Dispatches | February 22, 2012
Not Measuring Up
I have not read Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, but it’s been recommended to me twice, once by Slate and once by a friend who used a less convincing method than Slate’s accolades. The week that she was assigned Veronica by her fiction teacher, my friend would come to my apartment, sit on the hardwood floor with her backpack over her head, ask for a protein bar, weep, eat her own chapstick, and shout, “I will never be as good as Mary!” I would say, “I don’t have protein bars. Do you want popcorn? Who is Mary?” She would respond, “Veronica!” I searched for snacks while our Abbott and Costello misunderstanding continued until she exhausted herself or found her way out of her backpack. When I finally understood that her distress stemmed from the feeling that she would “never be able to write like Mary,” I responded without hesitation, “Well, yeah.”
I was not insulting my friend or commenting on her ineptitude in any way. If I wanted to do that I would have mentioned the chapstick. I wanted to know how she could stand to get through any book trying to compare it to her own writing. I had a moment that I have often as a creative writing student where I wonder if what I’m saying is not a thing that good writers say. It seemed like I should be in trouble or that maybe I had missed the point of four years of English assignments for suggesting that a writer read other literature without considering their own. I said, “You can’t read a book like that. It will drive you insane” to a backpack with limbs.
I never thought too in depth about how I manage, or think I manage, to appreciate the craft of a work without allowing it to get in my head or interrupt the development of what I hope will be a distinct voice. I have always attributed any initial talent I had for writing to the osmosis of reading all the time and eating family dinners with some good storytellers. I knew that the value of assigned readings in school was to hone critical thinking and motivate new art. I could see where my own desires to be a writer fit into a larger literary world, but I never wondered how I measured up. I tried to think of an analogy to describe the way that I read–a comparison to explain why I don’t compare my writing to real authors.
I think “real authors” hints at my psyche when I read. My warped view of celebrity has become a useful way to describe the unattainable, don’t-even-think-about-it attitude I have toward published, bound, essay collections versus my own Microsoft Word printouts. Mary Gaitskill is famous and I know that she is famous because she has written a book and she must be really famous if that book is assigned in school. Fame is odd and mostly fictional, but it is a separation. There is reality where I am and then there is a cloud of celebrity that I can wander around in when E! News is on or when I read a Sarah Vowell book. She’s been on Conan and the radio. I can’t aim for Conan or the radio when I write an essay. It’s with this same reasoning that I don’t end up rolling on the floor with shoes on my hands and a clutch in my mouth every time I try to get dressed and realize I won’t be able to do it as well as Mila Kunis.
It’s probably an unhealthy, somewhat destructive, and a very un-The Secret way of living life to suggest not shooting for the moon. So aim for your personal best or whatever, but everyone already knows that. From what I can tell, a writer spends the rest of their life developing a style and a voice that is distinct. I want my distinctions to remain fresh, not end up muddied by taking every good work of prose as a suggestion.
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