My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)
Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.
By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.
When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.
When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.
When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?
When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.
When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.
When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.
When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.
When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.
When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.
When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!
When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.
Such is my literary life.