Anyone who knows me for more than five years, whether online or off, can tell you that I used to be absolutely obsessed with becoming a professional writer. I even had some modest success; nine of my short stories were published and I spent four years as a copywriter for Rabbi Wein’s Destiny Foundation.
About two years ago, all that changed. I began working full-time at a law office in Manhattan, and though I suppose my commute time could have become writing time, I used it for reading instead. Except for the reviews I write here on GoodReads, I hardly write anything anymore. I just can’t seem to get myself motivated. And I feel really bad about it.
So when I heard Tom Bissell, author of this book and creative writing professor, in an NPR interview, I thought his book was just the thing to give me a kick in the pants. In the interview, he spoke about Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson – three giants in American literature who weren’t all that successful in their lifetimes. Heck, Dickinson was a complete unknown in her lifetime. And though Melville had been a successful writer before the publication of Moby Dick, his masterpiece was panned by the reviewers, and that was basically the end of his career. From then on, he shared his writings only with family and friends. He died believing himself a failure.
“How many unknown or midlist writers are in exactly that predicament today?” asked Tom Bissell. The next generation’s literary genius could well be struggling right now, undiscovered. My husband and I looked at each other, wondering if it could be either of us or perhaps even both. No doubt, any aspirant writer who heard that interview wondered the same.
So naturally, I hurried to get the book on special inter-library loan. At first I was told it was so new, the other library wouldn’t allow it. Then, a third library came through as a complete surprise. So when I got hold of it, I dropped what I’d been reading till then and launched right in. My eagerness had a practical side, too. Renewals aren’t allowed with inter-library loans.
With all that excitement, I guess it was inevitable that I’d be disappointed. It was a good book, but not the life-changer I’d been hoping for. It’s actually a collection of essays about a variety of creative artists - not just writers, but filmmakers, an actress who does voice-over for video games, and a polemical “historian.” The essays on writing were definitely my favorite, especially “Writing about Writing about Writing,” which reviews some of the writing books I’ve read myself, notably Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott and On Writing by Stephen King. Bissell names John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist as his personal favorite. It was a life-changer for him, much in the way that Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande was for me. I expect the books are similar. John Gardner wrote the introduction to my copy of Becoming a Writer.
When I was unfamiliar with the artist Bissell was discussing, my interest varied. The voice-over actress was interesting, but I couldn’t wait to get through the polemical historian’s chapter. If there’s one thing Tom Bissell proves with this book, it’s that he can rake someone over the coals when he wants to.
And that brings me to the essay called “Grief and the Outsider,” which is about a group called the “United Literary Alliance.” According to Bissell, they're basically a bunch of bitter aspirants railing against the publishing industry that has repeatedly rejected them. And yet one of those aspirant writers whose work Bissell thinks is such junk came up with what pretty much defines my life as a writer at this point: “To be a good parent to your family won’t make you a better writer. But it’ll make you a better person.”