Friday, May 28, 2010

Writers When Young

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.


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bluesman miike Lindner said...

I couldn't agree more.

TheOFloinn said...

I knew I was going to write sf when I was 10 or 12; maybe younger. My brother and I used to write stories in pencil in Spiral notebooks liberally illustrated with Magic Marker. I still have a few rejection slips I collected from those days.

skiffywife said...

I suspect many aspiring writers have that "inkling." Many of them, though, eventually come to realize that the success they yearned for, whether artistic or commercial, isn't going to happen. By definition, we never heard about those people because they never gained an audience.

It's only those who have achieved such success that we hear from -- thus the myth that having the inkling or experiencing the internal knowledge that the dream can be achieved is a precursor to the actual achievement.

Nancy Kress said...

Can anybody translate the first comment from Chinese?

qiihoskeh said...

It consists of links to adult sites. I can't read it, although the character for "heaven" appears several times.