Everyone wants to become a better writer. But it’s a little gauche to say that you want to become a great writer. It’s an admission that puts too much on the record. Becoming a better writer is a task at which it’s almost impossible to fail. Becoming a great writer is a task at which it’s almost impossible to succeed.
But when I was at an impressionable age, I was struck by the passage in Samuel Delany’s About Writing where he goes on for about a page and a half listing various writers (half of whom I’d never heard of) and then says:
When you have read widely among these indubitably good writers, you must make an average image for yourself of their inarguably talented work–and realize that is what your own work must be better than. And you must realize as well, one way or another, that is what they are all (or were all)–living and dead–doing.
That, to me, seems exactly right. It’s why I don’t make distinctions like so-and-so is a better writer than so-and-so. For me, there’s one distinction. You’re either doing something worthwhile or interesting, and you’re not.
And I place the bar for “worthwhile and interesting” fairly high. The other day, my book club was talking about what book they wanted to read, and they suggested reading the latest Booker Prize winner. And I said that merely winning the Booker is not enough to make me interested in the book–it also needs either the personal recommendation of a friend (The White Tiger) or such an accretion of literary reputation that it rises above the average Booker winner (e.g. Wolf Hall or Midnight’s Children). And they looked at me like I was saying something snobbish, but, honestly, that’s true for everyone, isn’t it? Who reads all the Pulitzer winners? Who reads all the Booker winners? Who reads all the Nobel laureates? Even many extremely well-known and successful and talented writers feel, to me, like they’re not really doing something worthwhile.
To me, that’s where the bar has to be. And that’s how I can simultaneously think that I am a fairly good writer, but also not good enough.
However, what makes this uncomfortable is that I know many, many writers who produce objectively better work than me, even though their goal is not to be great. And even those writers are pretty far from being great. But if one of them said that their goal was to be great, it’d be very reasonable and respectable. Coming from me, it’s less so.
Nonetheless, the secret history of the last four years of my life is that of a conscious effort to do the things that I think will lead to the production of worthwhile and interesting work. If you knew me all through high school and college, you know that I never read anything particularly high-brow. And now I’m reading The Magic Mountain and shit? What’s that about?
The truth is that I made a conscious effort to broaden my tastes: I realized that if I was really going to be a writer, then I couldn’t just nod along when someone talked about Tolstoy or Proust. Four years ago, I hadn’t read anything. I mean, forget about Proust, I’d never read Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens or Hemingway or Faulkner. I’d read basically nothing aside from science fiction / fantasy, some F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a few literary non-realists (Marquez, Calvino, Kafka, and Borges). So I bought Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and went through, checking off each of the great books in turn. I’m less wedded to that particular tome, but I still have vast sections of the canon that I intend to someday get to.
And then there’s everything else: the elaborate productivity systems, the leaving my job at the World Bank, the traveling back and forth across the country, the increasing attempts to try and become better socialized. I won’t say it’s all some master plan, but there is a connection here that I don’t like to talk about.
The reason I am bringing all this up right now is that I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog. Last year, I opened it up and started talking about more personal topics. The results have, I think, been good, but there was something of a loss of focus–previously, it’d mostly been about writing and books. For the last day or two, I’ve been trying to think about what ties it all together, and I realized that’s what it was. The blog isn’t just about someone who’s trying to become a better writer…it’s about someone who’s doing everything and aiming as high as possible.
What you’re reading is the account of my attempt to become the kind of writer who’s capable of writing a certain sort of book. Not a high classic like To The Lighthouse or Madame Bovary, but something that manages a slithery, low-down, democratic sort of greatness: a Fahrenheit 451 or a To Kill A Mockingbird–the sort of book that’s warm and lovely and true. The kind of book that parents give to their twelve-year-old children. I have no idea how someone goes about writing a book like that. But I figure that if I do everything I can think of, eventually something will happen.