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The Writing Trade
John Jerome
A Year in the Life of a Writer
Published by Lyons & Burford in 1990
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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In the year of 1989, when momentous events such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the election of Václav Havel, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, and the freedom fighters in Tiananmen Square occurred, John Jerome wrote a journal of his activities as a free lance writer in which none of these matters were mentioned. This is, instead, a job journal, a log of the circadian rhythms of the at-home work activities of a writer.

Where does his money come from?
Where does it go?
Where do his ideas come from?
Where do they go?
How does he spend his time?
How does he divide his time between writing and doing errands and odd jobs around the house?

In an occupation in which every activity can be defined as research work for a future writing project, how does he create time to relax and play? This book is Jerome's answer to these and many other questions. It is the culmination of a year-long writing project that he undertook to record and describe his own writing life, his writing trade — it was the one activity that went almost un-mentioned in this book, which book is the very result of this activity.

Where does his money come from? From his Running Log which is a daily calendar he writes each year. From the advances for his current book project. From articles he writes for magazines from time to time. From rare royalty checks.

Where does it go? To the mortgage payments, taxes, food, and utility bills of everyday life. And when the money goes out faster than it comes in, a short-term bank loan helps to make the latest tax payment. What Jerome gives the reader is a keen sense of the motivation to write that comes from a nagging lack of money to pay bills. In addition he leads us to consider the amount of a book advance spread over the period of time required to research, to write the book, and to nurture it into publication during subsequent re-writing, editing, and proofing stages. Considered in this light, Jerome figures his hourly salary to be about equal to that of his local milk delivery man and must content himself with the illusion that to live the life he cherishes as a writer makes it all worth while.

Where do his ideas come from? Mostly from the outwardly least productive part of his daily routine as he walks the 'loop' — a mile and a half hilly path that leads from his house into the forest and back again. During his walk with his dogs, the dogs roam free and so do his thoughts. He organizes in his mind a piece of writing he's beginning to work on, he re-organizes a piece of writing he's editing, and he muses over ideas for new writing projects to help pay that impending property tax bill. His delightful descriptions of the seasonal changes in nature along the loop is a bonus for the reader. Reading these descriptions reminded me of my trail bike rides through the Foxborough State Park in southeastern Massachusetts, which performed many of the same functions for me when I managed a large software department for several years. During my lunch break, I'd walk home in five minutes, grab a quick bite, and take off on my bike. Soon I'd be flying over pine-needle covered trails through the forest, up and down steep hills, past waterfalls, the granite quarry, and back home on a new trail I'd never tried before to park the bike and walk back to work before the end of my lunch hour.

Through Jerome's very personal notes, we learn of his projects, plans, ideas as well as his fears, disappointments, and joys. He begins each chapter with a quote from a well-known writer about the writing trade, and one of his favorites is Annie Dillard, judged by the number of times he quotes her. Here are two responses Dillard gave to the question that every writer gets on occasion by a wannabe writer: "Do you think I could be a writer?" —

"I don't know . . . Do you like sentences?"
"Do you like being alone in a small room in the company of pieces of paper?"
After reading this book, my answer to that question might be, "Have you read The Writing Trade?"

I'm sitting here in front of my fireplace keeping warm as I write this review on a lapdesk all the while there's a leak from our washing machine that needs tending to as soon as I get finished writing this, and some red beans are soaking in water that need to be cooked for supper. My 'loop' is to walk around Timberlane to view the current state of the plants and trees and do some trimming or re-planting as required. It is my way of refreshing my brain by focusing on things in nature outside of it for a few minutes at odd times during the day.

Before I leave Jerome's book there are some quotable pieces that I've marked to be shared with you.

[page xii of the Foreword] One horrifying rule of thumb of the freelance life is that one must make twice what a wage-earner makes in order to pay one's own "benefits".

The corollary to this from the employer's side is that if you hire someone for a salary of X dollars, your cost is 2X, so in order to make a profit, their work must bring in 3X dollars. Thus it is that most salesmen who work solely on commissions rarely are paid more than one-third of the net profit of their sales.

[page 6] What I'm trying to do here — this halting effort to set out the circumstances from which a book is supposed to emerge — is what some writers call establishment: imparting a sufficient amount of information to get the reader comfortable in the room, so to speak.

This is what I endeavor in my reviews: "to impart a sufficient amount of information to get the reader comfortable" with the book so that they will want to read the book for themselves.

Jerome quotes his favorites writers on writing, like Melville, who says about editing that you strive to make "each sentence show its passport." Or W. B. Yeats who talked of writing as the process of "little sedentary stitches, as if we were making lace." If one doesn't like making stitches, one should not attempt the making of lace.

Sometimes Jerome's words are eminently quotable:

[page 38] Writing is a process of going over and over the material endlessly, getting what you're trying to say driven into a corner.

Or in these metaphors on page 63:

The process of rewriting is mostly a process of fighting through that thicket of sentences, cutting back to the one that says what's actually meant.

When I'm working in this way, I have the feeling I'm falling on the subject like a terrier on a rat — shaking it, twisting it, pummeling it, throwing it up in the air and trying to catch it in new ways.

I'd prefer to rewrite — I do in my fantasies — as if bolting together a spherical diving bell. Too much torque on one nut will cause it to gap somewhere else; I want to work my way over the surface systematically, pulling a sentence taut here, finding then a little more slack over there, on the other side, to take up. When I'm done, I should be able to dip the product in a tank and find it finally airtight.

Or his thoughts on the difficulty of writing a transition between two discrete thoughts on a subject:

[page 70] To write the transition you have to find out why; you don't get the right to make the leap until you get at the reason underneath.

That's because the reason underneath is what's being communicated. The soul-streaming of meaning from one soul to another will fall apart unless the writer uncovers the reason underneath. Once the writer knows what that reason is, the reader will be in a position to be able to know.

When T. George Harris put Jerome's name on the masthead of American Health as a contributing editor, Jerome asked him if there was a reward connected with the honor, and received this reply from Harris:

[page 123] "Well, we can't pay you anything," T. George said, "but I like to think of the printing press as a kind of prayer wheel. When it's spinning out pages with your name on them, it has to be doing you some good, doesn't it?"

Jerome offers this insight to young readers and young writers:

[page 218] As a young reader, when you come across a writer who speaks personally to you, you think, Thank God there's someone else in the world who understands. As you get older and read someone who sees things as you see them, you think, I could've said that. Damn, I could've thought that, I could've had that insight.

After hearing someone on the radio mention that every word is a metaphor Jerome writes:

[page 215] Not a terribly original observation, but it struck home: here we are with this capacity for language, the tool with which we've built this incredible civilization. And yet the capacity for language itself specifically freezes us at the symbolic level, permanently divorced from the experience of the real world. We are incurably afloat in a sea of words, of symbolic representation, and can't cut through to the thing itself. It is the Word that makes us so powerful, and that prevents us from seeing the actuality that the Word represents.

The insight that every word was once a living metaphor, that it pointed to a real live thing or event, was a terribly original observation when it was first written clearly and concisely. While this capacity of language may "freeze us at the symbolic level," it, at the same time, frees us at the spiritual level by encouraging us to imagine the actuality that the word points to, hints at, but can never represent directly. Whenever an original thought, a new connection between two disparate things or events, is made, a metaphor that points to the living reality underlying and connecting the two items is preferable to the simple statement that the two items are connected. For example, consider what Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet says about Love: "Let it be a moving sea between the shores of your souls."

The one book project that occupied Jerome for the year of his life was Stone Work, which we follow into publication and subsequent reviews, some good and some not so good. In the chapter November he says he received the worst review ever:

[page 217] The reviewer said that for someone to write a book about building a stone wall and then to get it published represents the end of civilization as we know it.

Someone once said of love "that no other joy is worth all of its pains" — the same might be said of the writing profession.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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