Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Avoiding Great Expectations

By Valerie Arnold

Blink if you've ever wondered whether anything you write will be remembered. By anyone. Ever heard of John Updike?  He is, of course, widely regarded by those who widely regard such things as one of the greatest American writers. Ever. Yet at the recent NCW Conference, Ken Sherman, who represented Updike prior to his death in 2009, turned to the roomful of hopeful writers and politely inquired whether we knew who Updike was.  He always asks, he said, because a lot of people don’t. 

Who among us doesn't dream of achieving an infinitesimal smattering of Updike’s acclaim:  Two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, prolific writer of stories, novels, essays, blah blah blah. Movie-goers might recall Witches of Eastwick, although Updike is perhaps most lauded for his Rabbit series. At least I know who he is, I thought, a bit smug. In fact, embarrassing disclosure, I had Updike’s Rabbit confused with the rabbit in Harvey – something else I haven’t read or seen, even though the movie version stars Jimmy Stewart, on whom I've harbored a long-time crush.  Further embarrassing disclosure, the only Updike I ever read was a short story I don’t remember the name of that just happened to be assigned to a high school class I worked with a few months back. None of the kids had ever heard of Updike; thankfully, I didn't blurt out he’d written Harvey, which would have received blank looks anyway.

It might seem depressing that, even if you climbed the pinnacle of authorial success, your agent would still be forced to remind people who you were.  But such anonymity can also be construed as weirdly liberating. You could tick off every important box on every literary list and still be unknown not only to the vast majority of the world but even to types who attend writing conferences. So why worry about it. While I clearly didn’t know the guy, from most accounts, Updike explored ideas he cared deeply about through characters that made his readers do the same. And he wrote and wrote and wrote. Ultimately, that was his success. Though I’m sure he appreciated the awards and riches.  

Rather than allowing expectations weigh us down like some moldering Miss Havisham, we should focus on writing what excites and entertains us first. Isn't that what the great ones do? Instead of worrying about legacies like a lame duck POTUS, let’s spend our energy writing. Like our leaders, we’d all be a lot better off just getting some good work done.  

Valerie Arnold is a writer of mysteries as well as a real estate agent with RE/MAX Alliance of Northern Colorado. Call her if you are selling/buying a home and she'll weave a mysterious tale for no charge.  


RichardK said...

My goal being one of galactic domination, I'm pretty sure the huge statues and anthems in my name will help continue my legacy.

Patricia Stoltey said...

It's hard enough to get readers in our own community to recognize our names today. :D

Sarah Reichert said...

I fantasize about Richard Castle-like fame sometimes. I guess its harder for writers, because our 'fan base' has to actively seek us out, and invest time in our work. We aren't being repeated over and over on the radio, where they can passively absorb us. Great article!

Sarah Reichert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

My late husband Bill said he wanted me to be a best-selling author, but he loved me even though I wasn't. If it happens, it happens. If not, I won't worry about it.

Sarah Sullivan said...

That is so funny that you confused the "Rabbit" books with Harvey. Me too! I saw the play as a child and then when my comparative literature college boyfriend started talking about John Updike and "Rabbit" I said something about the imaginary bunny. Not surprisingly, the romance didn't last.

Share a Post