Monday, January 30, 2006

A Ramble: Growing Into, and Out of, and Up

I left work tonight at 9 p.m. and came home with still more work to do in my bag -- which I have yet to do, I admit. But it was a long day, and I am putting the work off a little longer. . . . At home, I changed straight out of my work clothes into my favorite pajamas, made blue cheese spaghettini, and watched last week's "Gilmore Girls" in preparation for tomorrow's. When that was done, I needed to choose my Music to Wash Dishes By, and because I was tired and a little melancholy, I went for Fiona Apple's "When the Pawn . . ." This was an album I picked up five years ago, a couple of years after it came out, because Fiona Apple intrigued me and it received excellent reviews. But I didn't really listen to it or like it until last year, when suddenly I understood it: the dissonances, the irregular beats, the lyrics about love and disappointment -- what I thought moody and self-indulgent at twenty-two was genius and just right once I was twenty-seven.

And this made me think of all the other books and movies I've come to love over time: Possession by A.S. Byatt, which I carried around in seventh grade because I wanted to impress the grown-ups, but which I didn't actually read until my sophomore year of college, when I could understand the literary references and adored it. "Before Sunrise," which I thought nice but a little boring when I saw it my senior year of high school, became the definitive film about making a connection when I watched it again last year. (And with "Before Sunset" it forms a gorgeous, heart-wrenching meditation on just this theme: time passing, things changing.) When I read Bridget Jones's Diary at age twenty I was mostly peeved there weren't more Jane Austen references; as a single girl in the big city three years later (and working at a publishing company, no less), I laughed and winced with Bridget through every romantic and life misstep. The difference of course with all these works was that I had the experiences that inspired their creators -- falling in love, making an idiot of myself on a date, reading the literature, learning the curves. And so I grew into them, in a way I would never have expected when I first encountered them; bittersweet, as all growing up is.

And so I started thinking about a manuscript I received last week from a fifteen-year-old writer, full of Philosophical Thoughts and terrible, terrible metaphors. The writer did some things nicely; the fantasy world was surprising and original, and she described the loneliness of the heroine with a desperation that surely means it's real. But her central love story was idealized and unconvincing -- exactly the kind of love story I would have written at age fourteen, honestly, where a perfect boy rides up and saves the day (bad-metaphorically speaking) and fulfills the martyred heroine's every need. And the writing was just not good, weighted down by telling and characters straight out of other books and drama drama drama.

I want to take this writer by the shoulders and say "Don't try to get published now. Give yourself ten years. Read a hell of a lot, go to college, study literature with good teachers, travel, drink wine, have long conversations late into the night, fall in love, get your heart broken -- and then write this again." The imagination isn't going anywhere; as long as she keeps working it, it will strengthen and deepen over time. But the emotion that lies at the heart of all great art, and the wisdom and skill to create it: That happens only with observation and experience. (Or genius, which I don't think she's quite achieved.) If I did tell her this to her face, I'm sure she'd shake off my hands and roll her eyes and sigh: Being told to be patient is invariably maddening, and Christopher Paolini is famous now. And yet from my wise old vantage of twenty-seven, I have no better advice to give.

I look forward to growing out of Fiona Apple one day -- to some time when I don't need to wallow in the richness of her chords and the sweetness of her dark, when I come across the CD and think reminiscently, "Ah, yes, 2005 . . . Wow, that year hurt," then smile and tuck it back in the cabinet. That time will come -- some weeks has come -- is indeed coming every day. But now I get another cup of tea, sit down in my chair, pick up the manuscript, and close my eyes. . . . Sing it, sister, as I read, all night long.


  1. Lovely post.

    Oh, I ache for that girl, thinking of the godawful sentimental dreck I wrote at that age. Heck, I wrote godawful sentimental dreck when I first started writing Jane Austen fan fiction *counts on fingers* seven or eight years ago, when I was in my 30s and had no excuse whatsoever. :-)

    How wonderful for her to get that bad novel out of her so young. One can only hope that she learns to take the constructive criticism that will come her way and keep working, and keep submitting. Guts and creativity--the rest will come.

  2. Beautiful.

    When I was single and 27 and feeling slightly meloncholic, I listened to Sarah Mclaughlin's "Possession."


  3. Blimey, I'm still writing sentimental dreck now, even after travel, wine, university, heart broken more than once, LOTS of sad music, marriage and children.
    Sometimes the awful thought crosses my mind that it might take the death of someone I love before I can write anything really worthwhile.
    Which of course is not to be wished for.

    -- Kate

  4. I hope she doesn't happen to read your blog before receiving your letter or phone call. She'll be sad to hear the news, but we all remember how it felt to be a teenager. You beleived that you could conquer the world in a single night.

    In time, I am sure she will come to appreciate your kind constructive criticism. After all, you are simply telling her to live her life to the fullest.

  5. Yes, Kate, but you're wise enough to recognize sentimental dreck as such (not that I believe you write it!) -- and to know when it's ungrammatical, too.

    And kozlowski, I should have noted -- details were changed to protect the young. :-)

  6. This is my first attempt to "blog" so I'm not sure if it'll work . . .

    I'm responding to:

    "Sometimes the awful thought crosses my mind that it might take the death of someone I love before I can write anything really worthwhile.
    Which of course is not to be wished for."

    The death of a loved one (in my case my only son, just 3 months ago) has immobilized me in my attempts to write. I hope and trust I will regain my ability.

  7. Anonymous,

    So very sorry. How old was your son?


  8. Oh, Anonymous, I'm sorry for both your losses -- your son and your words.