Can’t say no
I get called a slut a lot. This appellation, alas, mostly has to do with my publication record.
I publish in a great many venues, from Penthouse to Parenting magazine to killingthebuddha.com. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Jew ever to appear in the George Strait Newsletter. Unless Grace Paley beat me to the punch.
More than one critic has argued that I spread myself too thin, that I should focus on books and ignore the penny ante stuff.
I don’t disagree. I’ve certainly tried. Recently, I spent two years slugging away at a Great Novel. The result was an 800-page book boring enough to put my wife to sleep.
Oh, and I nearly went crazy.
Because here’s the thing: Writing -- at least the way I do it -- is an excruciating pursuit. I basically lock myself in a room and batter my ego with doubt. When the work is strong, it churns up all kinds of unwelcome feelings. And when the work is weak . . . well, the work is weak.
So part of the reason I publish like mad is simply to escape this feeling of exile. Like most sluts, I’m lonely enough to give it up for anyone. Which is to say, the central reason my work appears in every single literary magazine ever printed in English is that someone asked me.
No one is forcing me to say yes. But for most of my career, nobody asked to see my work. (Actually, a number of editors asked me to stop sending my work.)
So it strikes me as bad karma to tell an editor that I’m too busy to send him or her a piece. The mere fact that anyone has bothered to ask makes me feel indebted.
There are other considerations, of course. I’m one of those writers who like prompts. When I’m asked to contribute to an anthology, my mind immediately starts generating ideas. Maybe this is a legacy of my career in journalism or a reflection of my basic fecklessness, but getting an assignment induces a focus I can rarely summon on my own.
I don’t say yes to every pitch. I recently turned down an editor who asked me to write an essay about rape.
But when I’m asked to write about my favorite baseball player or what it’s like to raise a daughter -- subjects to which I dedicate an embarrassing amount of thought -- I’m delighted to set my ideas down.
To be sure, I write a lot of pieces under my own steam. Nobody asked me to weigh in on the Michael Phelps pot-smoking kerfuffle or Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to be the commencement speaker at my former school. But I felt a compulsion, maybe even a moral obligation, to sound off on these topics. And there’s a palpable dividend: It allows me to participate in the larger cultural discourse.
Then there are the other pieces, those I write for a different kind of dividend: a financial one. I take certain assignments -- a piece for Martha Stewart Living leaps to mind -- to pay for the childcare necessary to write.
Most writers are engaged in the same sort of trade-off. Very few of us survive on literature alone.
If I had a different temperament, I’d probably do the sensible thing and take the academy as a sugar daddy. But I prefer living gig to gig. It’s more exciting, and it makes me feel connected to the world at large.
I also believe that every piece of writing I put out there might lead some poor misguided reader to my books. This may be naïve, but we all have our sustaining myths, and that is mine.
I have tremendous respect for authors who write nothing but literary novels and stories. These are the folks who do the deepest human work with our language. And I aspire to be one of them when I grow up.
But I take issue with the idea that language is sacred and should be deployed only in pursuit of what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.”
I think that language is supple enough to perform all sorts of tasks and that a successful career consists of finding not one, but many ways, of reaching readers.
When I’m at my strongest, and most solvent, I push myself to reach those deepest possibilities of language. Other times my ambitions are more limited and nakedly ulterior.
If this makes me a slut -- and I suppose it does -- I can live with that.
Almond lives outside Boston, with his wife, two kids and mounting debt
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