On Love and Despair: A Valentine’s Day Theme Post

by Salvatore Pane

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, so I guess it’s appropriate that the literary world think about relationships and love. Over at The Millions, Anne K. Yoder wrote an article that, among other things, disagreed with HTML Giant’s Nick Antosca’s editorial claiming writers should date readers. Yoder writes, “writers should date writers, who will likely understand the importance of clearing time and mental space to write.” I’m not sure how all of you feel about this, but writer on writer relationships always seemed dangerous to me. Jealousy over one partner’s success always looms over the relationship. I can’t imagine things being much better for already established authors who meet and date. Writers are inherently egomaniacs, the only people on earth who can look at the sagging shelves of fiction and think, “No. That’s not enough. I have something fundamentally vital to add.” How does one partner react when the other gets a Guggenheim? How about when the other’s presence is requested at Bread Loaf and you’re not?

But of course, there are examples of writer/writer couples working. Yoder lists a bunch, and let me add the wonderful Robert Boswell and Antonya Nelson to the mix. However, I’m still inclined to go with Nick from HTML Giant. For one thing, the process of writing is a romantic mystery to readers. They don’t know that it mostly involves me sitting in my underwear trying to see my computer screen behind day-old coffee and empty beer bottles. And I’m sure many of us who’ve gone through undergrad writing programs and MFAs can relate to writer breakups playing out in workshops again and again.  “You don’t have a grip on male voices! This isn’t moral fiction! Why did you cheat on me with that bassist? His low-fi alterna-folk band blows!”

And now a topic only slightly unrelated to love: DESPAIR. Maud Newton recently blogged about feeling intimidated by really good works of art. She read a book she quite enjoyed, then turned to her own fiction and froze up, unable to reconcile her “shitty first draft” with the assumed brilliance of the published–and polished–book. This happens to me often and has especially been a problem over the course of the last week where I’ve been locked down in Squirrel Hill due to the never-ending snowstorms of Western Pennsylvania. My usual method of dealing with said despair is just to keep on writing until something halfway decent inevitably turns up. I’ve always felt that it was the only thing writers could do: to have some of that faith Flannery O’Connor and JCO are always blabbing about.

Maud Newton has a better strategy. “I’ve kept on hand a well-reviewed novel that I don’t like or respect,” Newton writes. “It’s sitting on my desk right now, in fact. I don’t re-read it in any detail, because I don’t want it to contaminate my thinking, but flicking through the book makes me feel better about my own work, however imperfect it may be.” Hmm… I’m not sure this would work for me. I’m always very careful about what I read while writing out of fear that the published voice will seep into my own–case in point: Richard Nixon is a major character of The Black List so I’ve been reading his delightful No More Vietnams to get his voice “right”.

What I’m afraid of is that although reading some lousy book will manage to cure my stage fright, its flawed voice will also infect my own. Do other writers feel this way? Are they conscious of mimicking whatever they’re currently reading? Are there other ways of beating writerly despair that I just haven’t thought of? Comment below if so.