In news exciting to probably no one but myself – I have found my lost copy of EB White's essays! (It was in a stack of books on a table I stare at everyday. In cases like this, one suspects there are, truly, house elves who enjoy messing with the addled people they hide amongst everyday.)
I've been portioning out the essays instead of gorging on them, hoping that my own writing will somehow respond to a lengthened timeline of reading smart and hilarious things, and thus, in a magical way, become smart and hilarious in its own right.
Possibly, though, I am just accidentally adopting the voice of a dry-witted older man who enjoys talking about how the world is both lovely and miserable at the same time.
Speaking of, did you know the world is both lovely and miserable at the same time? I'm sure you did know that, but I've had it pointed out to me several times in the past 24-48 hours so I feel the need to point it out to you, too.
I just finished reading one of EB White's essays in which he discusses being a teenager who is enamored both with the girl down the street, and with the cinnamon toast available during tea-dances at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. He talks of his sweatiness and feigned bravery upon asking the girl to go with him to one of these dances, even though he didn't know how to dance. He talks of how it was going to take feats of strength and cash to get from their hometown of Mount Vernon to the Plaza. He finds himself, even at the writing of the essay – decades after the tea-dance – feeling guilty and embarrassed for subjecting the poor girl to his inept dancing skills, and to an epic journey over hill and dale to get to the dance and back.
In the last paragraph of the essay he says, "… there must be millions of aging males… who remember some similar journey into ineptitude, in that precious, brief moment in life before love's pages, through constant reference, had become dog-eared, and before its narrative, through sheer competence, had lost the first, wild sense of derring-do."
This, immediately, made me think of being a writer. Probably because, when one is a writer, everything makes you think about being a writer. But also because gaining competence at the expense of your derring-do is a catastrophe that befalls writers everyday, I think. It is lovely to become competent, but it is miserable to lose your derring-do.
So is there a way to be both competent and full of derring-do? As a writer, is there a way to stay on top of industry news and publishing house shenanigans and market trends and not lose the innocent moxie you stank of when you entered the industry?
Is there a way to remain un-beaten down?
Is there a way to stay relevant when so much seems derivative?
Is there a way to maintain your moxie when you're in danger of becoming derivative not because you are a market trend hawk, but because there is a zeitgeist and you find yourself swirling along within it?
I think back on all those years ago when I thought a literary agent was someone who could help you write articles for Parents Magazine, and a publishing house was a place that would take your six pages of outlandish marketing suggestions for your book, shake your hand, and then implement every last idea. I think back on those days, and like Mr. White, I am embarrassed and even feel a little guilty about the hayseed optimism that buoyed me into an almost accidental writing career.
Had I known then what I know now, my tactics and writing might have been vastly different. But because I didn't know then what I know now, I blundered into things just like a kid from Mount Vernon doing his own version of the Charleston amidst high-rolling New Yorkers.
One cannot discount the value of derring-do. But on the other hand, one seeks and then earns a label of competence. I do not want the two to be mutually exclusive. I do not want the realities of the industry to intrude upon my dreams and desires. I do not want to be intimidated by the journey over hill and dale to get to a place that might not match my dreams, but also might come close enough to be thrilling nonetheless.
I don't know if any of this makes sense to someone who is not a writer and who is not out on submission with several manuscripts and who is experiencing the lovely, miserable reality of not being able to convince every person in every publishing house that she is, in fact, an author of impressive derring-do (and hopefully competence) who just wants to tell a good story.
EB White's story ended with a fear-fantasy that he would one day be called in front of the House Committee on Un-American activities and be grilled about his failure as a dancer and his insistence to involve a girl in his charade.
My story ends with a fear-fantasy that I will never publish another book because it will be discovered that derring-do has been replaced by competence and competence is not enough to dazzle anyone anymore.
It's a lovely, miserable state to be in, when one is already published and struggling to remain published. It's a position where you have take stock and be proud of how far you've come. You've successfully asked the girl to the tea-dance, and she has agreed to come with you. You have dragged her through train rides and bus rides and dizzying busy streets and deposited her on a dance floor. But now the time has come for you to dance and you realize that after all this gumption-building and elaborate planning you don't actually know how to dance. Or rather, you know how, but your way is not the same as everyone else's way, and uh-oh, what now.
When you reach that uh-oh what now phase, do you rely on your competence or your derring-do? Do you shuffle along, trying to blend in, or do you flail and sweat and hope that everyone thinks you've created a new craze all on your own?
I don't know. I just know that some days my competence feels wobbly and my derring-do feels limp and my continuum of lovely miserableness leans toward the miserable end.
But then I find my lost copy of a book I love, and I make a cup of tea, and I realize that this angst is not something singular to myself or my time or my career (it is so hard to not put that word in quotes, but I refuse to). This is a universal angst. And I thank EB White for pointing it out, and I apologize to him if I have wrongly interpreted the last paragraph of his essay.
It gave me something to write about today, something that didn't require much competence or derring-do. And for that, I'm happily, miserably thankful.