Friday, October 19, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 10

To sustain your work as a writer, you not only have to write the books that you can successfully complete, you also have to write the books you were meant to write.
When I started writing, I wanted to be exactly like the artists I admired. They included the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and oddly enough, the French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, who was not a writer, but whose attitude and politics I admired. So I imitated them at first. When I got to college, the poets my literature professors promoted as role models were Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. There are still many things I admire about those two, as much as I find their politics extremely distasteful. I especially admire their multilingual and international approach to literature, and the originality of their diction. When I’m trying to get my eight-year-old son into his shoes and jacket and out the door, I still find myself saying out loud these lines from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky

As soon as I started to meet people my age who also hoped to be writers, I wanted to write like my junior-year-in-college roommate and fellow poet, who admired André Breton and the French surrealists. Surrealism continues to be a lighthouse for me, even though my acid-head roommate ended up becoming a minister, but that’s another story.
In general, the trick is not to write like the authors you admire, but to find the way that you, personally, were meant to write.
There’s a famous story about the 18th century Hasidic leader, Rabbi Zusya. Hasidism is the mystical branch of Judaism. The story goes like this:
Once, the great religious leader Rabbi Zusya went to speak to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
“Zusya, you look terrified. What's the matter?” asked one of his followers.
“The other day, I had a vision,” Zusya responded. “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
His followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you’re pious, scholarly, and humble. You’ve helped so many of us. What question could you be afraid of?”
Zusya turned his gaze to heaven. “I’ve learned that the angels won’t ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ The angels won’t ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’ The angels will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power in heaven or on earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They’ll say, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’” 

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10

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