I have a confession to make. It’s one I’ve toyed with making for many years but never got up the gumption to just out with it. But of late, my life has been laid open – or perhaps more precisely, flayed – as I’ve struggled to define my own personal narrative. Over the course of the last couple of years, through deaths and assaults against loved ones, struggles with understanding relationships with friends, missteps, learning moments and yes, the occasional small victory, I’ve come to know things about myself that I had never before grasped. Or at least, had never encouraged myself to understand.
I’ve tired of moving forward only to slip back. I have decided to try to ratchet my forward progress so that ground, once covered, need not be trod again. The best way I know to install this anti-slip device in my journey is through being honest with those who know me best. Or at least, know of me. So fasten seat belts because I intend here and now to expose to you a secret I’ve kept all these years.
Ready? Here goes:
I’ve never read Catcher in the Rye.
Now, you might be tempted to think this is a twisted joke, building you up for the great reveal only to have it be inconsequential. But I promise you, to me this is no small matter.
You see, the story of myself as writer and therefore presumably a reader of worthwhile literature has always rested on an unspoken assumption. Writers know writing, yes? Great writing. Writing by the seminal authors of our literary history. Writing that has shaped our lives, both individually and as a society. The assumption is that those who would have us take their own written work seriously have educated and informed ourselves through broad and deep immersion in the works of the masters, the classics of literature and commentary.
Yeah, well… For me, not so much.
I don’t know Holden Caulfield except as a reference made by others that I understand – or presume to, anyway – only in the context of the conversation of the moment. And this is not the only ‘great character’ of literature with whom my acquaintance is largely imaginary.
I have never read most of the authors, playwrights or poets that connoisseurs of great writing would recognize as worthy of acclaim. If there is truly a literary canon of the American experience, my knowledge of it is at best anecdotal. I have failed utterly to educate myself in the approved literary framework of required reading for writers of my day and age.
I am currently reading through some books I picked up at a conference. The one on my nightstand as I type this is Breakfast with Neruda by Laura Moe. I’m two-thirds through it and found it hard to put down this morning so I could get on with my own writing. And I do NOT apologize for choosing this book over one from the approved list. I’m enjoying it immensely.
I have read several Farley Mowats but very little of Hemingway. Okay, enjoyed Old Man and the Sea but not so much that I felt compelled to go in search of a Hemingway anthology. Maybe it’s the whole hard-drinking, risk-taking manly Papa thing that turns me off. I was never really drawn to Hemingway. But Mowat – there’s a guy who engages my mind. Never Cry Wolf was a delightful and fascinating introduction and it led me to several others, in particular Grey Seas Under. While other writers focused on battleships and bomber streams, Mowat told me about The War through the saga of salvage tugs. Yes, tug boats. Brilliant. But alas, not mentioned on any canonical registry.
My least favorite had-to-read-for-a-class book of all time has to be The Great Gatsby, the uninteresting story of unlikable characters in an ultimately fruitless search for a theme. I did enjoy a few of Fitzgerald’s short stories, read for the same class – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes to mind. But a master? Not for me. He always seemed to be writing for New York reviewers and not for, you know, readers.
I’m a nutter for Amy Tan, although admittedly her books take me a while to get through. But then, I’ve shared that affinity in an earlier missive.
My point here is that I tend to emotionally cower when I speak of writing and writers with folks who might recognize me as non-cognoscenti. I live in fear of the disdain sure to follow my response to the simple question, “What have you read lately?” Because while I won’t lie, I also don’t want to admit that my intake is less, well, high-toned than the interrogator might expect. Which is why it always feels like interrogation.
I recently attended a writers’ conference. Loved the content and the people but I have to say I spent the whole two days feeling like an impostor constantly on the verge of being found out. After all, I can’t quote lengthy passages from recognized gurus, nor was I familiar with the works of most of the people there. Every session included at least one casual reference to the works of an author I was presumed to know and love. But for the most part, I understood the references only in the context of the presentation and so, can’t be certain I understood them at all.
I will soon be submitting a major piece of writing to a professional editor for review. I have to tell you, this might be one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. Because so much of my self-image is wrapped up in my sense of myself as having something worthwhile to say and being competent in communicating that message through my writing. And this is a smart woman who’s been doing this for a couple of decades. I’m afraid she’ll find me out.
She might identify me as an impostor.
And if she does, if I’m forced to face the house of cards that my self-image might well be, what then? What can I do at my age to undo the damage of years spent reading non-literary literature? I’m sure I don’t know.
Two weeks from right now as I write this, I will submit myself to examination by a Person Who Knows Real Writing. And I am haunted by that dream we all have of coming to class - or a business meeting, or a wedding, or, or - woefully unprepared. Except in my case, I fear it's not merely a dream.
Can’t wait. Dread the day.