The Writer in Exile 

jeffrey bundonis sunrise Photo credit: Jeffrey Bondonis

James Joyce believed that a writer is always in exile. When a writer makes a wrong choice he becomes paralyzed, rootbound, stagnate. This is certainly true of the writer born into a family, into a society and culture that limits his spirit.

To write well, the writer must write truth. Even when he is writing lies, the truth always ripples beneath the surface. 

Artists possess a bold curiosity and an independent spirit. It is not often in the history of good literature that these qualities were nourished in the artists place of birth. While individual parents may have sought to encourage their budding artist in their midst, most of them were constrained by societal norms. And these norms they naturally tried to form in their little artist. 

But writers are not conformists. Their brains are hardwired to dissect and question, to constantly bombard those around them with the infernal question, “But why?”

The first rule learned as a writer is “write what you know.” Perhaps this is where exile becomes so important. Because writing what you know, in the place where you grew up, can have disastrous consequences. There is also the problem of not being able to ‘write what you know’ because the writer doesn’t know what he knows. 

Society and religion and family layer masks on a person. One by one until the person fits the desired mold of commonality and conformity. It is a writer’s duty to remove the masks because beneath them he will find his artist spirit. 

Willa Cather once said that on arriving in the new frontier of Nebraska that she felt an “erasure of personality.” This is what a writer achieves in exile. The mask ridden personality is erased, leaving a blank slate ready to be filled up with new sights and sounds, new revelations of spirit. 

Willa Cather says, “When one comes to write, all that you have been taught leaves you, all that you have stolen lies discovered. You are then a translator, without a lexicon, without notes. You have then to give voice to the hearts of men, and you can do it only so far as you have known them, loved them. It is a solemn and terrible thing to write a novel.” 

Isn’t exile painful? Of course it is. We humans resist the unfamiliar, we shy away from pain. In exile, we learn reality. Those we left behind are all exposed in their true light. Those we newly encounter, we now see through their masks. 

Sarah Orne Jewett wrote to Cather in 1908, “You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that.” In order to reach that quiet center you must be willing to smash the masks you wear, even if it means choosing the road that Joyce chose, the road towards exile. 

Copyright 2001 Karen Yvonne Hamilton