws moving into the guest bedroom? Eaten more leafy greens? The longer we live, the more forks appear in our individual roads, and the day arrives, as it did for Browner, in which we wonder how we got here. That it’s rarely a matter of making one splashy choice that changes everything is immaterial. We are almost never the last person to make the final train out of the war-torn city. Most of the time our choices aren’t even choices, but are merely the result of unwitting inertia.
Browner’s heartfelt struggle to reframe his understanding of his dilemma, and thus absolve himself right there on the page, gives his meditation heat and relevance. We are given to understand that once he married and fathered his children, his options narrowed. There was no question that the family might move to a less expensive city, or that he and his wife might settle upon one of those new-fangled arrangements whereby she carried the financial burden while he wrote for an agreed-upon number of years. His first commitment was to be a husband and father — a provider.
A series of mini-biographies of celebrated artists (also his sister, Nancy, and his wife’s maternal grandfather, Abraham Buchman, whose lives are no less epic), anchor Browner’s inquiry. Among them, acclaimed poet Jack Gilbert, one of the most famous poets of mid-20th century enjoyed Dyer-level amounts of freedom. Still, his great luck failed to provide the perfect loam in which his gifts might flower: Gilbert won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962. Rock star-like, he toured Europe on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Then, however, he disappeared from public life, and spent the next decades talking not about his poetry, but about how much better he was than everyone else for having no obligations, no family, no mortgage, no need to work hard or be respected or admired. Browner, who, at least in his writing, is the picture of equanimity, loses his shit completely, and it’s hugely entertaining. “[. . .] Jack Gilbert doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. For all his claims of being independent and above the fray, he is simply an ignorant snob, sneering at things he doesn’t understand because he’s afraid they might hold some value that he can’t grasp or hope to acquire.”
And then there’s Browner’s imaginary sit-down with perhaps the most famous civil servant writer of all, Franz Kafka, a high point in a book full of high points. He time-travels back to one of Kafka’s literary cafes, and the two of them have a heart to heart. Kafka is Browner’s civil servant doppelgänger. “I find it very painful to read Kafka’s complaints about the demands of his job, partly because they sound so much like my own.” For all his endless kvetching, Kafka had a pretty sweet gig. From reading his letters and diaries, you would think he was shackled to a rickety desk in an airless cubicle next to a co-worker with a communicable disease, but his job as a claims investigator for an insurance company was stimulating and well-compensated, including a workday that ended at 2:00 p.m. He had plenty of time to write, hang out in cafes, and chase the ladies. After reassuring Kafka that his oeuvre will live on into the 20th century, and he will be declared a genius of modern literature, Browner encourages him to stand by his choices. “Either we set out to make our living by our pen by writing what we know will sell enough to feed, clothe, and house us and our families, or we write precisely what suits us and we stop complaining.”
In the stories he tells and the questions he begs, Browner makes it clear he is actually examining his own path. This makes for a man’s story, and most of the lives he examines are those of men. Observations such as “[. . .] while there are many writers, artists, and philosophers who have insisted that you must dedicate your entire life to your vocation if you wish to see it to maturity, there are essentially none who claim that it’s better to live a life of divided attentions, distractions, and halfhearted stabs at making a little meaning for yourself and others.” This excludes all mothers, for whom divided attentions and distractions are a way of life, and the idea of devoting our lives to our vocation isn’t even on the table.
Browner and I don’t know each other (although he thanks me in his Acknowledgements for helping crowd-source his research — I answered a query he posted on Facebook), but we shared an editor at Bloomsbury for years, and I reviewed his first novel Conglomeros. At that juncture, in 1992, I was a few years down the road he had not taken.
In 1990, I published my first book and won a literary award, and the sum of the advance and the prize money equaled what I made in a year at the arts non-profit where I worked. This was it, I thought, my life as a writer has begun! I quit my job and haven’t had one since. Everything has gone into my writing. I had one child because I knew my then-husband, an independent filmmaker, and I wouldn’t be able to afford to raise more. (As an only child of an only child, I didn’t feel the urge some people possess to ensure their children have siblings.) After we divorced (two starving artists in one household), I supported myself, and then after I remarried, a new husband and his two children, all by my pen. My self-imposed rule for the many magazine assignments I accepted in order to make ends meet was that I needed to find some aspect of the story compelling. I refused to take just anything, and most of the time I didn’t have to. There was a lot of Top Ramen in my life. There were a lot of book advances that were generous, but not enough to ensure the publishing house threw everything they had into promoting my book. I had an advice column for a woman’s magazine. I drove hundreds of miles to teach workshops for $150 a pop. Sometimes, when I was lucky, I would have a big magazine piece due, a book review due, an essay due for an anthology and, like Browner, I found myself getting up in the wee hours to work on my novels. Needless to say, there were no juicy civil service-style benefits, aside from my hours being my own.
My tortured questions are the opposite of Browner’s: Would my writing have been better if I hadn’t relied on it to support myself and my family? If I had been able to write whatever I wanted, even if I only had a few hours a day in which to do it, would the work have been worthier? All it takes is one big novel to make a career — would I have been the next Harper Lee had I not taken Condé Nast Traveler up on their offer to send me to Palau for a scuba diving story? It’s not like I haven’t worked my ass off: for two decades I’ve practiced my craft, written from the heart, revised, revised, revised. And still, I am not Donna Tartt.
At the end of Browner’s imaginary conversation with Kafka, he comes to the conclusion that the great tortured modernist kept his civil servant job because a part of him liked it. Even though he believed it was keeping him from the most important thing in his life, his work. “The only possible Kafka was the Kafka who happened,” he writes.
Meanwhile, the great irony is that though Browner took one path, and I took the other, our careers aren’t all that dissimilar. We are, I’m bound to say, mid-listers, as are the vast majority of writers working today. We are generally well-respected, but no one’s panting after our next books. Each of us continues to struggle.
How Did I Get Here?, by turns hilarious, profound, and unexpected, leaves us to understand that while our lives may have wound up on a different shore than the one we’d set our sights on, that’s not such a bad thing. The only possible us is the us who happened.