bites the nails of success
A couple of months ago we were sitting in a bar with Ethan as he prepared to give the Prairie Lights reading for Carry Me Across the Water, which had just come out. He was counseling us against ambition.
"It's like cocaine," he said. "It never stops. You always want more."
Right now all of us are trying so hard to get published that it makes us dizzy. But getting a story published, of course, is only the first step. After that it's getting a story in, say, The New Yorker, and then it's getting a book out, and then it's getting people to notice your book, and then it's getting a second book out that doesn't flop, and then it's the endless succession of awards and fellowships that everyone's jockeying for. There's this idea that being a Published Author will somehow be qualitatively different than our situation now, but of course it won'tif anything, it will be worse because we'll have to deal with our neuroses in semi-public view. Book toursChrist. As David Foster Wallace told Salon some time ago:
It's probably like this in anything. I see my students do this with me. You're a young writer. You admire an older writer, and you want to get to where that older writer is. You imagine that all the energy that your envy is putting into it has somehow been transferred to him, that there's a flipside to it, a feeling of being envied that's a good feeling the way that envy is a hard feeling. You can see it as the idea of being in things for some kind of imaginary goal involving prestige rather than for the pursuit itself. It's a very American illness, the idea of giving yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some way about you I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling alienated and lonely and stressed out?
You wonder why 50-60 percent (I estimate) of the Workshop is on psychiatric medication. You work hard in high school so you can get into a good college, and then you work hard in college for a high GPA so you can look nice and pretty for the MFA programs, and then you get into a good MFA program and kill yourself trying to get noticed by anyonethe faculty, lit magazines, these piddling contests with $20 entry feesso that you have (you imagine) a fighting chance at a career, and then... it just goes on. This mentality of prizes and awards has to stop. A writing career is not an M&M trail where you get a tasty treat every year or so to keep you going. It has tolook. I put a sign over my computer reading "THE WORK IS WHAT SAVES YOU." The only way to keep sane through all of this is to treat the writing process as a Sisyphean labor performed for its own sake, and not to any final reward. The rewards are evanescent, fucking Fata Morganas. You work because you must. You work because you have chosen to define yourself by the work. You work because you are incapable of doing anything else.
Some days, it's better than this.