Reading at Risk

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(Host) The recent results of the NEA’s Reading at Risk survey prompted commentator Caleb Daniloff to revisit the plight of the struggling writer.

(Daniloff) As if the rejections, writer’s block, loneliness, frustrating editors, self-loathing, depression, debt, and lack of time weren t enough, another arrow has been slung – fewer Americans than ever are reading, according to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts. And in an ironic compounding of matters, there was a spike in the pursuit of creative writing. The music gets faster, more chairs get taken away. God only knows what keeps the struggling writer in the game.

It was a good time to take stock. The NEA report was actually the most recent in a series of moments that prompted in me such self-reflection.

The first was a bittersweet documentary called The Stone Reader. About one bibliophile s effort to rehabilitate his favorite author who disappeared after writing a single novel thirty years ago.

Another was a New Yorker article on writer’s block. One writer featured was the legendary Joseph Mitchell. After years of brilliant profiles and essays, Mitchell stopped publishing. He still came into The New Yorker offices every day, but nothing materialized. Of course, across the border in New Hampshire, J.D. Salinger is holed up doing God knows what.

My own writerly apprenticeship has included journalism, book-reviewing and a graduate writing program in New York. For two blissful years, I lived and breathed writing. But I mistook my MFA for a literary achievement. After graduation, I moved back to Vermont and smacked up against the real world. I took another reporter’s job but suffered the entire time from a sort of post-partum depression.

Vermont is thick with fabulous writers. But where was the literary ladder? Or even the nails and wood. I tried freelancing, living off savings and credit cards. I spent my days writing book reviews and occasional articles. I pitched editors and agents on larger projects. I soon mastered the art of procrastination – vacuuming, cleaning, hours at the gym. The result is a box of aborted novels, poems, a half-finished memoir, and rejection letters.

But the painstaking struggle since my heady grad school days has put me back in touch with the reasons writing gripped me in the first place. There is a sense of mental and emotional clarity in putting words on paper, in finding that poignant metaphor or perfect sentence rhythm. A place where I don’t question my confidence or obsess over last night’s dinner conversation, where problems can be puzzled out and the mind free to wander, where contradictions can be embraced, and sometimes reconciled. During non-writing hours, my thinking is more muddled, my memory spotty, my moments more anxious.

Speaking of anxiety, one notable item from the NEA report was the increase in religious reading. In tense times, that made sense. For the struggling writer, times are always tense. Perseverance almost always comes down to faith.

Last year, grappling with debt, I took a job as a copywriter. I silently considered the move to be the demise of my writing ambitions. But I soon found the work informative, and my bosses as masterful with words as any grad school professor. My writing since has never been more productive, the task ahead never clearer.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.

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