November 23, 2011
In her introduction to Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, Joan Acocella writes of the collection of her New Yorker pieces, published in the magazine over fifteen years: “As I was deciding what to include, I thought I was simply choosing the pieces that I liked best, and wanted to send out into the world again. But as I read through them, a single theme kept coming up: difficulty, hardship…”
Acocella’s essay subjects include authors, poets and the two saints of the title (Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc), but her specialty is dance. She notes all the hardships that George Balanchine faced down — losing his family as a boy, living through the Russian Revolution, working small gigs, scraping for money, watching key dancers fail (one of them to polio) — and yet, through all that, in sixty-two years he made 425 ballets.
Writes Acocella: “There are many brilliant people — they are born every day — but those who end up having sustained artistic careers are not necessarily the most gifted…. The ones who survived combined brilliance with more homely virtues: patience, resilience, courage.”
I first read those words four years ago, right around the time I set out in earnest to write fiction. While I had to look them up again to quote precisely, their general meaning has stayed with me ever since.
It is reinforced now and then, on the positive or negative side. For example, at the thriller writers’ convention in New York last summer, I observed that the biggest difference between accomplished commercial authors and others was not quality (which is subjective, anyway) but the sheer volume of stories they had produced.
This doesn’t mean that cranking out words willy-nilly is of itself a guarantee of anything, but the drive that production requires probably also tends to accompany a hunger for self-improvement. Most writers — most artists — will tell you that they get better with practice, at least up to a point. As they pile up the words, their oeuvre isn’t just growing; they are.
I recall once seeing an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Vincent van Gogh’s earliest work. It was awful, showing few if any hints of the artist he would later become. But fighting poverty and his own madness, he kept going.
On the other side of things, now and then I am approached by people declaring themselves writers or at least holders of the ambition to write. Frequently this declaration is followed by an admission along the lines of, “Well, I don’t write much,” or, “I’m having trouble getting started.” These deficiencies are not sinful; they’re not something to be condemned. But thinking in your mind that you’re a writer doesn’t make you one.
Imagine that you enjoy watching baseball. Now and then you throw the ball around in the yard, maybe hit a few fungos to your neighbors. Based upon this evidence would you dare declare yourself a baseball player?
In fact, sports offers an interesting analogy because in those endeavors, too, there is so much talent in the world.
I briefly took some tennis lessons years ago with a man in his early twenties who had just come off of the professional tour. He possessed humongous groundstrokes and a serve in excess of a hundred and thirty miles per hour. He had worked his whole young life to build that game and then, just as his goal grew closest, gave it up and walked off the tour.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him one day. “You should be competing.”
“Nah,” he observed. “Those other guys on tour want to win more than I do. I’m just not that into it.”
There was wisdom behind this statement. He was a tennis pro, a tennis teacher, a guy who was really good at tennis — better, probably, than all but a few hundred people on earth — yet he would no longer call himself a tennis player. He understood that, when you see someone succeed at anything, talent is only half the picture.
A year or two ago a reporter for the Wall Street Journal posed the following question to Cormac McCarthy: “The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing?”
McCarthy replied: “I don’t think there’s any rich period or fallow period. That’s just a perception you get from what’s published…. Someone asked Flannery O’Connor why she wrote, and she said, ‘Because I was good at it.’ And I think that’s the right answer. If you’re good at something it’s very hard not to do it.”
And yet many people with talent do find it hard to produce.
I recently thought of Acocella’s point about “homely virtues” because the past six months have been a blur of activity for me, including the writing of these columns and the publishing of Primacy. While those distractions hardly qualify as hardship, they have interfered — or I have allowed them to interfere — with my efforts to produce new fiction.
Sales of Primacy will go on, I hope, for a good long while, but the effort on my part lies mostly behind me now. If I’ve won a few fans with this novel, they expect more work from me, and I don’t plan to disappoint them.
The tyranny of the blank page beckons, but I can’t think of any tyranny I’d rather face. Besides, I’ve determined that the writer in me will prevail. Perseverance, after all, is itself a kind of art.
Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 35: Primacy Numbers (3)
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 37: Lessons Learned
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