Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Never Enough: The Elusiveness of "Meaning" In the Writer's Life

A cool thing happened today. I was self-Googling, that unseemly but mostly harmless habit all writers have but seldom discuss, when I came upon a hit I hadn't seen the day before. Finally -- a new mention to either stroke or slap my ego! It had been a while.

Apparently someone was presenting a paper about my second novel at an MLA-affiliated conference. The abstract of the paper articulated a thesis about the "unspoken" in Italian American culture, which I had dramatized via my traditional characters. Having researched and written numerous papers like this in grad school, I harrumphed at the PC subject matter (multi-culturalism, the canon, "authentic voice"); I chuckled at the tell-tale use of the colon in the title; I winced at the memory of my own feeble efforts to say something new and important about the work of authors like Whitman, Coleridge and Eliot. Then it struck me: this person wasn't writing about some nineteenth-century classic. S/he was writing about my book! S/he may have even highlighted her copy. Notecards may have been involved.

I found myself blushing, flattered. I re-read the abstract many times. When Whitney and Sonya walked by, I quickly closed the tab, as if I were looking at porn. (Of course, in a way, I was...)

As far as I know, my books have never been written about or presented in this way before. In fact, despite a decent track record, I am always astonished when someone tells me they've heard of me, let alone read or enjoyed my work. Some of my writer friends expect to be studied; I expect to be ignored, then forgotten. If people do show admiration, I immediately question their taste.

I used to look forward to a time when I didn't have such dreary expectations. I once envied the so-called established writer -- that distinguished gentleman who published a substantial body of work, won awards, gave lectures, and had his work dissected at MLA. I thought, how confident I'll be! Surely I'll sit around each night reading my own books, delighting in every perfectly-placed word, taking bets on who might honor me next.

But I will never be that writer. Not necessarily because I won't be able to establish myself, but because, even if I do, no honor or award - no sustained success - will ever convince me I am truly worth a reader's time. (Even you now, reading this, don't you have anything better to do?) I wonder how many so-called established writers share this other unseemly habit of mine, the one that compels me to question the judgment of my admirers.

It all goes back to my belief that one of main reasons we write, and want so desperately to publish, is that we want to make a permanent and meaningful mark on the world -- something that will ultimately -- finally! -- convince us that we matter. I find it a cruel and yet strangely comforting irony that nothing can convince us of this along the way, and that constant dissatisfaction and uncertainty are actually what keep us going. Keats had something to say about this; so did Wilde; I imagine it's nothing new.

I imagine it's also why so many of us drink.

~Chris Castellani


Sonya C. said...

So True: Important Things to Envision in My Writing Future

I love this post, Chris. It reminds me of that quote from my father: "Mediocrity inspires; genius humbles." It's hard to imagine belonging to a world of people who humble you.

lisa b. said...

Ha! I love this, Chris, and congrats on making it into the "canon." The funniest google hit I ever found on my book was on some teenager's blog -- she mentioned having read Cloud Cuckoo Land and said something like, "I only read this book because my Dad took a class with the author. I was sure the book would suck but it was actually kind of good." Now there's a blurb for the ages!

So yes, I've outed myself as a self-googler, too. Not to mention a procrastinating novelist ....

Lisa Marnell said...

"that constant dissatisfaction and uncertainty are actually what keep us going"

So true and well said.

I had a professor in University who loved to intimidate his students (of which I was unfortunately one). His favorite saying ... "Fear is a wonderful motivator." It worked, and its message stayed with me.