Mostly I blame T. S. Eliot, though he’s not the only one. There’s Charles Dickens and James Baldwin, too. I could come up with lots more culprits, but there’s no need. The effect is the same. These are some of the writers whose work most inspires me. Yet the same extraordinary talents that produced The Waste Land, A Tale of Two Cities, and Nobody Knows My Name also remind me of my own creative limitations—so intimidating me that I’ve avoided writing in some literary genres altogether. In plain terms, they completely shut me down.
Though I was an English Composition major in college, I didn’t learn to write by sitting around a seminar table with would-be novelists. Maybe my classes were particularly bad and other comp majors learned more than I did. My serious learning began in graduate school—by reading, studying, and, eventually, imitating great writers. As a brooding teenager, I had filled notebooks with poetry about mortality and unrequited pubescent love. It wasn’t until I read Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” that I realized my “art” was just a teenager’s diary in ugly free verse. Eliot’s poetry took dark to a beautiful new level—and added up to something more important than his own existential angst. Consider this one, spare detail from Prufrock:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
Though I actually felt like that pathetic shellfish as a young man, I couldn’t possibly have expressed my insecurity with such devastating precision. Then there’s this crushing passage from later in the poem:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Reading this for the first time, I cringed with self-recognition, which, of course, is the power of poetry: to reflect back at us, artfully, as if from mercury glass, our own experience so that we comprehend it with unnerving new clarity and depth of feeling.
Recognizing that Eliot had figured out the whole dark-and-brooding genre long before my time, I began imitating him—not just his poetry, but his prose style as well. I pored over essays like “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” analyzing his word choice, tone, and sentence structure. I got so carried away at times that my girlfriend reminded me I was an American graduate student writing in the 1980s and that I’d better modernize my prose style. In any case, I learned a lot from Eliot.
Scared Right Out of a Genre
The same thing happened with Dickens, but with the novel form. How does any writer encounter such soaring works as Little Dorrit or David Copperfield and think, “Alrighty, then, let’s follow up with something of my own”? I blame Dickens for the fact that I’ve spent thirty years too terrified to attempt a novel.
Then there’s James Baldwin. In one sense, I’m glad I didn’t read him until I was in my fifties—I might never have written a single essay. I came to Baldwin by way of Toni Morrison who, upon reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, remarked, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Having read all of Coates’ work by that time, I was eager to meet his intellectual forebear.
After some research, I selected Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. Only a few pages in, I felt like a hayseed tourist who wandered into the sacred vastness of the Lincoln Memorial. As I read, I kept asking myself how I went so long without encountering this monumental talent? Later that year, my brother Geoff gave me a copy of Nobody Knows My Name, a collection of the writer’s best essays. When I came across this passage assessing poet Richard Wright’s relationship to American blacks, I realized Baldwin was a new favorite—and yet another source of massive influence anxiety:
For who has not hated his black brother? Simply because he is black, because he is brother. And who has not dreamed of violence? That fantastical violence which will drown in blood, wash away in blood, not only generation upon generation of horror, but which will also release one from the individual horror, carried everywhere in the heart. Which of us have overcome his past?
He goes on to remind us that “this past is not special to the Negro. This horror is also the past, and the everlasting potential, or temptation, of the human race.” By accepting this grim but unavoidable reality, Americans may find a source of national strength. “But one must first,” he concludes, “accept this paradox, with joy.”
That, my friends, is how it’s done.
Finding My Own Level
Seriously, though, when the English language has been marshaled to such extravagant virtuosity, how does one muster the audacity even to write a blog post? When I grouse about this to my English professor wife, she gives her advice straight-up, no chaser. “Okay, so you’re not a Dickens,” she begins rather discomfitingly, “neither is Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. There’s room in the universe for all kinds of writers—as long as you have something interesting to say.” My takeaway from her advice is that no amount of “workshopping” my next novel will place me in the pantheon alongside Baldwin or Dickens; and I should feel liberated by that realization. Free from that anxiety, theoretically, I can toil away cheerfully on a completely different level of artistry.
Still, wouldn’t it be cool to write one paragraph as good as James Baldwin’s? Or conceive of one detail as perfect as Eliot’s scuttling crab?
Hearing me wonder out loud, my wife reminds me, “Just keep writing.”