Friday, September 11, 2009
Dear Thomas Chiarella,
I am confused on a certain matter. I was hoping you would be kind enough to clear it up for me, if you have the time.
Why are you the Esquire Fiction Editor?
While I can picture your life, and I have read your work, and the series of events that led up to your position aren't hard to fathom, none of these perspectives impart understanding so I pose the question to you directly.
First, if you will permit me, a writing exercise.
As I imagine it, this is your life:
In high school you are head of the literary club. Heedless of its awfulness you produce a torrent of fiction and poetry. Work you now admit is worthless. You occasionally do this at parties with a self-deprecating slash of wit when deflecting questions pertaining to your current writing project.
You haven't touched it in months. The One That Matters.
These early attempts are no sin, because all writers are awful at first and you are no exception. This early awfulness is a rite of passage and you feel that these failed attempts have made you strong. They prepared you for a long life of rejection as you pursue your artistic vision in the margins of a shallow and fickle cultural consciousness.
But, graduating high school, flush with a sense of destiny and the feeling of largeness at your power to create, you check the undergrowth of greatness and quail.
The writers we remember burn these early pieces of offal and the great editors pretend they never had them. You save them. At the bottom of some trunk, in the back of some filing cabinet, and in the back of your head these things to you are still precious gems for all their wretchedness.
Of the many compromises you will make, this is the first of significance.
Packing these bits in an old binder you apply to a college with a reputation built on its English department, and you set your foot to the first cobble of a long and oblivious road.
You consider yourself a mild nihilist, on your good days an existential theist, and you tell yourself that you are writing for yourself first and that as long as you have written to your own high standard the world can rust to its bones and you will be satisfied. Impermanence is the only permanent. But in moments of crushing personal honesty and sobriety, between cocktails and the book launchings of friends and highballs at The Red Key, when it's late and the anti-depressants and the benzodiazepams wear thin, the lack of real recognition rots in your gut like a sour meal. And you do not know why you are not loved.
You tell yourself that no one will ever be as harsh a critic of your work as you. That as long as you maintain this mental discipline with the assiduity of a Gregorian monk you will always be able to keep the knives at bay. It is unfortunate but you have always managed to successfully lie to yourself in this regard.
As a meek and quiet literary student in that respectable English department you cling first to the edges, not speaking at the round tables, sitting wide eyed while absorbing literary theory. You churn out an endless number of exercises on dialog and pacing and character and are required to, terror of terrors, read your work aloud in front of the class. The other students only feel confident enough to tell you what they think you did well, but the professor is a relentless deconstructionist and the taking apart feels like a violation. You think being taken apart is hard, but you do not realize it is being done kindly.
Before too long you turn in your first short story.
It isn't pretty, you think at the time. That professor is ruthless. Red ink everywhere, that's all you can see for days, blind to the encouraging tone of the whole thing.
As you continue to write and turn in short stories the buffered voice of this criticism becomes evident. Your classmates feel free to vigorously disagree with the way you've experimented with your voice but they never tell you what you've done is wrong or bad, only that they disagree. Every once in awhile your professor now drops the most tantalizing praise for the most unexpected of your works.
What you do not realize is that you have begun writing to committee, and that you do not know what you are doing or why you are doing it only that other people are telling you they like it. So you believe them, but have no real faith or understanding in what you are doing.
Soon you are a master at synthesizing group taste into 500-word flash fiction and not too long after that you are able to predict which way the literary herd will turn before it does. You establish yourself as something to keep an eye on in the faculty lounge. You make friends that will in later life, when you are in your forties and drowning, come through with a gig at Esquire after you land a writer-in-residence holiday at a very prestigious college. Criticism diminishes. Endless praise is given, only your strengths highlighted.
You are confident and you are something, and right when you have attained status and attention, you graduate. Out on your ass in the real world you attempt to make it as a working writer, but the humiliating compromises at the lowly rags you'd have to entertain just to scrape out a living is too shameful a proposition to face. None of your classmates who will later throw you bones at the upscale magazines they edit have yet attained those positions.
You return to the cozy arms of academia and go for your Masters.
In your early thirties you knock up your fiancé. When you pay for her abortion because you aren't ready for children it ends the relationship. The two of you pride yourselves on staying friends. The abortion was a blessing in disguise though you only ever speak of it with a carefully calculated sorrow intended to look as if it has faded but never completely died.
With the woman out of your life, in your early thirties, you are able to devote yourself entirely to the tutelage of your mentor, a professor who is known for having published a number of minor works to the small critical acclaim of friends in similar positions at other universities. The casual sex is low hanging fruit for a maturing lion such as yourself.
Finally, in your early thirties, your mentor deems you a worthy doppelganger and he introduces you to the world. He champions your first collection of short stories all the way to publication. Oh, what a day. It's true everyone admits it, a collection of short stories isn't going to make you rich, but it has been received with incredible warmth by the critics and you never got into this for the money anyway.
A fellow MFA falls hopelessly in love with you, she convinced you will soon gain literary stardom and you convinced she will always ceaselessly admire and praise your work.
Ten years grind by.
Those first few aren't so bad. You write an incredible novel while you're in the P.h.D. program but after three years your agent can't place it and your spirit is flagging. You've been waiting on that book to publish before starting a new one — though you've cranked out a few short stories here and there — hoping the praise would fuel you, but faced with this vast emptiness instead you virtually stop writing. You never prepared yourself for this emptiness.
In the classes you now TA you think that you are a vicious destroyer of bad work, using your bitterness and rage as fuel. In reality you can't help but be a product of your environment and your criticism is quite tame. You persist in your ruthless mission. There are too many bad writers in the world you tell yourself, and you try and fail to crush them all for a few years while you're blocked because they are the competition in the end
Student loans add up and one day the bills come due. The metallic taste of failure won't kick off the back of your throat and your marriage is suffering. A friend with a solid agent who's concerned for your well being convinces you to write a how-to write book. It's a solid paycheck, they tell you, and other greater writers have made what appear to be more critical compromises along the way. Don't sweat it, just write the book and pay some of those damn bills.
And suddenly it's working again. You're writing! The words are coming!
True it's not fiction but my god it feels good to have those words flowing regular again. To concentrate on a sentence. To savor the satisfaction that comes with communicating a thought in an artful and understandable way.
You ignore the voice that tells you this is the wrong way to go about it and you write the damn book. It pays the damn bills. It dawns on you: your old chums are now editors at glossy magazines and there's a tidy living to be made writing non-fiction. Now that you don't have to dirty yourself with plebeian rags you can face the prospect of non-fiction, and here and there thanks to friends, you're beginning to place fiction again.
Once more bills, and once more you ward them off. This time with a golf book. Golf is one of your passions, one might say a meditative wellspring from which you derive great inner peace. So thoroughly are you ensconced in this life of comfort and ambivalence, you can barely remember the bright eyed idealist of twenty whose weak convictions would have been inflamed at the suggestion of such a book just enough to sneer it down.
Still placing short stories with the liberal help of connections, you land yourself a writer-in-residence gig at at a very prestigious university. From there it is only a few drinks to the Esquire Fiction Editor position, where you become a purveyor of mediocrity.
You figure this position is the perfect launching pad for your own doppelgangers. You are convinced that they will succeed where you failed, that it's mostly dumb luck even with all the brilliance and talent and hard work in the world, and you cling to the hope that the one who breaks through the glass ceiling will bring you along.
So, Mr. Chiarella, I'm confused.
Why are you Fiction Editor at one of the best magazines in the world?
I have sent this to you as a fellow writer. The difference between us is that I will one day be great. Though you will do your best to forget this letter, it will crop up from time to time when you least expect it. You will wonder who I am and it will stalk the periphery of your waking mind.
Know only that I will be great beyond what you can hope to attain.
From time to time I will type your name into a search engine and I will smile at your continued tepidity. I will be there experiencing it digitally. Your lack of recognition will comfort me and affirm my belief that ultimately the world rewards excellence. As I claw and rend my way through a deadly Universe with only my ambition and talent and skill and none of your advantages, I will think back on the many rejections and among them I will use the knowledge that I haunt the failed dreams behind yours to great satisfaction.
It will be a lifelong pleasure.
It's a shame. With all the time in the world, you produce nothing of lasting value for it.