Monday, October 20, 2014

"Dad?" Yeah, Dad. That Dad.

By the time you chose your career path, you already had many favorite writers among whom to chose.  Some of these were still alive, turning out, as writers do, the occasional short story or essay in addition to a new novel.  

Some of these writers were individuals you wanted to keep up with, in order to read their new work.  The thought never occurred to you to engage in outright competition, much less think you were then or were going to become better than they.

Even when Philip Roth published his stunning breakout work, the novella Goodbye Columbus, which was published with three of his shorter stories, the effect on you was a serious bout of envy.  You were of about an age, which was bad enough; he had ever so much more of a grip on narrative voice and ways of converting concepts into characters.  

Your funk lasted about a month, during which you did a good deal of what you thought F. Scott Fitzgerald would have approved of, which is drinking great quantities of gin and vodka.  When that got you nowhere other than financially depleted and grouchy from hangovers, you got back to the only things you could think of in your attempts to catch up with Roth.

It was your good fortune rather than your good sense that arrived to get you out of that problematic stage.  By increasing your attack on reading and writing, you were so distracted from your supposed competition that he'd managed to produce two or three more books you hadn't the time to read because you were too busy trying to keep up with yourself.  

Your good fortune was the ultimate reading of his latest books and recognizing he was no longer someone you should compete with, rather someone you should read with scrupulous care to see how he arrived at such a compelling narrative voice that he could win you over to believing the things his characters said and felt.

Many emerging writers of your time were aware of the influences of Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot.  Again, fortune served you well. You didn't "get" Eliot for some time to come. You'd already set out to read the entire Hemingway works, looking for themes, trying to develop a vision similar to his elliptical approach where he led you right up to the edge of where he wanted you to feel, then pushed you right in after his characters.  "Oh, you mean subtext," am instructor you greatly admired said of your discussions of Hemingway.  

Since this instructor was being published by Knopf and his short pieces were appearing in The New Yorker,  you allowed yourself to be led away from Hemingway after one last fling at his most recent work, The Old Man and the Sea.  Given your attendance at a campus of the University of California with a large, visible C marker on one of the nearby hills, you undertook your prank with a piece called The Old Man and the C.

It did not occur to you that a classmate of yours was who he was until he told you one afternoon, "Dad liked your piece."

"Dad?"

"Yeah.  Dad.  We got back on speaking terms, which means I send him letters and he answers them, so I sent him your piece and he said it was pretty good stuff."  Once again you were made aware of how, for all your reading and attempts to acquire sophistication, naivete stalked you with a particular vengeance.  Your classmate's name was Hemingway.  You knew that well enough, but there was no further connection until.  Until.

During those times, you were still propelled by the enthusiasm of  being youngest.  Once again, accident and good fortune spared you from being completely insufferable.  You also have occasion to use the word "callow" when you communicate with some old friends from those days, of course using the term in reference to yourself.

The good fortune got you into the accident whereby you became pretty good at being an editor without having to go to New York or Boston, the major places one went to to take on this craft.  By the time you'd got to New York, you'd earned the necessary craft to have dropped a few pounds of callow and picked up a few of such things as empathy, respect, and a significant sense that the things you thought were things one could do alone.

And there's the message, isn't it?  Any craft has to be learned, practiced, investigated, accommodated.  You're aware of particular editing skills and skills in your composition.  Because you're aware of them, you don't get to walk away without thinking about them.  Everything has to be honed.  Everything has a specific time before you can rely on it, use it as a tool instead of admiring it in someone else.

The list of writers you're crazy about has grown in exponential units over the years, dedicated men and women who have earned their way to the point where they can use their craft as muscle memory.

The more of these you read, the more you're aware of this:  Every time you're assigned a project to edit, every time you start a new book or story or essay, it's as though you're having to start fresh, because this one, whether your own writing or your editing of someone else's writing is fresh and new, isn't it, and to keep up, you have to be fresh and new as well.




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