In the wake of the Jennifer Weiner profile, thoughts on....

Saturday, January 11, 2014

It occurs to me, on a nearly minute by minute basis, that I don't know enough. My general sense of geography is poor (until this very morning, for example, I thought Pittsburgh was slightly more north than south within the Pennsylvania borders. Wrong.). Despite having married a Salvadoran man and raised a son who speaks some gorgeous-sounding Spanish, I never learned a second language, save for the rudiments of high school and college French. Don't ask me to add fractions with varying denominators on the fly. Don't ask me, as a contractor did, just yesterday, about the use of the superlative.

Hey. You're a writer. You should know this.


Most of the time, don't ask me.

I spend the majority of my life writing very specific reports and stories for highly specialized industries, and that gets me precisely nowhere at a cocktail party. And when I do have time for myself, I'm reading books that many people haven't heard of, books outside the mega-blockbuster mainstream. Otherwise, I'm writing them.


But every week I try to make room for the New York Times and at least two articles and all the reviews in The New Yorker. I watch CNN at the gym. I read Philadelphia Inquirer stories. I read local paper headlines while waiting for the train. It may take me many weeks to get caught up, but I try, and yesterday afternoon, after the whole world had already read the 6,800-word Rebecca Mead profile of Jennifer Weiner in The New Yorker, I sat down and discovered it myself. I read it through, with startling speed.

There was so much about the story that I loved—Mead's careful read of Weiner's work, the depictions of my Philadelphia (I may not know much, but I do know how to claim things that aren't actually mine), the courage of Weiner to consistently say what she thinks. Weiner does an excellent job of keeping people talking, debating, engaging. She has far more basic bravery than I do, far more wit, far more savvy, far more style. Further, Mead wrote with intimacy and care. She paid attention. She did not summarily judge. She elucidated. She was both charmed and measured.

So now the buzz is all about the Jennifer Weiner profile in The New Yorker. It's about whether it was deserved, whether her politics are really just self promotion, whether the only way up, in a career, is by climbing over others.

That's not where the story left me; indeed, it left me thinking this: Unless we are highly calculating or infinitely talented, we end up writing what we are capable of writing—what our coagulated talents, experiences, childhoods, internal rhythms lead us to write. I may have once been asked to write a fantasy and tried very very hard (because, Lord, there was money in fantasy), but, baby, my book was another word for disaster. Ask my agent how many times I have tried to write a novel "for adults," and then ask her about the outcome: Too dark. Too static. Un-urgent. I'm not funny, and I could never write funny. I don't shop much, so don't look for brand names in my books. I am really good at parsing the plots on Law and Order SVU, but put me in the dark at the theater with some Tom Clancy film, and I'm the one turning to the good-looking son, saying, Huh? What just happened there?

I write books obsessed with landscapes both exterior and interior because that is who I am, that is what I know, that is the way words congeal in my head, those are the stories I can follow. I seek redemption on the page because I seek it in my own life. My characters are flawed because I sure as hell am. My characters seek, because I discover something that feels true inside that tempo. My stories are historical or scientific or somehow medical or full of old songs, because basically I'm just a good, old researcher at heart.

I write what I can write.

I write it the best I can.

I read the books that, for strange and personal reasons, speak to me.

That's all I'm doing out here.

I suspect it's what most of us are doing. Writing what is in us. Reading what we find we love. Telling the world of our little successes and finds along the way because if we don't talk about it, the work disappears. Our work. Their work. Literature, however you define it.

If we all agree to write the best books we can, if we all agree to set aside presumptive judgments, if we all agree that every novelistic label is in someway a ghetto-ization of the work (YA or crossover, fantasy or fantastical, literary or pink, realistic or comedic), if we all recognize that we are not the only dreaming, hoping writers in the world, maybe literature will become that place where winning never has to occur at the expense of others. Maybe we'll just look at another's very different work and say, Wow. I could never do that. And be grateful that somebody can.


kelly said...

We write what we write. We read what we read.
And thank God for us all!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

None of us know (knows?) enough. There is simply too much to know.
And the amount of information in the world is doubling at an ever-faster rate.

We do write what we can write, and whether anyone else wants to read it is partly a matter of how well we've written it, but also partly a matter of luck. Of what's "in fashion" at the moment. Of who happens to see it and like it and mention it to others. We all want to be read and loved.

Victoria Marie Lees said...

Everything is so true, Beth. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. They live inside me, too. {I'll never be bilingual, and forget math. That's why I'm an English major.}

I believe in your thoughts about writing and creating stories that come from within the writer. Thanks again for your blog writing. I enjoy reading it.

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