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The Writer and Pynchon’s Concept of “Twinning”

Office scene from the movie "Brazil"

The dichotomy between “day-job self” and “writer self” can be demoralizing or, worse, deadly.

So, here I find myself arrived at that stage of life in which the passing of the sands through the hourglass has evolved beyond hoary metaphor into palpable reminder of my long sacrifice of calling to day job. I seem daily to grow more desperate and panicky over finding a way to reconcile the two in a way that might allow me to realize at least one or two more of the numerous works I’ve been gestating before the last grain of sand runs out.

Now, my idea of summer reading being, perhaps, nonstandard, I’ve also embarked on another plow through the Thomas Pynchon oeuvre. And so it was I came across the following passage in his novel V:

She knew instinctively: he will be fine as the fraternity boy just out of an Ivy League school who knows he will never stop being a fraternity boy as long as he lives. But who still feels he is missing something, and so hangs at the edges of the Whole Sick Crew. If he is going into management, he writes. If he is an engineer or architect why he paints or sculpts. He will straddle the line, aware up to the point of knowing he is getting the worst of both worlds, but never stopping to wonder why there should ever have been a line, or even if there is a line at all. He will learn how to be a twinned man and will go on at the game, straddling until he splits up the crotch and in half from the prolonged tension, and then he will be destroyed.

Never a fraternity boy, familiar with the Ivy League only by happenstance of geographic proximity to Cambridge and Providence earlier in life, this passage still struck a little too close to home. I’m all too aware, I’m afraid, of Pynchon’s concept of “learning to be a twinned man.” Though Pynchon doesn’t explicitly explain the concept, I believe (based on my own experience) he’s talking about a situation in which the writer splits into day-job man and writer man. At work, day-job man is never satisfied, always thinking of the time he’s squandering, nearly paralyzed to the point of not being able do his job, because preoccupied with worry over deferring work on his fiction. On the other hand, writer man leaves his workday demoralized, de-energized, walking dead, convinced he’s made a deadly compromise, one that walls him off from the creative life he should be living–hardly a state in which he is capable of tapping the imagination to shape the music of his word hoard.

A war of mutually assured destruction between your “day-job self” and “writer self” is not inevitable.

Pynchon’s twinning is something any writer with a serious day job career needs to be conscious of, and fight against. Failure to do so just might, as Pynchon says, “destroy” you (however you care to define “destroy”). And it seems to be a battle never won: just when you think you’ve made a unifying accommodation, you find yourself once again twinning. At times, this has been for me a great source of anguish and depression, and one I have to be on guard against. Indeed, it’s caused me to essentially abandon writing for long periods of time, so wearied from the fight I’d become. But, inevitably, the compulsion to try to realize my visions has returned, as it always does–perhaps never having truly gone away. And I’ve rejoined the fight.

Words of Advice for Young Writers

My advice to young writers who haven’t yet become enmeshed in a serious day-job career is to go to your private “mountain” and do some deep soul searching about just how important your work as a writer is to you. Try to account for all the things you believe you have to say, or might have to say, all the visions you yearn to realize; try to evaluate how important to you the time you spend writing is compared to other things in your life (including friendships); try to imagine yourself in a situation in which you have a burning vision for a certain work, but little time to execute that vision–can you see yourself coming up with strategies to work around the obstacles? Or will such a scenario drive you nuts?

Young? Passionate? Committed? Accept living hand to mouth and give your writing your best shot before bogging down in a serious day job.

If, having come back down from the mountain, the young writer finds himself convinced of his vision and on fire, above all other things, with the need to create, then I would advise that young writer to accept the life of hand-to-mouth, of limited options, and focus on the work. When young, you can endure just about anything and you have an excess of energy and passion to realize your vision you won’t necessarily find at a later stage of life. You can worry about the money and the things it can do for you later.

If you’re young and you believe in what you’re doing, go for it. But also be prepared to accept the consequences of going for it. Remember that your parents, your girlfriend or boyfriend, society in general, and perhaps even your friends (if you’ve chosen them unwisely) will heap great pressure on you to land a “good job,” to pursue a “worthwhile career,” to “succeed.” You need to draw on heavy reserves of courage and perseverance to withstand that pressure.

Also remember that, once you start down the path of a day-job career, it becomes harder and harder to let go of that career. Over time, you erect the famous “cage with golden bars”: having amassed assets like savings, a decent car (or any car!), maybe a house; having advanced to the point where you can salve your drab existence with the occasional indulgence in a fine restaurant, an expensive wine, craft beer, vacations to exotic locales; having created a new life with spouse, and maybe even kids, it becomes that much harder, if not impossible, to let all that go and throw yourself into the work you feel called to do.

I’m interested to hear what strategies others with serious, full-time caress have devised to keep their writing on track. Use the comments section to tell us how you get it done!

Strategies for Us Older Cats Saddled With Careers

But if, like me, it’s too late for you to alter course, do not abandon hope. I think strategies do exist to combat the twinning Pynchon describes in V. With a little consciousness and tenacity, you can negotiate peaceful coexistence between your day-job self and your writer self. I’m not saying it’s easy, and as I’ve noted the twinning process is like a weed with deep roots in your psyche. But, if you acknowledge the fact the weed will always try to sprout anew, you can prepare yourself with a few tools for digging it out. Dig it out enough times and maybe it won’t grow back.

  • Remember: twinning is not inevitable. If you read the Pynchon quote carefully, you’ll see Pynchon’s narrative entity make the following hedge: “He will straddle the line, aware up to the point of knowing he is getting the worst of both worlds, but never stopping to wonder why there should ever have been a line, or even if there is a line at all.” [emphasis mine] So, you can make the case (as I think Pynchon does) that this line that separates the “frat boy” from “the Whole Sick Crew” (of bohemian/creative types) is in many ways artificial and self created. It is within you to own your thoughts and control your perspective on this. So, should you find yourself twinning, don’t allow yourself to descend into the feedback loop of despair. Tell yourself what’s done is done, I have a job, I write, I can do one reasonably well (job) and one very well (writing). There’s no need to punish myself by pitting each of these aspects of my life against each other. This will not help me create!
  • Stop complaining and do your job! This advice might seem odd, but I’ve found if you apply yourself to accomplishing your tasks at work, you free your mind and allow it to open up in ways that will support your creative work. When you complete your day-job tasks, they won’t be hanging over your conscience when you’re trying to write. My guess is that most people can accomplish the duties of their day job–if they’d stop pouting and complaining and procrastinating–in about four or five hours. Use the balance to work on your fiction. At minimum, get yourself to a comfortable environment away from your desk during lunch hour and write.
  • Stop complaining and write! We all know there are a thousand reasons not to write, but not writing makes us miserable! So write, dummy! Turn off your internal censor, and perhaps your finicky, perfectionist, internal Felix Unger, and write. Try to meet all your major complaints head on, and keep meeting them head on:
    • Need to be in “my space” to write? Take yourself to the least advantageous spot you can think of for writing (pro wrestling match, noisy construction site, stationary bike at the gym, etc.), then sit there and write!
    • Convinced you always need a few free hours to write? Set yourself the task of writing for 10 minutes every hour–but no more than 10. Just do it! And keep doing it.
    • Only like to write on your cherished laptop? Pick up a stubby number 2 pencil and a notebook and write!

    Take on all of these self-created, artificial “needs” in this way and soon enough you’ll find the writer in you never really goes away. What’s more, writing eases your conscience and allows you to focus on your day-job tasks in the knowledge you’re getting your writing done and, hey, the day job’s only a temporary drag on your time after all–soon you will be back at work on that ground-breaking novel.

  • Create a transition ritual that eases you out of the workday and into a frame of mind conducive to writing. I’ve described the one that works for me in How I Hit the Reset Button to Clear My Mind for Writing. Another ritual might work better for you. The essential point, however, is to empty the mind of the workday in helpful ways. (Drinking a six-pack of beer is definitely not indicated–never drink and write. The life you save may be your own!)
  • Remind yourself: great writers have had day jobs. Kafka? Functionary in an insurance company. Hawthorne? Customs agent. William Carlos Williams? General practitioner. T.S. Eliot? Functionary at Lloyd’s of London. Vonnegut? Manager at a Saab dealership. Orwell? Officer in the Indian Imperial Police. Breton? Proust’s proofreader and, later, secretary and adviser to a wealthy art collector. Robbe-Grillet? Agronomist. So, you’re not alone. Indeed, you’re in good company! Consider how you’re following in the footsteps of other great writers who came before you, making an honest living and also honing your craft. The future, as ever, remains unwritten.
  • Set both short-term and long-term goals for your writing and writing career. Goals can be a great motivator and serve as an affective yardstick of progress. The obvious short-term goal is to average one page per day. At the end of year, you have a novel! Other short-term goals might be to write without internal censor (then grade yourself after each session on how well you succeeded), to submit one short story every two months, to spend a half hour writing under disadvantageous circumstances three times a week–you name it. Your long-term goal depends on how serious you want to take things. My long-term goal is to amass a publishing record successful enough to allow me to make writing, and teaching writing, my primary career. What’s yours?

So, for you writers of a certain age whose day-job careers have already taken you beyond the point of no return, you needn’t succumb to Pynchon’s “twinning” or otherwise bifurcating into a “day-job self” and “writer self” engaged in an ongoing war of mutually assured destruction. Try these strategies for moving your writing career forward even as you pursue the day job. And always keep an eye on making, one day, writing your career primary.

I’m interested to hear what strategies others with serious, full-time careers have devised to keep their writing on track. Use the comments section to tell us how you get it done!

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