Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Footrace

A student in her twenties has told you she is quite passionate about her wish to become a writer.  To that effect, while pursuing a rigorous course of study and making the performance of The Dean's List (of distinguished students), she has asked you for hints, clues, and advice.  To this extent, you're pleased.  Having a committed and engaged student in a class is a significant boost to your own engagement and performance.  Having a student ask for advice and counsel beyond the range of the syllabus is the equivalent of icing on the cake.

The problem begins when this student informs you how, notwithstanding your apparent ability to cite examples from a large selection of books from about the eighteenth century until the present day, she does not see the value of becoming "that" kind of reader, what she calls the "historical reader."

She has a list of about a hundred canonical books, only about forty percent of which are fiction, from which she is content to draw.  While she agrees with you to the point of having written with some eloquence about the need for reading, her thrust is toward books written in the twenty-first century.  Seventeenth through twentieth century books in fact tend to bore her; she wants modern.  She takes the matter a step farther yet by saying she can "get all that other stuff" from you and her other instructors.  She can, she says, even read books about the books of past centuries.  Her interest is on the present moment, the now, which she manages to capitalize to Now when speaking about it.

Although you understand and sympathize with her position, you cannot endorse it because you hope to live long enough to write a book about nineteenth century American eccentrics, which will, you believe, sell another thousand or so more copies on the basis of a chapter you hope to include demonstrating how American eccentrics of the twentieth and twenty-first century could not have appeared on stage already formed; they had to have had some influential guidance from the past.

Your student, who was, you remind her, born in the last century, concedes your point, but has more or less drawn her line in the metaphoric sand at the mid-point of the twentieth century, insistent that the types, motives, and cultural themes from that point forward are more or less updated versions of themes from the past.  

Of course she wants to know of Cicero's oratory skills, but her greater curiosity is for the oratory of Martin Luther King.  Of course she has a sympathetic eye for the hubris of kings within Shakespeare, but "we" had Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush.

When you step forth to argue, you recall another book you wish to last long enough to write, in which you, hubris in hand, wish to write a book called Studies in Classic American Literature.  You understand a title cannot be copyrighted.  Nevertheless you intend to add vol 2 to your title in order to make sure you are in a sense usurping D.H. Lawrence, author of vol. 1.  You could just as well thought to compile a series of essays about more modern significant American writers.

The fact is, you were inspired to think of your project because of your admiration for the Lawrence and your wish to have those who have not read him become curious to do so.  Further, you like the notion of contemporary writers in effect entering conversations with writers of past generations by writing the literary equivalents of variations on a theme.

You and your student are two individuals,holding up lit candles in the darkness, each for the equivalent of a different cause.  What amazes you is the extraordinary number of wish-to-become writers who are confident in their belief that reading a book or two, say Aristotle's Poetics, and E. M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel, will provide sufficient information and awareness of craft to allow the dream of becoming a writer to be reached sooner than farther down the line, perhaps even NOW.

A year or so back, you have an experience with an author who objected strenuously to some comments you'd made about a work in what you believed to be in progress.  Oh, no, she assured you, you're wrong.  That book has already been published.  Because you could not believe any of the more traditional publishers would take the work on--for one thing, there was no real story--you asked who the publisher was.  And her answer:  The book was self published.  It did not need an editor because the "writer" had a number of books published.  No need to mention these were also self published.

Then there was the time an individual hired you to produce an editorial report on a project for a writer he much admired.  This, too, was a self published project, which meant an enormous statistical challenge awaited it.  True, some self published books are taken on by traditional publishers.  Those projects are few and far between, requiring proof of significant sales.  Your editorial report compared the similarities of the project under review to a number of already published works by other writers.

When you met with the writer to turn in your report, she immediately wondered ho you'd had the time to make all the comparisons and suggestions you did, given your own work schedule.  She was quick to admit she had no time to waste on reading.  You could have said that much was evident, but instead you observed that most successful writers you knew were omnivorous readers.  "Don't have time to look up such words as that,"  she said.

There was no point in saying what you could have said to her.  What words--three initials, really--you did have were for your ears only.

Writers or not, we are all of us in some aspect of a footrace with our own mortality and our real and imagined responsibilities in reality.  The writers you know and find to be admirable understand the exigencies of this footrace, and yet they are amazing in their willingness, their need to revise until they get the kind of sheen on the work they feel necessary before it can be shipped off to work.

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