Next Up: The Neon Bible (or: I am not a prodigy, and that’s okay)

My projected world domination (okay, my plan to get kids to actually read this summer) is working; two of my kids tell me they’ve convinced their friends and siblings to read Shirley Jackson. I hope those new readers will tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and eventually we’ll have a pyramid scheme of reading.

I’m hoping to follow up this successful two weeks with a much quieter but by no means less interesting novel, John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible. I must admit: the first time I read the book I was consumed with envy. Not only had Toole written an immensely tender and disarming book in which the main plot lines are emotional but still hold interest, but he wrote it when he was sixteen years old. Sixteen!

At sixteen, I was writing complete schlock in a giant green notebook. Sure, I was reading every Penguin Classic I could get my hands on in my own self-guided tour of the canon of English literature, but apparently I wasn’t picking up much from my reading. It’s dumbfounding to me that, at such a young age, Toole had not only the intuitive grasp of story structure necessary to write such a novel, but also the understanding that the most complex emotional states are often best expressed in the sparest of language.

But, of course, there’s the downside to Toole’s prodigious talent: we can’t ignore the fact that he never saw one of his books in print in his lifetime. When Toole took his own life at the age of 31, for reasons known only to himself and his family, his work had been rejected by major publishers as pointless and unpublishable. Toole’s friends suggested he felt himself a disappointment because of his lack of literary success. He died thinking himself a failure.

In the past, I looked at Toole’s career as an ugly, hypothetical dilemma: would I rather have the kind of talent he possessed but never see success in my career, or would I rather labor away with far lesser talent but the hope of seeing some success? Oddly enough, I wasn’t sure. Toole’s talent is surprising. It’s shocking. It’s even a little unnatural. And it’s tempting.

But now that I’ve been at the writing gig a while, I think there’s no way I’d be able to work so intensely as he did without something to hang on to; while Toole had no writing community, I have the support of an insightful and caring writing partner and a number of other talented writing friends. Whereas Toole sent his novel out into the world and had to handle the difficulty of rejection alone, I have a wonderful agent who not only busts his ass for my work, but also keeps me sane in the process. And while Toole seems to have been lonely at best and conflicted in his relationships at worst, I have a supportive husband who encourages my writing habits even when I have moments of “I’m not sure I can do this” crisis.

So maybe I’m not gifted with preternatural talent. But I’m happy to say I think the people in my life more than compensate. So I’ll have to work harder, stay up later, and push myself further than I would were I a prodigy. But not having to do it alone? That makes all the difference.

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3 Replies to “Next Up: The Neon Bible (or: I am not a prodigy, and that’s okay)”

  1. You’re so right Kelly. If it weren’t for the camaraderie of other writers I’d probably have quit the game after my first dozen rejections. There’s something about being with others who share the goal that instills inspiration and perseverance.

  2. I used to fantasize about being published by the age of 23 or some such nonsense. But now I see how much I’ve gained by being forced to wait, to grow, and to cultivate my writing skills. And I wouldn’t trade my current writing status and partnership with you for anything. Hopefully, your Jacob and my Girl will find homes soon, and then this whole debate can be put to bed!

  3. It’s true, Joe. I think maybe we crave the camaraderie because we’re in the odd paradox of having our work deal nearly always with humans in relationship, and yet our work is so solitary.

    Tanya, 23? Talk about arbitrary! And yes, the growth is worth it, however painful the waiting is…

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