The following text is adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners.
In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.” Hitchens’s untimely death last year, at the age of sixty-two, has thrown this remark into relief, pressing upon those of us who persist in writing the uncomfortable truth that anything we’re working on has the potential to be published posthumously; that death might not be far off, and that, given this disturbing reality, we might pay attention to it.
It’s not very nice of me to bring up death tonight, as we gather to celebrate ten emerging writers. Talented and accomplished as you all are, you’re just getting going, so why should I rain on your parade? Here’s why: because Gordimer’s advice about writing posthumously may be the best way to help your writing in the here-and-now. It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.
All of the constraints Hitchens mentions have one thing in common: they all represent a deformation of the self. To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.
Does that sound like you? O.K., but that’s only half the story. You’re also the college sophomore standing in a corner of a keg party in the basement of some desperate dorm. You’re standing in the corner because the light is dim. Dim light is a plus. In the hour or so before leaving your room, while you were lying on your bed innocently reading Flaubert, a zit of incomparable size and ferocity erupted in the middle of your forehead. The size of this blemish, its fiery and painful swollenness, were almost enough to keep you from coming to this party in the first place. Better to just stay in bed and read “Sentimental Education.” But there’s this person of interest you’re hoping to see at the party and you thought that maybe with a little concealer or by combing down your bangs you might be able to appear in public, so this is what you do, only to end up, sometime later, standing in the corner, feeling the zit on your forehead actually pulse, like a second heartbeat. Your friends come up to say, “Hi,” pretending not to notice. You love them for this. You begin to think that your existence on earth isn’t a total mistake when suddenly you spy the person of interest across the room. Here’s your chance. With your head down, like someone using a Geiger counter, you make your way across the room. As you pass the person of interest, you gather courage and lift your face, despite everything, but the person of interest is talking to somebody else, and so you keep on going, all the way out of the party and the dorm. And then you’re outside, under the black, unfeeling sky. In that moment there is no one as lonely, lovelorn, and unlovable as you; and yet this feeling of hopelessness mixes, oddly, with a perverse kind of hope, of resistance to the regrettable physical facts, and you’re filled with the desire to write something, to go back to your room and be like Flaubert, solitary and misanthropic and a God-damned genius.
That’s what you were probably like. I know you guys. We recognize each other.
So what I’m saying is, this is what got you here tonight: your over-stimulated, complicated, by turns ecstatic and despondent, specific self. And if you’re anything like I was when I got one of these awards, some twenty years ago, you didn’t know exactly how you did it. You write your first stuff pretty much for yourself, not thinking anybody will read, much less publish, it, not thinking it’ll earn money, therefore not worrying about pleasing anyone or falling in line with any agenda; not worrying about censoring yourself, either, because who’s going to see it? And, miraculously, it worked out. Not only did you get published but older, established writers read your stuff and nominated you for a Whiting and the selection committee met and picked you out a huge body of nominees. And so here you are tonight, in New York City, and—I don’t want to ruin your night or anything—but everything’s about to change. You’re not writing for yourself anymore. Now you’re a published author or a playwright whose one-act has been produced—and suddenly everybody thinks you’re a professional. You did it before, wrote a book, a play, a collection of poetry, so you can do it again, right? And as you begin to worry about how to do that, that’s when your immune system is at its weakest and the pathogens can make their way in.
Fashion will come at you from two directions, from outside and in. You might start noticing what’s getting attention in the press. You might begin to forget the person you are in order to write and sound like someone else. Alternately, you might be tempted to repeat yourself. To follow the fashion of your own previous work, to stop exploring, learning and trying new things, for risk of failure.
If you try to write posthumously, however, fashion doesn’t apply. You step off the catwalk, ignoring this season’s trends and resigning yourself to being unfashionable and possibly unnoticed, at least for a while. As Kurt Woolf, Kafka’s first publisher in Germany, wrote to him after Kafka’s book tanked, “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.” Fashion is the attempt to evade that principle: to be the echo of someone else’s success and, therefore, to create nothing that might create an echo of its own.
The Yankees played the Detroit Tigers in the A.L.C.S. last week, to a highly satisfying conclusion, from my perspective. Doug Fister, starting right-hander for the Tigers, when asked how the team was dealing with the pressure, had something like this to say: “We just try to stay within ourselves. That’s what we’ve been doing all year, as a team. The important thing to do, as a pitcher, is I just try to stay within myself. So, yeah, when I’m out there, on the mound, in a game like that, a big game, what I’m thinking about is staying within myself. Because the important thing to do in a situation like this is, you know, to stay within yourself.”
Professional athletes aren’t always the most articulate people. Athletes are rarely nominated for a Whiting Award (though the committee might consider R.A. Dickey of the Mets next year). A lack of articulateness, however, doesn’t mean that the speaker doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A Major League pitcher is dealing with big-time pressure. Don’t discount the wisdom of “stay within yourself.” Fister knows whereof he speaks. And don’t for a minute think that you, as writers, are under any less pressure. Society at large may not recognize it, but every morning when you go to your writing desks you’re up against not the Yankees but the literary tradition, two thousand years of great works to admire, learn from, compete against, and, hopefully, expand. It’s no small task you’ve set yourself. Don’t let anybody tell you different.
The other trap you might fall into is to start thinking about money. “No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Samuel Johnson. Well—and I’ve never gotten to do this before—I’d like to disagree with Dr. Johnson. Once you start conceiving of your book as a commodity, you start thinking about readers as potential buyers, as customers to be lured. This makes you try to anticipate their tastes and cater to them. In doing so, you begin to depart from your own inclinations rather than respond to what the Irish novelist, Colm Toibin, has referred to as “the stuff that won’t go away.” “It seems that the essential impulse in working is … to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find a form and structure for it.” Facing up to what haunts you and finding a form and structure for it can never be a commercial enterprise. That stuff’s too chaotic and unpredictable, too messy and gorgeous, to fit a popular template. But it’s the source of your originality and may well prove popular in the end.
Your audience, as it grows, your need for a teaching job, the fact of being taken seriously and reviewed by people—all these things might lead you to over-analyze your words and censor them. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.” You’re too young to remember this—I’m too young to remember this—but in 1976 Vivian Gornick wrote an essay called “Why Do these Men Hate Women?” Underneath this boldfaced headline were the photos of Normal Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Mailer probably enjoyed that, but I doubt Updike and Roth did. Still, what did Philip Roth do in response to that attack? He went on to publish books like “Sabbath’s Theater,” in order to provoke such critics rather than placate them. And the important thing isn’t whether you like Philip Roth or think he’s a nice person or a misogynist or a pervert or just really funny; the important thing is that no one would dispute that Roth has continued to be the writer he had to be, a writer who has been lionized and vilified. But, let’s face it, mostly lionized.
And why do people like Roth live way out in the country, anyway? Because living in the sticks is like being dead—it’s a way of forgetting that anybody’s watching. It’s a way of writing posthumously. Better, of course, if you can do it in Brooklyn, where you can get a decent meal, but do whatever you have to do.
Equally insidious is to adopt a bien pensant manner, to make sure that everything you say is earnest and well meaning, the kind of thing Bono might put in a lyric. Piety can be another form of censorship.
You get what I’m saying. The same goes for spouting popular ideas, intellectual or otherwise, that aren’t your own. You have to watch yourself closely because it’s easy for some trendy notion to filter in. You put it in a sentence and it sounds reasonably intelligent. Then your book comes out and, out of all the thousands of words in it, that one little word gets noticed by some wag in Cobble Hill, who traces it back to the source you borrowed it from, and in that moment you feel very, very small. You feel undeserving of the privilege of being a writer, in the company of all the writers whose stringent examples you set out, long ago, to emulate.
I’m winding down now. They tell me there’s going to be a party after this. I don’t want to keep you from your rightful fun. In closing, let me say one more thing about Mr. Kafka. When Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, in Berlin, he reacted at first with a serenity amounting almost to relief. As his health deteriorated, he became more fearful: “What I have playacted is really going to happen,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life and now I will really die.”
To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. This retreat has to be accomplished without severing the vital connection to the world, and to people, that feeds the imagination. It’s a difficult balance. And here is where these ruminations about writing touch on morality. The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life? Anyway, it’s the one you’ve chosen, the first fruits of which we’re here to honor tonight. It’s an honor for me to preside over this ceremony. I’m happy to do it in gratitude for the help the Whiting Foundation has given so many writers, including myself. I don’t remember who made the speech and read the citations my year, as you probably won’t remember me. That’s O.K. Just remember what Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers said: “Stay within yourself.” And, most of all, don’t forget Nadine Gordimer’s advice. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap. Young as you are, play dead—so that your eyes will stay open.