Over the past few years, I have been reading Michael Chabon’s books, Wonder Boys, The Jewish Policeman’s Union and Kavalier and Clay. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing and deservedly so. As I look at how he constructs his stories and the vocabulary, I understand why I am never going to be a successful author. It is miraculous to me how one can conceptualize the written words on a page that seem to jump out at you and say, “ I am something new and I still use the English language.”
If you have read anything by Kafka or Proust or even JK Rowling, don’t you say to yourself, “How can they do these things?” There is something very mysterious about the ability to write. I often think that it is genetic, a place in the brain, somewhere in the cortex that enables a writer to transfer complicated thoughts into wonderful sentences.
I have no such illusions about my own writing. I have long understood that I am a popularizer- writing simple concepts in kind of newspaper jargon. The most difficult thing that I ever had to do was write my dissertation. I was all about the research and had no skill in putting my findings down on paper. My advisor, Charlie Guditus ( god rest his soul), spent an entire year trying to get me to express my problem statement. It was with bloody fingers that wrote each one of my chapters in a form that was totally foreign to me.Even now, when I pull it out from a musty corner of a bookcase, it seems that someone else wrote it.
I can kind of see how people write mind flush mysteries ( although, I am not sure about Arthur Conan Doyle), and political thrillers. There has to be an outline and characters and some sort of plot- the president has been replaced by an android, the world is doomed by an invasion of seed pods from outer space. That is the kind of thing that I understand.
Can you imagine how the plotline for Harry Potter was conceived by the author so that it continued for seven books. I am not saying that Rowling is in a class with Hemingway, but the sheer volume of thought that went into the series is amazing.
In times past, I have made some effort to write in another voice. I have penned a small opus called, There are not Subways in Lickingville, an expression of the plight of rural people in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I have even contributed to a book, which I helped to edit on rural education. All of these were still popular writing, but certainly not anything that will stand the test of time.
I am not sure that some writers are even aware of their skills. Kafka insisted that his brother burn all of his manuscripts after his death. Emily Dickinson was seen as kind of an eccentric hermit. Her notoriety began after her death. Edgar Allen Poe sold a few books and in his death, we discovered that he had invented a new way of writing. He sold his most famous poem, The Raven for 9 bucks. Jane Austen and James Agee did not become well known until after their passing. I guess we are really our own worst critics.