Dear Friends –
I have just finished Nathan Englander’s most recent short story collection, THIS IS WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK, and it’s a brilliant, daring, rewarding, read. Englander is a master short story writer, by which I mean he can do things with the form, that make a short story as deep, as complex and as emotionally and intellectually satisfying as a novel. Bruce Holland Rogers has taught that fiction manipulates the emotions of the reader, and Englander is absolutely fantastic at doing this. The stories twist and twist again, offering us not just one surprise, but many – pushing the narrative in surprising and often drastic directions.
I heard Nathan Englander speak with Aimee Bender in 2000 in Los Angeles at the Writers Bloc series. That afternoon was a crucial one for me, as it encouraged me to sign up for a year-long writing course with Bender at UCLA extension. But I was also inspired to seriously try fiction writing, when Englander shared a humorous story about himself. He told the audience that he kept on waiting for an angel to come down from Heaven and tell him “YOU ARE A WRITER.”
“People,” I remember Englander saying. “The angel is NOT coming. So you’d better just start writing anyway.”
I took Englander’s advice. And I’m still taking it.
They are all GREAT writers.
I am not.
This, as some of you already know, is not a particularly happy realization.
It also feels rather dangerous to even say, because most of us in the creative world are pressured –internally and externally – to insist that we’re geniuses just to get heard. The general atmosphere in literature is that the whole writing business is so fragile and so overcrowded that if a writer actually says “I’m not a genius” – well, what the heck is that person doing even trying to get us to read her or him in the first place?
I don’t know the answer to that, but Englander does.
When a writer-protagonist in one of the stories tells his lover that he doesn’t have any good stories to tell, she replies simply “tell the story the best you can.”
That seems like a good piece of advice.
And if you feel – as I do often these days – that you’re just a LOUSY writer, remember that moment in Daniel Deronda, when Gwendolyn says she going to give up singing altogether, because she doesn’t sing well enough. To which the hero responds:
“For my part, people who do anything finely always inspirit me to try. I don’t mean they make me believe I can do it as well. But they make the thing, whatever it may be, seem worthy to be done…. Excellence encourages one about life generally; it shows the spiritual wealth of the world “ (Daniel Deronda)
Mary Anne Evans, the author of Daniel Deronda knew something about obstacles to writing success. Daniel Deronda was written as her own fame waned. But it is, to my mind, the greatest of novels written by Evans, whom most of us know as George Eliot, her pseudonym.
And perhaps we all need to create safer spaces for writers to say openly, “I’m not that great. But I ‘m trying to get better.”