Iused to cry at weddings. Mostly now I find myself cringing. I miss the days when a tottering officiant spouted a bunch of canned pablum and all the bride and groom had to do was say, “I do.” Instead we get carefully planned ceremonies in which the couple have composed lengthy vows that can sound like an embarrassing litany of problems in the relationship.
There are some friends I avoid when I’m trying to write a book. Unaccustomed to being around writers or academics, these friends don’t seem to get how the whole messy process of producing something of publishable quality works. They are wonderful, well-meaning people, but they say things that drive me nuts.
It’s not unusual for me to get messages from friends, former students and strangers asking for help with their running. When faced with these requests, I’m happy to hammer out a content-free pep talk, sharing slogans and koans that have helped me in the past. Or I just say, “You can totally do this,” even if I have no idea whether it’s true.
In an ideal world, whenever I was invited to give a talk or a lecture, it would go something like this:
I would spend a few weeks thinking about what I wanted to say. After a sufficient percolation period, I would sit at my computer and sweat out a complete draft.
Then I would spend months revising it, shoring up the structure, getting rid of ideas that didn’t fit, and dumping whatever seemed extraneous. I would add anecdotes, vivid images, and sparkling, funny phrases. I would hunt down -ly adverbs that seemed weak or lazy, and go on a search-and-destroy mission for needless this, that’s, and there’s. Finally, having driven myself crazy with perfectionist anxiety, I would tell myself I was ready.
Asked if he thought he had evolved as a writer, Patrick Modiano, the most recent Nobel laureate in literature said, “No, not really. The feeling of dissatisfaction with every book remains just as alive. I had a longtime recurring dream: I dreamt that I had nothing left to write, that I was liberated. I am not, alas. I am still trying to clear the same terrain, with the feeling that I’ll never get done.”
I’m at the kind of cocktail party where no one looks at you when they’re talking. Even your friends cast a restless gaze over your shoulder, trying to see who else is there, figuring out if a pass to get another glass of wine will position them in the path of someone else, someone better, to talk to.
Many writers I know love Joyce Carol Oates—some even refer to her as JCO, as if she were a brand as recognizable as CBS or BMW. But just as often, the mention of her name is met by groans and complaints about how much she’s written. Her productivity seems like an affront.
When someone’s doing a lot more than you, you notice it. It brings out your petty jealousy. And if you’re like me (occasionally petty and jealous), it might make you feel crappy about yourself. Which is, let’s face it, ridiculous. No one else’s achievements take anything away from yours, or mine. The fact that another writer is working hard and well should be nothing more than inspiration, or at least a gentle prod.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press. In another life, 25 years ago, I was a young editor at the press and Pfund was an editorial assistant. Besides reminiscing about those days, I was interested to know what one of the oldest and most prestigious university presses was up to in terms of marketing.