As Kurt Woolf, Kafka’s first publisher in Germany, wrote to him after Kafka’s book tanked, “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.” Fashion is the attempt to evade that principle: to be the echo of someone else’s success and, therefore, to create nothing that might create an echo of its own.
As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention.
So what I’m saying is, this is what got you here tonight: your over-stimulated, complicated, by turns ecstatic and despondent, specific self. And if you’re anything like I was when I got one of these awards, some twenty years ago, you didn’t know exactly how you did it. You write your first stuff pretty much for yourself, not thinking anybody will read, much less publish, it, not thinking it’ll earn money, therefore not worrying about pleasing anyone or falling in line with any agenda; not worrying about censoring yourself, either, because who’s going to see it?
Fashion will come at you from two directions, from outside and in. You might start noticing what’s getting attention in the press. You might begin to forget the person you are in order to write and sound like someone else. Alternately, you might be tempted to repeat yourself. To follow the fashion of your own previous work, to stop exploring, learning and trying new things, for risk of failure.
If you try to write posthumously, however, fashion doesn’t apply. You step off the catwalk, ignoring this season’s trends and resigning yourself to being unfashionable and possibly unnoticed, at least for a while. As Kurt Woolf, Kafka’s first publisher in Germany, wrote to him after Kafka’s book tanked, “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.” Fashion is the attempt to evade that principle: to be the echo of someone else’s success and, therefore, to create nothing that might create an echo of its own.
Facing up to what haunts you and finding a form and structure for it can never be a commercial enterprise. That stuff’s too chaotic and unpredictable, too messy and gorgeous, to fit a popular template. But it’s the source of your originality and may well prove popular in the end.
To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. This retreat has to be accomplished without severing the vital connection to the world, and to people, that feeds the imagination. It’s a difficult balance. And here is where these ruminations about writing touch on morality. The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life?
Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers said: “Stay within yourself.” And, most of all, don’t forget Nadine Gordimer’s advice. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap. Young as you are, play dead—so that your eyes will stay open.
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