I'm going to admit to a personal failing. I'm competitive, though not ambitious. What that means is that I generate petty arguments within myself when reading another writer's work. Not all writers. If you are truly good, if your work catches me off-guard, strings together words I could never have dredged up from within, pierces my puny life with insight, and delights me... then we're good. I simply read in awe, bow down to you on the tatami mat and intone: Thank you for saving my soul with your words.
For instance, I can read E.M. Forster every day of the year, any page of any book and never compete with the man. All I want to do is lick his boots clean and turn him from gay to straight so I can flirt with him. He is that good.
Annie Proulx (short story writer made famous by "Brokeback Mountain") eats my soul for lunch. The apt word is her middle name. The understated insight is her last. Her words are so beautiful (even when meant to be ugly) that I hold my breath while I'm reading until I get dizzy from lack of oxygen. Good writing has that effect on me. It never occurs to me to compete with her as she is completely and totally out of my league. Even if I write until I'm 112, I will never get to where she is at 65.
Similarly, I remember reading Eudora Welty's "No Place for You My Love" nine years ago (in fact, before Welty died). I read and reread that short story so many times, I started dreaming of the phrases in it. I would be sleeping along when words would float in New Times Roman typeface toward me in curlicues and they would be Welty's words. I can still see the images, hear the words, identify the place in the story even having not read it since.
So yeah, I'm a word whore and am happily awed by truly great writing. I don't compete. I recognize genius, sigh and reread.
But when I read a contemporary who is a good writer... well, not so much. I get all itchy and irritable. I recognize the good writing, I appreciate that it makes me laugh or serves up a new metaphor like a new Thai dish. But I also, in the same moment, argue with it. I reluctantly keep reading (because, after all, the writing is good), but I grind my teeth and push the book away from me while I read. I imagine book deals being made by sleeping with editors (surely it can't be the quality of the writing!) and I'm disgusted.
I give the writer credit for timing (Dooce's blog comes to mind) or for good luck or for being famous already. But I hold back praise inside myself because if I admit that this is a good writer (a writer who writes like I do, who I consider not to be genius but good enough), then I have to admit that I haven't done what I say I wanted to do sooner.
It's my ego on the line. If this person who writes well enough succeeds, why have I not thrown open the door to publication sooner? Why do I sit content with blogging, graduate school, writing about writing, teaching writing, reading writing...? Hmmm?
The latest victim of my competitive disdain is Elizabeth Gilbert - author of Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, it's an Oprah book and yes, I did see her on Oprah, and yes, I was crazy with jealousy, irritation and judgments. She wrote her book at age 35. Well shit! I'm 46 already. She wrote her book in three different countries, paid to live there by her book deal. Well, dammit, I'm trapped in the midwest, paying my own way. She talks about God as though she knows something about it and was never a Christian nor a theology student. What nerve!
It's not that I need to be on the New York Times bestseller list (well, maybe I do, but I haven't really allowed myself to ever think about it... is that the problem?). It's that I see others do what they do in their thirties and forties and I get all up in my own grill about what I do with my days, what I said I wanted to do by now.
And I want to write that book... that book that is in me to write. I fear publishers (totally, completely with all the irrational twitchings that come with having grown up as the daughter of a published author who never seriously broke through until 65, though she's written 56 books). Publishers have the power to reject you, to publish and then reject you, to publish and then throw that hard work away into the remainders pile at Half Price books.
Today, I want to take a moment to declare that I'm tired of assuming that part of the pie that could go to me has already been cut up and served to other good enough writers.
2008: One resolution - to write my book. The end.
I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I'm back to yoga and have chosen to love and affirm all those "good writers" rather than making fun of their hyperbole behind their backs.