A few years ago, Erika Meitner led a discussion in the lone poetry workshop I ever took about the pros and cons of a poet devoting him- or herself to the exploration of one subject. A lot of people in the workshop found the idea restricting. Why limit oneself to one subject when there are so many subjects? But I was of the opinion that we’re all limited in other ways—through our sensibilities and stylistic tics—so maybe there was advantage to embracing limitations. If nothing else, repeated musings on the same subject likely will lead to a kind of accrued wisdom: with each attempt yielding slightly different, if not deeper, thoughts and results.
A couple of days ago, I finished the first draft of a “new” short story. I used the term “new” cautiously because, after reading it over, it suddenly dawned on me that I had just written the same story I’d been writing for the past several years. The recognition hit me like a sledge hammer. I hadn’t meant to re-visit earlier territory, but I did. I felt sick. And depressed. If anything, this “new” story is a more concise distillation of earlier subjects and themes.
So is this “new” story any better than the previous ones?
Last week, Jonathan Franzen told a Denver audience*, “At this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced on my own past writing… Direct influence makes most sense only for very young writers.”
If I’m reading this right, he’s content to explore and re-explore the themes he’s introduced in his earlier works.
Read one way, Franzen exhibits a healthy self-awareness of his art.
But Franzen’s comment seems rather arrogant, doesn’t it? Or callow, in that it expresses a smug, unseemly self-satisfaction.
Yet really, if after a certain point one unconsciously circles around the same subjects and themes again and again, what is one to do? Does one go, Oulipo-like, and set up conscious barriers to prevent one’s unconscious inclinations? It’s not a question of disrupting “comfort zones” or “playing it safe.” It’s more a question whether one should self-censor oneself from wandering through the same fields where one has already wandered. What do you think?
*For a much more thorough discussion of Franzen’s comments, check out Mark Athitakis’s excellent blog post. In some small way, this helped me better contextualize Philip Roth’s admission that he no longer reads fiction.
Earlier today, Brad Listi invited me to be a regular contributor at THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, which is an excellent online magazine. Hopefully, I’ll have my first contribution up in the next few days.
In the meantime, consider reading “Reality,” a short-short I’ve got up now at WONDERFORT.
Or, better yet, check out Jessica Francis Kane’s fun “Conversations with Hockney,” now up on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Or buy Julian Barnes’s THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, which may very well win the Booker Prize next week. I haven’t read much Barnes before (just FLAUBERT’S PARROT and a few of his short stories and essays here and there), but I read the English edition of this new book last night and was just floored by it. It’s short but surely bears repeated readings. Hopefully, I’ll write more about this novel soon.
[Hmm. The American edition just been published by Knopf shows a page count of 176. The English edition (published by Jonathan Cape) is only 150 pages long. Now I’m curious about the page count differences—does it reflect a change of content? a larger American font?]
The title story from my MFA thesis, Big Baby Hot. Big Baby Cold. Big Baby in the Pram Five Days Old, is now in the current FLORIDA REVIEW. They sent me a few extra contributor copies. If you want one, drop me a note with your address via the “CONTACT” tab. I’ll mail one out to the first person who responds.