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.