Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why Do I Bother?

I'm reading the very brilliant Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus. Every time I read a piece of work of such stature, such grace, written with so seemingly little effort, I wonder why I even bother attempt to practice the (art?) (craft?) of writing.

Ladies and gentlemen (and perhaps others), in short I am a hack. A talentless waste just burning up his time on this mortal coil. Or just a self-defeating wannabe. Take your pick. Take a passage such as the following (bear in mind that Roth was a mere 26 years old when he had this novella published) and you can see what I'm up against:

... I would go into the men's room [at work] on the main floor for a cigarette and, studying myself as I expelled smoke into the mirror, would see that at some moment during the morning I had gone pale, and that under my skin ... there was a thin cushion of air separating the blood from the flesh. Someone had pumped it there while I was [working], and so life from now on would not be a throwing off as it was for Aunt Gladys , and would not be a gathering in, as it was for Brenda, but a bouncing off, a numbness. I began to fear this and yet, in my muscleless devotion to my work, seemed edging towards it ... .

So rarely do you encounter such perfectly constructed words--words that, despite their inner clumsiness, capture the human spirit so wholly. (I know, dear readers, that this sounds like a lot of pretentious claptrap--but so what? It's my blog. Stop reading if you must. Because it's about to get a whole lot worse.)

Mr. John Cheever, another great American master storyteller, also makes me feel unworthy. Take this little passage that he just casually typed into his journals one day:

Mr. Hitchcock ... took each morning a massive tranquilizer that gave him the illusion that he floated, like Zeus, in some allegorical painting, upon a cloud. Standing on the platform waiting for the 7:53, he was surrounded by his cloud. When the train came in he picked up his cloud, boarded the no-smoking coach, and settled himself at a window seat, surrounded by the voluminous and benign folds of his tranquilizer. If the day was dark, the landscape wintry, the string of little towns they passed depressing, none of this reached to where he lay in his rosy nimbus. He floated down the tracks into Grand Central, beaming a vast and slightly absentminded smile at poverty, sickness, the beauty of a strange woman, rain and snow.
Bear in mind, folks, this is the stuff he just tossed out--didn't use in any of his short stories or novels. In other words, this was practice work. Like a Picasso sketch.

So maybe you understand my plight. Maybe you have no sympathy. Maybe you gave up reading this entry long ago. But you read it just the same. There's hope.

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