Saying It

Mr. Rilke, and my reading-around project, seem to keep getting pushed aside by other exigent topics. I will get back to The Notebooks, and chat a little bit about how Rilke writes horror. (Rilke and “horror” in the same sentence? It’s true!) But I’m back to thinking about the literary hot button of the moment: that pesky New Yorker list.

I haven’t yet delved into the new issue of The New Yorker, largely because I’m saving it as a little reward for myself once the several major projects I’m working on right now are finished. But today I came across an essay by Steve Almond, (whom I’m proud to call a Los Angeles Review contributor) at The Rumpus, concerning the New Yorker’s 20 under 40. I’m a big fan of Steve Almond, and not just because I enjoy his creative work. When Steve Almond writes an article, does a guest blog, or sits down for an interview, everything he says comes across with such earnestness and–at times–heartbreaking honesty that, whether I agree with him or not, I find myself feeling privileged to have read such an sincere expression.

His piece on the 20 is no letdown. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m overtired and overworked at the moment, but this essay really got to me on a level that I (and probably most other creative people) don’t really like to admit to having: that level that takes others’ successes as a measurement of one’s own not-such-hot-stuff place in the world.

There’s the implication that the writers the New Yorker has anointed are the writers worth watching, and, by the same token, those of us who are clacking away at our keyboards in lightless closets are not worth watching. He admits that this is a “totally solipsistic and self-pitying view of the situation,” but estimates that the majority of others feel the same way. He gives voice to the twinging feelings we  (all?) get in times of self-doubt:

“I spend most of my life doubting my legitimacy as a writer, not feeling that I suck exactly, but often convinced that I’m your basic mid-list hacker who will never write anything enduring, and therefore never be recognized by the various Bad Parents of literary legitimacy…I’m just good enough – as a writer and a reader – to recognize my spot in the pecking order. It feels slightly cruel to have that place by affirmed by the magazine I worship.”

Well put, Steve. I think all creative people have these moments of doubt, or even of resignation to our place in the order of things.  But these are thoughts we keep to ourselves, things we push down or out of our systems by going for a run (if you’re constructive with your demons) or pigging out on string cheese (if you’re me).

But the cathartic quality of Almond’s essay makes me think perhaps we’d be better off if we said these fears from time to time, rather than hunching over our keyboards, allowing our minds to wander toward the seemingly inevitable conclusion that we will die alone, ugly, with thirty cats waiting to consume our lifeless flesh when we finally shuffle off the mortal coil, our scores of unpublished manuscripts destined to be burned on the trash heap of literary history.

Maybe if we just said “I’m worried I’m never going to do something that really matters,” it’d be like turning on the light in the closet, revealing that the shadow monster’s just a balled-up t-shirt, and the zombie’s just a dress twisting in a draft. Maybe we’d feel a bit better. And then we could get back to work.

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10 Replies to “Saying It”

  1. I love your imagery of a balled up t-shirt – I imagine it has torn holes and a cracked, peeling logo. Your suggestion is like a meditation technique – acknowledge the fear, then let it go. Thanks, I do feel better.

  2. Thanks, Claire. You know, I’m not usually so touchy-feely as a writer; I’m more of a hard-nose than that. But for some reason, this idea really did make me feel a lot better!

  3. The self doubt is the hardest – I know I can write, but I don’t know that I can write something that others will ever read. We all just keep on, keeping on.

  4. What a great list, Gordon! The names I recognize here are ones I definitely agree with. Matt Bell and Stacie Cassarino are both rising talents, and incredibly nice people to book. I’m going to have to do some book shopping off this list…

  5. Never having been on any sort of important list (except maybe a few childhood lists: of children most often treading on my mother’s last nerve or 7th graders with so much potential if they would just apply themself), I can only imagine what a boost to the ego, career and maybe (crossing fingers) the pocketbook being on a list like that could be. However it also makes me cringe a little. 20 to be watched. Really and what are we watching for? It makes me think of the Indy 500 or figure skating. Sure some of us are happy to see someone go home with the trophy but some of us are also watching to see who wipes out utterly. Crashes and burns. Would it be better to be the underdog. Loved by a devoted few, coming out of nowhere to blow everyone away.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Buffi. While I used to be a great recommender of cats, the one I have now seems to want to start in on me even before I expire. She gives me the creeps.

  7. A.E., good point. What, exactly, are we watching for? Future work, the work now, cocaine nosebleeds a la Bret Easton Ellis? The concept is a bit too vague.

    And I agree about the underdog status. Steve Almond, actually, is a person who seems to have done pretty well with that status. He may not be a best-seller, but with a cult of devoted groupies (like, well, me), he’s definitely more than the “mid-list hack” he calls himself.

  8. Steve Almond makes a very strong point, and one which reflects rather badly on my comment on your original post about the “20,” but in my defense I must add I was playing a little Devil’s Advocate in trashing both the list and the New Yorker’s fiction sensibilities. You believe me, right?

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