Bad Advice Wed: Accept Your Small Self; Strive to be Larger

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


I had every reason to be happy when I heard that Edith Pearlman had been nominated for the National Book Award.  When my wife called to tell me the news she certainly expected to be happy.  I am happy for Edith now, very happy, and I should  have been happy for her then.   After all, I had been lucky enough to be in the room when Emily Smith and Ben George, the founders of Lookout Books, had called to read Edith the glowing cover review of her book  in The New York Times.  That had been a thrilling moment, and we were on lifted up in its excitement, and news that she had now been nominated for the NBR should have provided me with a similar lift.

                It did not.  You see I had secret hopes of being nominated myself.  Maybe you did too?  For my part I had written a book the Gulf Oil disaster which was really, I hoped, about much more than that disaster, about the way we will all be living soon, about certain choices we will all be making, about sacrifice, about what we are getting and what we must give up.  And in writing about these subjects I had made formal writing choices that I had not seen anyone esle making: jumping from comedy to investigative reporting to essay to nature writing to farce.  I understood why certain corporate swine—the publishers of big newspapers and magazines—would not give the book its due, but I dreamed (vaingloriously no doubt) that judges—fellow writers!—would see what I had attempted to do.  And so when my wife called to tell me what had happened to Edith I could only focus on what hadn’t happened to me.  At the very least I should have thought immediately of my colleagues, my friends—Ben and Emily—and what this meant to them.  The word was that the students up in the pub lab where Edith’s book was created had let out a spontaneous cheer when they heard the news.  I did not cheer.  Instead, I was briefly, crestfallen.

                But briefly.  Only briefly.  Which may just be the key, or at least a key, to the writing life.   Let the ugliness pass; let the bile out; and something better may surface.  You cannot expect yourself to be better than human and petulance is a human emotion.  If you do expect yourself to be better you will only add more pain, in the form of self-flagellation, to the mix.   There is a sort of knowledge (you might even be tempted top call it “wisdom” with your tongue only slightly in your cheek) in knowing that petty feelings fade.  It is a modern fallacy to think that our smallest feelings are our truest, our most “honest.”  This is nonsense that, as my friend Sam Johnson might put it, must be refuted.  Our moods move through us like the weather, and petulance is a brief  thunderburst, not even a full storm.   It no more represents our whole self than the mood equivalent an Indian summer day like this one in Boston.   The trick, if there is a trick,  is to let the weather pass through you and not call it your all.  The trick is to wait it out, and not do anything stupid or mean in the meantime. 

     And then, once the small mood has passed, you can see it for what it was.  See how small it was.  See it within a larger context, and react more fully.  An hour after Nina’s phone call and I was already feeling happy and proud for Edith.  Edith, a woman by the way who had worked devotedly and brilliantly at her craft for many years without getting the recognition she deserved.  And if I was happy for Edith, I was thrilled for Ben and Emily, who were being rewarded for not just their talents but for a year of monumentally hard work.

          Some might call this second emotion “phony.”  Some might say I was pasting an old school morality over my real first feelings.  I wasn’t.  Not only wasn’t this the case but I’m not sure I’d like to live on an earth, or in a body, where it was.  And while we are refuting one modern cliché let’s refute another.  That trying, that effort, has little to do with any of this.  “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” wrote Stegner.  Hear, hear.  (Or is it here, here?)  We must strive not to be petty.  We must understand that we are all in the same (very leaky) boat.   And that everybody’s boat capsizes in the end.

          Acceptance.  And effort. 

         I think now of a vastly underrated essay by Rust Hills, “Pursuing Montaigne, As Against Pursuing Thoreau,” in his vastly underrated book, How to Do Things Right.    He contrasts Thoreau and Montaigne:

“Montaigne is somehow marvelously, humanly indolent.  Thoreau had an exceptional, almost inhuman vitality.  Thoreau kept in shape…Montainge’s indolence and sensuality seem so thoroughly human.  Thoreau did sculpt his own life and body with a fine aesthetic asceticism.”

        The reason I bring this up is that it seems to me that we need both qualities as writers.  Acceptance of ourselves at our worse.  And an almost athletic striving to be our best.   Some combination of these two things may hold a key of sorts.  Both “Hey, this is what I am,” and “Maybe I can be more.”

  1. john lane writes:

    Great piece. Gutsy and honest. Thank you Dave.

  2. LUANNE writes:

    Love the honesty! Everything most of us aren’t willing to admit to, and there it is. I suck, I’m awesome, I will never amount to a hill of beans, and nobody but nobody is lucky enough to be me. All in one. Thanks for laying the groundwork that will make me regret, tomorrow, to admitting all this.

  3. Hope writes:

    Oh, thank you for saying this. So, so much. You couldn’t have timed it better, David. I just spent an evening beating myself up because I’m not someone else–a rather sweet, younger person I met who happens have a home & to be in much better financial shape than I for family reasons, or possibly a gainfully-employed librarian with health insurance–I was having total ‘class envy’! It makes me feel less petty and small when you confess similar dark nights of the soul.

  4. Bill writes:

    I’m jealous of this post. I did share it on FB and getting some nice comments there. Damn you Dave!

  5. monica wood writes:

    We can’t help how we feel–and we’ve all felt some version of what you so poignantly describe. But we sure can help what we do. The first thing I do when that yucky feeling comes a-callin’ is to reach out to the person I’m feeling it toward. Send the card, make the call, do the happy dance–and then that OTHER feeling you describe kicks in.

    I make a distinction between jealousy and envy: the former is wanting what another person has; the latter is wishing to TAKE AWAY what that person has so you can have it for yourself. Most of us feel the former, not the latter, in these cases, and it’s important to make the distinction. Jealousy is just the normal human sigh of yearning, but that other thing is petty, eat-you-from within, Seven Deadly Sins envy.

    Thanks for this, Dave. Took some major guts.

    • Bill writes:

      I like the distinction, Monica. And there’s another type, too, the wish to destroy. You know that Van Morrison song from Hymns to the Silence? “Professional Jealousy”? It’s better sung, of course, and not meant as a poem:

      Professional jealousy can bring down a nation
      And personal invasion can ruin a man
      Not even his family will understand what’s happening
      The price that he’s paying or even the pain

      Professional jealousy started a rumor
      And then it extended to be more abuse
      What started out as just black propaganda
      Was one day seen to be believed as truth

      They say the truth is stranger than fiction
      But a lie is more deadly than sin
      It can make a man very bitter and angry
      When he thinks that there’s someone, is going to win

      Professional jealousy makes other people crazy
      When they think you’ve got something that they don’t have
      What they don’t understand is it’s just not easy
      To cover it all and stand where you stand

      Professional jealousy makes no exception
      It can happen to anyone at any time
      The only requirement is knowing what’s needed
      And then delivering what’s needed on time

      The only requirement is to know what is needed
      In doing the best you know how, deliver on time
      The only requirement is to know what is needed
      Be best at delivering the product on time

  6. Chelle G writes:

    Dave, as a woman who came to herself late in the game, while watching others I know and admire shoot past me, I know this feeling and admire your honesty. There will always be a small part of me that envies those youngsters who knew they could do it early on, but envy accomplishes nothing. I struggle daily to move past that emotion and put drive on the front burner. Your piece shows me that I am not alone. Thank you.

  7. Elizabeth HIlts writes:

    I think this may be my favorite post ever. Thank you.

    • Dave writes:

      Thank you. I was reluctant to post it and it was one of the few I didn’t “advertise” on Facebook. So your comment makes me feel better.

  8. eli hastings writes:


    You’re a buddhist, kind of. Ask Sarah M about the Rinpoche who parties hard.

    Loved it; thanks.


    • Dave writes:

      Funny, I was doing some Zen reading on the Cape this week and I’ve been thinking about it and how it relates to my “shack afternoons.” But while the same books infatuated me when I was young, they frustrate me now. I just find my self definition in activity–writing, walking, talking, teaching, biking, drawing, being a dad and husband, etc…–and I have no desire to throw off the shackles of the world. Well, after this book tour, maybe a little desire….

  9. Noah writes:

    I very much liked the metaphor of the storm, as in waiting for petty emotions to pass. What do you do in a bad storm? You go inside, shut the windows, unplug the electronics…wait for better conditions to return.

  10. Matthew Taylor writes:

    Hi David — will your book tour take you anywhere in the Baltimore/Washington DC area?

    • Dave writes:

      Not my booktour, but my Thanksgiving plans…..I’d like to get to Wash but it’s been kind of crazy.