Michael Dirda on the Writer’s Life
Bill McAllen Photography
Bill McAllen Photography
Dirda was the keynote speaker at a special event at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library on the evening of May 14.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is awarded annually to the graduating Washington College senior judged to show the most literary ability and promise and is based on portfolios submitted by the students. This year’s winner received a check for $61,192.
Mr. Dirda’s remarks:
Let me begin with some words of consolation. One of you will be the happy recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize, worth—as we know—a considerable amount of money. But the other four here tonight will need to hold back their tears and put on a brave smile. It will make little difference to hear, as you may, that the choice of this year’s Sophie Kerr winner was a difficult decision. In fact, it will make it seem worse. That little voice in your head will cry out: If only I’d tried a little harder, had run that last paragraph through my typewriter—to use an old-fashioned metaphor—one more time.
No, you will feel heartbroken for a while. But, if you are meaning to pursue a literary career, it’s best to get used to that feeling right away. The great French writer Colette—author of Gigi, Cheri and many other books—once said that to be a writer was to take on a vocation of unhappiness.
While there may be occasional successes, occasional prizes and recognitions, there will also be books that don’t quite work out and that you have to scrap after six months’ labor, books that critics pan, or even worse, praise with wan, faint praise, books that no publisher wants, books that don’t sell and then disappear, seemingly forever.
As the great American sports writer Red Smith used to say: Writing is easy. You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
When I was in high school, the graduating class awarded Senior Superlatives. Seniors were voted most intelligent, best looking, most athletic, best all around etc etc. As it happens, I was short-listed for several of these, ahem, honors and won none of them. It was then that one of my more waggish friends dubbed me Most Likely to Just Miss Succeeding.
That’s how writing often feels.
Meanwhile, as a writer, you pour your heart out, using every element of writing craft and cunning that you know, while you are probably having to pay the bills by waitressing or teaching or borrowing from your long-suffering and indulgent parents. What’s more, people see you sitting around all day and assume you are doing nothing. It’s always tempting, moreover, to prove them right: Why not play video games for a couple of hours? Or have a beer? Or go thrift-shopping for designer shoes? Ezra Pound once said that more poets fail through lack of character than for any other reason.
To be a writer you have to love sitting in a chair for hours on end while putting words down on paper or on a screen and then fiddling with them. Why would you do this? Because, regardless of how good a writer you actually may or may not be, only writing seems to satisfy your soul, only writing makes you, in some sense, happy. And I don’t mean the joy in having written, but the writing itself. One of the great benefits of being a journalist lies in knowing that you will always, every day or at least every week, be expected to sit down to write something. After more than 35 years of reviewing books, I still feel—when I start typing the title of the latest work I’m reviewing—a deep, deep peace. I am where I’m supposed to be.
A story: I come from a working-class background and was always a rather cavalier student in a high school famous only for its high level of juvenile delinquency. I received a D in English in the first grading period of my senior year. But I did love to read.
A quick digression: I’m presuming that your teachers and your own inclinations have made clear that reading a lot and reading widely is the best preparation for a writing life? End of digresson.
Besides liking to read, I scored phenomenally well on standardized tests. So I wrote a letter to nearby Oberlin College and told them that if they gave me a scholarship I’d work really, really hard and they would be proud of me one day.
Well, the admissions officer bought my argument and I worked hard and eventually did do well in the eyes of many. But my father always judged me a failure. If I was so smart, why wasn’t I really rich, with a Cadillac and a house on a hill with a swimming pool? No matter what I said to him about my job, he couldn’t take writing book reviews seriously; it didn’t seem like proper work for a grown man. He, himself, never read any books. Well, I decided to win the Pulitzer Prize in criticism to impress him—he’d heard of that. In 1993 I finally did win, after losing for three years in a row, but by then he’d been dead from cancer for six months.
That too is part of the writing life, of life in general. The rewards or the recognitions will come eventually, if you persist. But they almost never come at the right time, when you most want and need them. They arrive when you are nearly, if not quite, indifferent to them.
Others are indifferent to them too. My mother, who is now 90, believes in the balance, the tao of the universe. If something good happens to you or your family, that means something bad will soon balance it out. Yin and Yang. So I called my mom up 20 years ago and said “Mom, Mom, I won the Pulitzer Prize.” Long pause on the phone and then she said: “Well, guess there’s no point in going to bingo tonight.”
I don’t generally like to give advice, but, appropriately enough, I do like stories. To me the two best pieces of advice for young writers both come from great musicians. One is a story told about Jascha Heifetz or some other violin virtuoso. There was a boy, a young man, who had been taking violin lessons for years and felt he had the makings of a concert career. One day Heifetz performed in his town and the master was persuaded to listen to the young man play. At the end of the session, Heifetz looked up and said, “I’m sorry, but you will never be a violinist.”
The young man was crushed. He gave up playing and went off and got an MBA and entered business and made a fortune. Twenty-five years later, Heifetz came again to his town and again the man, now middle aged, requested a private audience. This time he spoke to the musician, “Twenty five years ago you told me I’d never be a violinist. You broke my heart.” Heifetz looked into his eyes and said, “If you truly had it in you to be a violinist, if you really wanted that life more than any other, nothing I said would have made any difference.”
That’s the first story. Here’s the second. The great pianist Artur Schnabel is revered as arguably the greatest performer of Beethoven’s sonatas of all time. And yet if you listen to his records you will hear, as his fingers go machine-gunning through the Hammerklavier sonata or some of the others, an occasional mistake, a wrong note, a missed key. An admirer once asked Schnabel why he didn’t play more perfectly, with a little more caution and restraint. To which the maestro replied bluntly: “Safety last.” It was only by pushing himself, by risking failure and making the occasional mistake that he could achieve the magnificence of his greatest performances.
To the winner of this year’s Sophie Kerr prize, whomever it may be, I’d like to add a burden to the happiness and joy of today. People believe that you have gifts, talent, possible greatness. You have an obligation to justify that belief. It doesn’t matter if you fail, if nobody ever hears of you or your writing again. Right now you need to try and try hard. You have taken money from four others who have dreamt of what that it could do to foster their own careers. You need to be worthy of them.
And to you four others: I know how you feel. I’ve sat where you have and longed to hear my name announced and it wasn’t. Just this month I was one of four finalists for the Marfield Prize, a national arts award worth $10,000. They called another name. But, as my mother would say, if you don’t play, you can’t win.
By that I mean that you may have lost today but you never know about the future. Consider this: “Why I Live at the P.O”—one of Eudora Welty’s greatest and most famous stories—was rejected by the New Yorker, Collier’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Magazine, and even Good Housekeeping. At the famous Bread Loaf Writer’s Workshop, “the unanimous opinion was that nobody would ever buy” her equally famous story “Powerhouse.” As you probably know, before her death Eudora Welty was the first living writer to see her work published in the Library of America. May all of you here this evening come to write as badly as Miss Welty.