By Bonnie Stanard
After reading Seize the Day years ago, I could hardly put together a sentence until I got over its effect. Saul Bellow’s novel is so insightful and culturally savvy, its impact on writers is a two-edged sword. Some are inspired to try harder. Others become disheartened and feel like throwing in the towel.
This is about vocabulary and language aptitude as well as the ability to construct meaningful associations from life experiences. Bellow had the ability to observe common phenomena we don’t notice ourselves and, by some stroke of magic, crystallize them into truths.
Ian McEwan is another author I read at the risk of becoming so intimidated my own work seems a waste of energy. At his best, he puts into words concepts that make us see ourselves in a different light. Several novelists come to mind whose talents have, at one time or another, poked holes in my ambition to write—Truman Capote, Annie Proulx, and Zadie Smith.
My failing in this situation is that I lose faith in myself. Faced with awesome novels, I forget that I am writing, not to be perfect, but to grow mentally and to try to understand people and the world we live in. At the same time, getting better at the game is vital to me. I write this knowing that the ambition to “get it right” thwarts what should be an adventure and constrains the exploration.
This category of “awesome writers” that I’ve made up for myself is a lofty cast. There are aspects of writing other than plucking truths out of daily life. Excellence takes a variety of forms. Sometimes it’s a well-written sentence. Or sharp dialogue. A captivating voice. And then there are the different genres that require altogether different expertise. As a professional, I need to recognize and value the quality of diverse skills.
To a lesser degree and in a different respect, Don DeLillo’s White Noise gave me writer’s block. I feverishly underlined the explosive language of the first fifty pages. After a while, the plot sagged and the book became more about word acrobatics than substance. Likewise with the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. As well as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. These writers have a command of idiom and word technique that I can only dream of. On the other hand, in spite of the excellent wordplay I didn’t finish reading any of these books.
It takes courage to believe in ourselves. To take on the competition. Courage to submit our creations to the public. Courage to persevere in the face of rejections. Jessamyn West said it: “Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely necessary.”