Recommendations 2/21/2021: Growing Up

How I learned to not resent Ethan Hawke

In this week’s column I write about how upsetting it was to read Ethan Hawke’s new novel, A Bright Ray of Darkness and discover that it was actually quite good.

In truth, I wasn’t upset at all, which was the interesting thing, because when Hawke published his first novel, The Hottest State, at twenty-six years old when I was also twenty-six years old and not having a lot of success as a writer, I was quite upset.

I resented the notion that Ethan Hawke got to cut the line, while I actually had to prove that I was worthy. In my heart, I knew I was worthy as Ethan Hawke, it was just a matter of time until someone recognized it, and why couldn’t it happen already?

At age twenty-six ,my work was not actually particularly worthy. Neither was The Hottest State, but you can bet your bippy that if I had the connections or wherewithal to score a publishing contract for my so-so developing writing, I would’ve taken it.

One of the things I tell my writing students is that writing is an extended exercise in falling short of your own intentions and ambitions. The thing that has changed for me between age 26 and age 50 is how I measure my own intentions and ambitions. At twenty-six I was desperate to be validated, so my ambition was to write something someone else would want to publish. My ambitions were entirely predicated on external, extrinsic judgments, rather than internal, intrinsic judgments.

Because of this, there was a kind of desperation to my work. I wanted someone to like it so much that I was spending too much time worried about what other people might want, as opposed to what genuinely compelled me to put words down. Only when I tried to quit writing after graduate school for a period of months was I able to get back to the motivations that made me fascinated with the act in the first place, and lo and behold, I started writing things that other people wanted to publish.

I’d finally started to embrace that writing isn’t the means to an end, but is instead the end itself. That I can make an (admittedly modest) living spending my days writing still surprises me. That writing is its own reward is the attitude I try to inculcate in the students I work with. It can be an uphill climb given how school mostly signals the opposite, that writing is a performance for a teacher and a grade.

Ach…don’t get me started on that.1

Don’t get me wrong, I have not achieved a wholly zen attitude free of jealousies and resentments. I didn’t publish a novel until I was forty-one. It was as good as I could do at the time, but it sold poorly and is now out of print. That failure makes it hard to sell another novel, of which I’ve written two that are better than the one I published, IMHO.

But I know I’ve done some growing up because I’m not consumed by jealousy that Ethan Hawke can get his (quite good) novel published at least in part because he is a well-known person, while I cannot get my (quite good) novel published. Writing those unpublished novels was truly rewarding, a chance for me to figure out some things about the world for myself. Sure, it’d be nice if they had an audience and a guy could make a couple bucks, but I’ve learned to embrace the intrinsic rewards of having a life where I get to spend much of my time doing work that is interesting to me.

Though it is a delusion, I truly believe that I have one of the greatest novels ever written trapped inside my brain, and as long as I have sensation, I know I’m alive.

What more could a person ask for?

(Other than a book contract, of course.)

Instructions to request a reading recommendation.

The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. We’re up to $14.40 in earnings for the year. At $20, I’m allowed to cash out and send the money to Open Books.

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1. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
2. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
3. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
4. Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt
5. The Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

Eileen G. - Roselle, IL

I must give a special recognition to Eileen who included capsule reviews of all of the books I her list. She tells me that she has been writing these reviews for more than 40 years! And most importantly, she has been doing them for herself. I can’t think of a better example of the power of intrinsic motivation. Deep respect here. I hope my recommendation is worthy: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

1. Luster by Raven Leilani
2. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
4. Everywhere You Don't Belong by Gabriel Bump
5. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Michael R. - Chicago, IL

Michael asks a very good question in his email, that shouldn’t I want to know if the requester did not like one of the books in their list of recent reads. The answer is I do not want to know and the reason is worth talking about, which I’ve made a note to do in a future newsletter. Michael’s recommendation is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould

1. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
2. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
3. The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
4. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
5. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Joan R. - Glen Ellyn, IL

For Joan, I’m recommending a book from some years back that really knocked me out, but which didn’t get the attention I think it deserved and deserves, Model Home by Eric Puchner.

Have a good week everyone.