The Dreaded P Word

Saturday, February 21, 2009

There it is, in this weekend's New York Times Book Review—back page, Geoff Nicholson, the P word. The first word most people think when it comes to, say, Joyce Carol Oates. A word that, when it lands, can prick you.

Prolific. Shudders. Prolific. It doesn't feel, as Nicholson writes so well, like "an unalloyed compliment." It can feel indeed like something one has to apologize for, as when the interviewer asks, a burble of impatience in her tone, "What exactly was your thought process, going into that year: A history book? A corporate fable? Two YA novels?"

I have hung my head. I have tried to explain how sometimes books that seem to emerge all at once—in a snap, and in a cluster—were conceived years before they were ever published. How I've spent years writing novels that will never be published (80 drafts of one book; 15 years lost on another). How sometimes the work labored over when young announces its maturity years on, at the most inconvenient time. How the only conceivable benefit of insomnia is that it doubles the work hours in a day. How often my sanity has been tied to the writing work (the panic attacks cured by the search for a word), and how hard it is to stop myself from chasing language, chasing story. And how, nonetheless, there was that one forsaken year when there were too many books, and I couldn't escape myself, and I buried myself in other work so that it would never, and not ever, happen again.

Nicholson's essay is essential for the issues it raises. It's essential for these true and telling—perhaps forgiving?—lines: But perhaps the real reason we keep writing is the hope, naïve perhaps, that we’ll make a better job of it next time. Unless you’re a genius or a fool, you realize that everything you write, however “successful,” is always a sort of failure. And so you try again.


Lenore Appelhans said...

I think of prolific as a huge compliment. Not that I have a hope of reading everything Joyce Carol Oates ever wrote, but I enjoy her writing so it's always nice to think there are a ton of books I could read by her.

Vivian Mahoney said...

It's interesting how this word can be seen by one person as a good thing and by another as a curse.

I've always had admiration for the authors who have been graced with idea after idea, the strong discipline to finish, and the courage to carry forth.

This article and your post gives me much to think about. From now on, I will be careful how I use the word. (though, I still think it's a good thing)

Beth Kephart said...

Lenore and Vivian: Again. You two are very dear. At the end of the day, every book is a struggle. Every book is dozens of drafts and a million passages that will never see the light of day. I think "prolific" sounds like "easy" to some. It isn't. That's the truth. Thanks for your words.

Anna Lefler said...

To me, "prolific" sounds like "gifted" in a sense. That this person has much to say worth hearing.

It's very interesting to me to hear your side of it - being on the receiving end and feeling its weight and perhaps a judgment of sorts. I would never have though of it that way.



Sherry said...

I've thought of "prolific" in the same sense that Vivian does. Authors committed to telling stories, along with the discipline and need to find the right words for them. Over and over.

Love the last paragraph. Miss E talked to me recently about why an actor keeps on acting and this is exactly what she came up with. :)

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