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.”