Salinger, To Choose the World or Not


Salinger chose writing over all else. But maybe that was the only choice he could make.

Dylan and I watched the documentary Salinger a couple days ago, and I’m a bit perplexed by the message my husband came away with: if you want to be a real writer, you have to hole yourself up in a bunker and reject the world. Do I believe this? No way! But Dylan is the kind of writer who needs long stretches of quiet solitude to feel like he can produce, so he related more to Salinger’s proclivities than I did. He feels resigned to the notion that, because he’s chosen a life of moderation, a life that includes a job, a wife, and maybe children, he has sacrificed his writer’s life. In other words, my husband is a man of extremes, and his natural writing process is a lot more tedious than mine. He tells me that this makes it no fun at all, a real burden sometimes.

I’m also made of extremes, but of a different kind. I write in frantic bursts or not at all with all sorts of chaos going on around and inside me. I thrive on it. If I feel the energy and the idea, I put it on the page. If I don’t, I go about my life doing other things. This is no way to produce writing on a regular basis, but I feel alive when I am writing, and it’s never felt like a burden.

At one point in the Salinger documentary, his ex-lover, Joyce Maynard, recounted that Salinger had told her this about why she would never amount to anything: “Your problem is that you’re in love with the world.” For some reason that statement made me very sad. It told me something very personal about J.D. Salinger, and maybe something important about myself. Salinger was at war with the world, and after (and during) WWII, he fought that war on the page. He felt that the world was out to get him, and maybe it was, seeing that he was living in the sick, capitalist, sell-out culture that Holden Caulfield railed against in The Catcher in the Rye, the culture that cares more about making money than making art.

I think I’m like Joyce. I’m in love with the world, and maybe that’s my downfall, but I don’t think so. The world is part of me, and me of it. And no amount of holing oneself away will change that.

What version of the writer’s life have you found to work for you? Maybe I can compile a bunch of ideas for new ways of thinking about this dilemma and share them with my husband so his process doesn’t feel like such a burden anymore.


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I can’t remember who said that his or her ideal situation as a writer would be a completely silent room in a house, with a door opening to a raging party.

    I think everybody figures out their own ideal situation, their own rules. For me, withdrawal or isolation can be important, but so can interaction with the world.

    I think the rules we make for ourselves become a kind of burden — and that we might benefit from examining them and breaking them.

  • JaimeRWood says:

    I agree, Sam. I feel like a lot of my rules, and Dylan’s, may come from a place of anxiety, an implied “what if I can’t do this” about writing. Breaking them, or at least questioning why they’re there, seems important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *