Do any of you have the same dream I once did, to become a published author? To write the next great American novel? To find yourself on the New York Times best seller list with people asking for more? Well, in my early twenties this was my goal. I spent hours keeping notebooks, jotting down stories, and even drafting three novels. Two of them are finished, and one is half finished and for young adults.
I’ve given all of this up because I would rather write nonfiction. I guess that’s a good thing since I will be doing nothing but that in my Ph.D. program. But somehow, writing nonfiction seems more noble and more attainable in terms of publishing and respectability.
I’m thinking of a woman I knew back in my “fiction” days who also aspired to publish her novel(s). She often asked me to read her writing, and I would, but I never felt moved by it. This woman was in her seventies and had no hope of ever finding an agent or being published, but she soldiered on. I also found myself cringing as I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird when she described her students. In the book, she recounts her experiences teaching creative writing, and every semester her classroom would fill with eager writers, hoping to be published. One particular group ended up sticking together for years, encouraging and critiquing one another, and in all those years only one of them had one short piece published without hope of further publication.
All of this strikes me as pathetic. And embarrassing. And ridiculous. Why does anybody spend hours and days and years writing drivel that will never see the light of day? And if one is lucky enough to get an agent to actually read a query and like it, why add to the plethora of crappy fiction that is on the market? (Please argue with me if I’m being too nihilistic.)
My goal was to write literature, not mysteries or women’s fiction or mass market paperbacks. I realized that I was not capable of it and gave up. Perhaps I am wrong, but whenever somebody reveals to me that they are a “writer” I just feel sorry for them. I guess this is a jaded and cynical view.
However, I have Willa Cather on my side. She is one of the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century. Her work has withstood the test of time, although toward the end of her career she was not appreciated, but neither was Edith Wharton. Cather began as a journalist and often scoffed at other women writers because they wrote for the masses, of sentimentality, and basically romantic crap. She wrote:
“I have not much faith in women in fiction. They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable. They are so limited to one string and they lie so about that. They are so few, the ones who really did anything worth while; there were the great Georges, George Eliot and George Sand, and they were anything but women, and there was Miss Brontë who kept her sentimentality under control, and there was Jane Austen who certainly had more common sense than any of them and was in some respects the greatest of them all. Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace. When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women, and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before.” (qtd. in A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter)
Cather, once she began writing fiction, worked to create an American mythology, best seen in My Ántonia, my favorite novel of hers. It’s the third of a trilogy of the pastoral American west.
To her, this is what a “real” writer does.
Are you a writer? Am I wrong?