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Monday, November 8, 2010

"All the Pretty Horses," McCarthy, and my [lack of] Confidence as a Writer

There are writers whom I admire, whom I emulate, and who inspire me to be better; then there are those writers--not many--who just make me depressed, simply because they are such unapproachable masters.  Among these authors, each of whom fit somewhere among this list, are Michael Chabon, who is likely the closest thing to which I aspire; Tolkein, whom I admire immensely and who awes me; Steinbeck, who seems to provide me with inspiration for all kinds of things, not just writing (or at least his characters and his words do); and then there's Cormac McCarthy. 

Of the author a critic from the New York Times Book Review writes, responding to All the Pretty Horses, that McCarthy "puts most other American writers to shame."  As I endeavor (in word count, pathetically) to accomplish my first NaNoWriMo goal, and having read the scathing review of the enterprise by Laura Miller of Salon.com (much of which I highly agree with), I wonder, for realzies, if I should even bother.  I've got a book STILL in the final reviewing stages at a publishing house (IT'S TAKING SO LONG; and how great can it be if they're STILL deliberating!), I've got two books underway, and I still love to write and will always do so anyway, but is it really worth bothering with or stressing over getting published?  Is it really a valuable use of my time and little-available emotions?

I don't know, but I am nothing if not an optimistic person.

I've read a lot of books.  I would even venture to claim that I have read thousands of books, many of which I've read more than once (yes, I am a re-reader, and I highly recommend that you become one as well, if you're not already).  That said, I have not read a lot of McCarthy.  Shame on me.  I know.  He has passively climbed, via the transmission of just over one hundred pages, to the tippy top of my list.  Bar none.  Well, unless Chabon comes out with a new one.

I read The Road.  I loved it.  I read it twice.  I taught it once.  Haven't read it?  READ IT!  It's fast, it's easy, it's tragic, it's flipping amazing (lexically speaking it's easy; emoitionally speaking, it will bowl you over like a glacier), it won the National Book Award, for crying out loud, and yet it is not as good as All the Pretty Horses, which I'm not even halfway through yet.

How does McCarthy write?  Unconventionally.  At first glace, even lazily.  I don't get it!  He writes like he doesn't give a crap about the English language, and yet he pracitcally DEFINES what the English language is in the U.S. of A. in the first place!  The man doesn't punctuate.  Period.  Except for the period, I mean.  He practically doesn't use adjectives or adverbs at all (and I use way too many, especially "especially" and "particularly" and "certainly" (yes, I'm self-aware, and even of my overuse of punctuation, which use I generally defend, but which, in McCarthy's shadow, embarrasses me)).  He is so supremely confident and so lazer-focused in his writing that he does just what he wants, exactly how he wants, and it works so well it's heart-breaking and crushing and spectacular, and all these only after you remember that you're reading a book in the first place.  He's like a black hole.  You don't see a black hole.  You know it's there because you see what it does to everything around it.  Cormac McCarthy writes a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a book, and he only tells you THIS MUCH (imagine my thumb and forefinger just barely not touching), yet you know three, four, five times more than anything he tells you about his characters, his setting, his plot, his intentions for guiding your thoughts and your heart.  He is the minimalist, imagist writer of prose that Hulme and Pound and Williams are of poetry.  I don't think I can give a higher compliment.

Within two pages, the man has made me laugh my guts out, while being simultaneously awed (not about the writing, though I was, but about the situation and characters) and then finding the briefest piece of equine-metaphor and philosophy the likes of which might be found in the finest Steinbeck passage, yet told so much more briefly and at least as profoundly.  (Maybe we'll eventually read this book here (if I have any guts left), and I'll pose the questions to you that it brought to me.)

Here's the crux of the issue once again: when I read these authors who just blow my brains right out the back of my head (think symbolically of Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket), I want to be just like them.  Imagine the hopelessly ambitious--and hopeless--eighth grade boy claiming he's going to be a professional basketball player when he grows up.  That's me with these guys.  Except I'm 33.  I read McCarthy and I want to go back and rewrite all ten thousand words of my NaNoWriMo attempt, because I think it will work better if I do it like McCarthy.  If I'm reading Steinbeck (which I'm doing right now, too, so imagine the bizarre combination and conflict of ambitions here!), I want to go back and insert philosophy and enrichen my characters with more words.  If I'm reading Chabon, I wonder why I can't arrange my words just right to make them spring off the page like Disney "Real-D," which HIS WORDS ACTUALLY--and, I swear, they PHYSICALLY--DO (I don't know how he does it; it undefinable; he, like, uses them just SO, that a single word is suddenly more than it ever was or could be out of your own fingers).  Each of these guys' styles are so THEM (not to mention someone like Saramago or Barthelme or any of my other five million literary idols), and I want to be just SO ME, just like they are so them.

Am I?  Does it matter?  Will anyone care if I am?  Well, not if I don't get published.  Not if I don't keep it up!

And yeah, yeah, I know, there's room for all kinds of writers and there are all kinds of audiences and there are countless chances, especially since I'm just going to keep doing it anyway, because I love it, right?

I'm not looking for consolation.  I'm not looking for compliments (unless you're a publisher and want to read my books!).  I want to be great.  I mean, GREAT.  I want to be a McCarthy, a Chabon, a Tolkein, or a Steinbeck.  I want someone to read something I write and be inspired.  Okay, so maybe I don't want to be McCarthy then, because he makes me want to shrivel up and die and stop telling students that I know what I'm doing or talking about when I say "this is how you should write."

So, I write.  I practice.  And I have four thousand words to slog through to catch up with my NaNoWriMo schedule, in a book that, so far, is exactly all the crap that NaNoWriMo professes it should be.  (And thank goodness, right?  Less pressure that way, right?)

I suppose I can take some consolation in the fact that each of the guys listed didn't just explode onto the scene out of nowhere when they were twenty-one years old or whatever and somehow gain the staying power that holds them yet in the literary eye after all these years (well, okay, Chabon did).  Maybe there's hope yet for this somewhat and ever aging "young" man tapping away at a fairly worthless blog entry that practically no one will read.

So on to NaNoWriMo.



  1. brother--i think this is one of your best blog posts yet. even if i didn't know you, i think i could read between the lines and feel your passion for writing. it's powerful. keep practicing. who knows when your lucky break will be. i'm cheering for you! SOMEONE in the family needs to be published, for crying out loud.

  2. p.s. i have some of the same aspirations. i'd love to be published, too. i would never dream or dare to hope to be as symbolic and important to literature as steinbeck or tolkien or lewis carroll but maybe someday i'll see a little display in the window of barnes & noble highlighting my work. maybe someday.

  3. It hurts to be called, "practically no one." Although I do live in a basement and work toward a degree specializing in arguing over the political theory of wars that were fought hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago, so maybe you're right.

    I feel the same way. The worst is sometimes (and this might just be because I read so many of the classics, but I doubt it), I read a book and it's so great that somehow I feel as though all the great books have already been written. I know it's not true, but you can't read the "Lord of the Rings" and not think, "Nothing like this will ever be written again." At least I can't think that. It's a bit like I feel politically about the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln; there's nothing any modern politician could do to ever match that. But then, Lincoln as a youth also believed that HE could never match the founders. So I like to think that there is a little greatness left in us, whether it's writing, politics, or any field, even if it's tucked away in the back closet of the mind and is hidden under some old, wrinkled clothes.

  4. *At least I can't not think that. It gets hard with all the double-negatives; good advice to stay away from them!

  5. I've never had a hard time with worrying that all the great books have already been written, because the majority of what I read is contemporary, and there's always something new. What I have a hard time understanding is how people not only find a way to do something new (not the hardest of things) but do it with greatness and gain recognition for it. I don't know why I so crave publication.... Maybe it's a hunger for validation.

    Aside from that, I was NOT ascribing anyone who does happen to read what I write here "practically no one;" I consider you--James and Katie, and any of the silent others--more highly than perhaps you will ever know (and I'm not calling you stupid or short-sighted either :) ).

  6. Katie -- EVERY TIME I pass a book store or go by the bookracks at the grocery store (the latter, saddly, much more the frequent locus for my literary perusals than anywhere else), I picture what the jacket design might be like when I finally have a work there. And any time you want a reader, just let me know.

  7. I think your first paragraph is kind of what I am trying to say, too. I know intellectually that there are new books and new ideas and new greatness, it's just hard to figure out HOW they pulled it off!

    I know you said you don't want any "consolation," but this post inspired me to write another 2000 or so words for my novel for the first time in a few days. Up to about 8200. Like I said, I don't expect to finish it by the end of November, but at least it's giving me a good start. The problem is that every time I do this I end up taking about 2 hours, which I think is probably longer than they want, and it discourages me from writing again unless I have a lot of time.

    Also, thanks for the kind words. You mean a lot to all of us, too.


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