Why Don’t You Try Writing Something?

October 1, 2009 § 3 Comments


I was having coffee with a writer friend of mine yesterday, and we talked about disappointment. She hasn’t finished anything in a long time—at least that’s what she says. She has finished her novel, more than once, but agents have rejected it. I finished a novel a couple of years ago that my agent is now trying to sell and another one that I will send out very soon.

My friend told me she was envious of how good my new book was, and asked why I wasn’t excited. “I don’t let myself be excited anymore,” I said. “I can’t. When I’m writing and it’s going well—then, yeah—but not at this stage.” Until we spoke of it, I hadn’t realized how relentlessly I was deadening that pride and pleasure one should feel in a job well done.

I used to feel it too much, so in love with my own words I couldn’t hear criticism easily, or make cuts without agonizing over it. Now I think my evaluation of my ability is far closer to the truth, but my talent and skill are not what worry me. My networking and self-promotional abilities have always been sorely lacking; if they’re any better now, it’s only because age dulls some social fears, and because blogging doesn’t require physical presence. But whatever progress I’ve made is surely wiped out by the greater demands of this era.

More profoundly, I feel cursed, even though I know, as much as one can know, that perseverance is the only blessing there is. I love reason and science so much because I am by nature superstitious. Fantasy is the genre I picked, once I decided to let ‘literary’ fiction bide awhile, because my childhood imagination was full of supernatural creatures and I still feel more comfortable with them than with people savvy in the ways of the ‘real’ world.

But there’s more to it. When I hear of writers working very hard to promote their books, I feel disoriented: books are for reading and writing. They’re like a good joke. If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work. Whenever I read a lavishly praised novel, I feel cheated: both that it isn’t what it was claimed to be, and that what it is has been somehow ruined. What makes a novel good is how it fits into the world, not how it stands above it. The last good novel I read was The White Tiger. It was gritty and particular as a subway ride. It was nothing like its reviews.

Tuesday, I was talking to my agent about looking for work editing fiction (freelance). I told her I was very good at it; that I had a talent for seeing where the story was, and where it could go, and was good at encouraging and inspiring writers. This is true. Many writers have told me so. I have no doubt that anyone who pays me to critique a novel will be getting excellent value. But it still feels uncomfortable to praise myself. I kept thinking: why should she believe me? Anyone can say they’re good. On the other hand, I liked saying it. It was like going out into the fresh air.


Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”

–James Tate

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