The latest issue of THE NEW YORKER includes in its "Talk of the Town" section a brief three-way interview with Jonathan Lethem, Steven Sonderbergh, and Patti Smith. This disparate trio was together to receive honorary doctorates from the Pratt Institute during its graduation ceremonies. A NEW YORKER writer talked to them backstage.
Lethem, of course, is the literary darling who began as an SF writer and still writes science fiction occasionally. His very fine novels include GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC and MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. I met Jonathan years ago at an annual writing conference called Sycamore Hill; he is a genuinely nice guy. His mini-interview prompted me to make several observations:
1) He left college his sophomore year to bum around the country and try to write, and never returned.
2) THE NEW YORKER did not cover the honorary doctorate I received six or so years ago.
3) The interview included a very interesting statement: "It was strange when I look at what I was writing then [at 19]. It's like time travel, but in both directions. Because that totally helpless nineteen-year-old seems to have inklings about what I was actually going to be able to do."
I wish this statement were clearer. Does Jonathan mean that his young self knew in the back of his mind that someday he would be a success? Or does he mean that his early writing showed glimmers of the same strengths and subject matter that his mature work explores more successfully?
This is on my mind because I am currently reading, critiquing, and line-editing manuscripts for Taos Toolbox, a workshop I begin teaching June 6. Each student shows different strengths and weaknesses. I hope, of course, to encourage the former and teach techniques for correcting the latter. But even in these fledgling authors, the basic writerly signature is there. What is NOT there is clear indication of who will be able to learn, who will persevere, who can grow as a fiction writer. Nor do I think they know whether they will succeed. Certainly, at 19 -- or 29, or 39 -- I didn't know.
So how come Jonathan did? IF that is indeed what he meant.