Lives of the Civil Servants: The Choices We Make

Jesse Browner

I did not start out with the intention of writing this essay as a sort of capsule Dr. Browner and Mr. Dyer, in which I vacillate schizophrenically between veneration and execration of my inner Geoff, but it seems to be turning out that way because ultimately, it would appear that there is no getting around the question: What is the best way for an artist to live? I did not invent the question and so cannot be blamed for asking it; it was thrust upon me, as it was thrust upon Dyer, when aristocratic patronage went the way of the Ptolemaic model of the universe. I don’t even need to ask it; it asks itself, like an oversensitive car alarm set off by the flimsiest of stimuli—when I find myself still at the office at 9 PM, when I’m helping my daughters with their homework, when I’m sorting out a year’s worth of tax-deductible receipts every March, when I rest my forehead gently on my desk and long for a millennial sleep. Could there be a better way? I know there must be, and despise myself for being unable to fix it. It makes me feel weak, lazy, undisciplined, fearful—ordinary.

Did I give up the possibility of being a great novelist for the worldly pleasures of a life at which I have only been a modest success?

Worst of all is the self-pity, when I know that I should wake up every day with a song of gratitude on my lips for all that I have been given, and bless the unearned good fortune that puts healthy food on my plate, keeps my children comfortably sheltered and superbly educated, and persuades my wife to love me despite all my failings, at the negligible cost of making it slightly more inconvenient to sit down and type out my thoughts once a day for a world that awaits my every epiphany with bated breath. Could it be true that, beyond the “to thine own self be true” platitudes, my life as a hard-working civil servant—refracted through the prism of Dyer’s international adventures as a witty, chiseled, dimple-chinned, Oxford-educated playboy—may in fact offer some reasonably valuable object lessons?

The short, and obvious, answer to the question is no, there is no right, prescribed way for the artist to live. Most of us are familiar enough with the lives of the artists to understand that between the extremes—Proust’s years confined to a cork-lined bedroom, say, or Boethius’s imprisonment, at one end; and Kerouac’s completion of On the Road in three weeks, at the other—lies a vast multitude of viable and less viable alternatives. Famous authors and poets have made livings as doctors, soldiers, diplomats, courtiers, academics, dentists, magazine editors, landed gentry, you name it. Some, like Kafka, Melville, and Flann O’Brien, have even been civil servants. There are very few conditions that are fundamentally essential to the composition of a novel. You no longer even need pen and paper. But you do need time and solitude, and I lack a sufficiency of both, so to that extent a career in the civil service is not one I would necessarily recommend to the young writer.

Yet what is the alternative? I am what some, including me, might describe as a B-list novelist. I am lucky enough to continue to publish, but to date my books have made little money for anyone, especially me. A few of my writer friends make a handsome living from their work; many more are like me, authors for whom an advance is just enough to pay off the debts accumulated in the course of writing the book; and the vast majority make nothing at all because they remain unpublished for years or even decades before things fall into place. We all need to eat, and many of us have children to feed, house, and clothe. A lot of us teach, but that avenue was cut off for me when I failed my very first course in grad school and dropped out after three months. With hard work, one can still patch together a modest income from freelance writing assignments—book reviews, food and travel pieces, translations, grant proposals, celebrity interviews, and whatnot—but that path has become increasingly precarious with the slow but accelerating ossification of the magazine industry. In any case, I know from personal experience that it is a very stressful way to make a living, and any freedom it wins you to devote yourself to your own projects is more than counterbalanced by the constant worry of nailing down the next assignment and paying the bills. It is very difficult to focus on your work when you are always stressed about money. And that, I have to remind myself, is one of the reasons I entered the civil service. I rarely take my work home with me, physically or figuratively, and when I do sit down before dawn to write, my mind is clouded by no such mundane concerns, and is free to roam. It is an odd but very concrete iteration of freedom, though one that Geoff Dyer might not recognize.

Still, even after all these years, I remain plagued by the fear that I have made the wrong choice. I have known since early adolescence that all I needed to do in this world was to write novels, and I carried that sense of entitlement with me deep into adulthood. My youthful infatuation with the Surrealists and the Beats had convinced me that artists were the true aristocrats of this world, and that the writing life was glorious, glamorous, and honorable. I was sincerely shocked when the first of my college friends opted out of bohemia to enroll in law school. I had thought we were all going to be artists together. As I drifted through my twenties, writing and discarding several manuscripts, and saw that this was not going to be the case, the thinning of our ranks only served to convince me that it was a good thing to be perpetually angry and contrary, because it was proof that I alone, among the lawyers and editors and promoters and other sellouts who had once called themselves artists, had kept the flame alive and been loyal to the dream.

I’m older now, and I don’t tend to make my wife and children as miserable as I once did by bitterly eulogizing that chimera. I am able to endure with reasonably straight-faced equanimity the fact that I have only very partially fulfilled any of my ambitions. Yes, I’ve published five books, but none has been as good as the masterpieces I admire or once imagined myself capable of writing. It is possible that I may yet write one that is, which is why I keep at it, but it is unlikely that my masterpiece will be written at four in the morning.

And what have I gained in the bargain? I have been a good father, but not a great one—never as patient, loving, or selfless as I might have been; I have been a good husband and companion to my wife, but have made her unhappy too often; I do not call my aging father as much as I might; I have not been as generous or empathetic with my friends in need as I should have been. I am not even the best dog owner; although I love my dog dearly, and often tell her she’s the best dog in the world, I find myself jerking at her leash whenever she loiters too long over some stain on the sidewalk. So did I give up the possibility of being a great novelist for the worldly pleasures of a life at which I have only been a modest success? Or have I sacrificed my capacity to be a really good person—beloved by those who know him but not admired by strangers—to a fancy that was always ill-advised at best, or neurotic and unattainable at worst?