Alice McDermott’s Writing Mantra: “Ah, Fuck Em.”


Photo by Miria-Sabina Maciągiewicz.

As Emerson said to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

The same words my editor said to me when I published my first novel in—good God—1982!

Although I have to confess—Emerson to Whitman aside—the sentiment struck me even then as rather hyperbolic.

It strikes me now as ill-timed. Forty years later, I’m pretty sure I’m still at the start of this career—and whether it is a great career or not remains to be determined.

This is because, as you’ve no doubt already discovered, our vocation, the writer’s life, allows us to believe that we are always at the beginning of things, since each new story we write, each new novel, each new sentence, for that matter, turns us once again into novices, freshman, lone travelers in uncharted lands, debutantes—eternally new at this, eternally attempting to tell a story that’s never been told before.

Not a bad thing. Really.

*

Nevertheless, this occasion, this celebration of your own debuts, calls for words of wisdom, sage counsel from a tribal elder, or at least from someone who’s been new to this job for some time now.

And so I’ve been trying to recall what advice I might have received, early on, advice that has, perhaps, helped me through these years of getting started.

And I’ve remembered this:

The National Book Awards dinner at the Pierre Hotel, 1987. My second novel was one of the five finalist that year (this was well before that insidious thing called a Long List), but so was Toni Morrison’s brilliant Beloved.

Which took the pressure off us lesser mortals—everyone knew Beloved would win.

(Although, of course, let’s face it, we wouldn’t be writers if we weren’t also dreamers, romantics… so I’ll admit I did briefly imagine a Cinderella moment when—astonishingly—my little second novel emerged as the upset winner, the dark horse. A fantasy that it took two more novels and another decade to actually occur in what’s sometimes known as “real life.”)

Anyway: at the Pierre, my husband and I were at my publisher’s table with another finalist—Larry Heinemann, who’d written a devastating novel about Vietnam, Paco’s Story—and Larry’s wife. My editor and agent and the head of publicity were also there, but I was seated next to Roger Straus himself, one of the founders of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a larger than life literary figure—publishing aristocracy, Manhattan aristocracy—a big, handsome, silver-haired legend given to wearing ascots and to sprinkling his droll conversation with startling profanities.

The fiction award always comes last at the National Book Awards—a best picture moment—and when the announcement was made, Paco’s Story took the prize.

Three things happened at once: the audience gasped, Larry Heinemann’s wife adorably burst into tears, and Roger Straus patted my knee like a sympathetic uncle.

As Larry made his way to the podium, Roger leaned over to whisper in my ear…

He said, “Ah, fuck ‘em.”

*

Twenty minutes later, as we were getting our coats, Toni Morrison took my hand and, quite pleasantly, said much the same thing.

It is a piece of sage advice, a writer’s mantra, that I have made good use of through the years and that I now pass on to you: Ah, fuck ‘em.

Use it whenever someone suggests that writing stories is not a real job.

Or when you hear that print is dead. Books are obsolete. AI will replace us all.

“Ah, fuck ‘em.”

Whisper it whenever you’re told: You can’t say that. You can’t write that. You can’t sell that.

Say it whenever someone tries to suggest that there are prohibitions to our art: that you’re not allowed to imagine yourself into certain worlds, or certain characters, or certain cultures. That you are barred from creating situations that you haven’t actually lived. That you are barred from borrowing too much from so-called “real life.”

Say it when you’re told you are too late with your fictional premise—it’s been done before. Or too early—it’s never been done before.

“Ah, fuck ‘em.”

Say it with a laugh. Or a shrug.

Say it kindly, in the same way you might mutter, “Poor fool,” or “Oh, well,” or, like a dismissive Southern lady, “Why, bless your heart.” Or say it patiently, ruefully as the Irish might say, “God help us.”

Readers, readers of fiction especially, are wonderful, generous, necessary people, the best people, really, but they can also be, well, annoying.

So say it gently when a dear reader asks you, “Why is your story so sad?” Or “Was your story supposed to be funny?” Or, “Did you intend to put that clever pivotal detail in there or did it just happen?” Say it with only the slightest exasperation when an eager reader suggests that your work would find a wider audience if your stories were, well, less complicated.

Ah, fuck ‘em.

“Do you like cliches?” A ridiculously best-selling writer once asked me. “I love them,” he said. “People know exactly what you mean when you use a cliche. Cliched phrases. Cliched characters. They don’t have to think about it.” He told me: “You should use more cliches. Readers appreciate it.”

I thought: Ah, fuck ‘em.

*

At a recent Q&AI was asked how I felt about online reviews. I admit I was a little tired, it had been a long day, maybe I was somewhat cranky. I told the questioner I didn’t read such reviews—of my own work or of others—because too many of them are equivalent to someone asking me “Why aren’t you taller?”

*

A frowning reader tells you, “Your story wasn’t about what I thought it would be about.” A helpful reader suggests you check out a novel something like your own—in truth it will be nothing like your own—because it spawned a popular series. A worried reader says, “I listened to your book while I was preparing an eight course dinner for twenty people in a crowded kitchen and I didn’t quite get the ending. Maybe you left something out.” A taciturn reader says, “I read your story,” and then, nothing else.

You must smile. We should always be kind to readers.

But you must think, nonetheless, Ah, fuck ‘em.

*

A great writer, no longer with us, was in his country home, struggling to compose his umpteenth novel, when a stretch limo pulled into his driveway and out tumbled a younger writer he had championed some decade before, followed by a haze of pot smoke and then the very, very famous movie star who was about to appear in the film version of the younger writer’s current very big book. They had come to pay homage, they said, to this great writer, a writer they both adored, a writer, they lamented over drinks, whose novels were, alas unfilmable.

*

When the two drove away in their limo, the great writer called his agent—who told me the story—to lament that none of his multi-award winning books had been brought to the screen. What was he doing wrong? Was he so out of touch? Was his work aging badly?

His agent said, For God’s sake, go write.

What she meant, of course, was, Ah, fuck ‘em.

*

Say it as you begin your writing day, as you turn your back on all the people and voices that do not belong in your writing room: parents, siblings, spouses, critics—online or otherwise—opinionated friends and neighbors, the latest big book, the hottest new writer, some Tik Tok thing, the graduate school classmate who just scored a billion dollar deal with Netflix.

Ah, fuck ‘em.

Leaving—as Faulkner said—no room in your workshop for anything but the authorities and truths of the human heart.

And after you’ve had your Night of the Living Dead moment, closed the door on the groping hands and the ghoulish faces of all that keeps us from confronting, unfettered, those authorities and truths—without which, Faulkner said, any story is ephemeral and doomed—look in the figurative mirror and say it to yourself.

*

Say it to your doubts, your hesitations, your worries about getting a real job.

Ah, fuck ‘em.

Say it to your fears about writing the wrong thing: the wrong phrase, the wrong character, the wrong genre, the wrong subject or sentiment. The story that dies on the vine.

I mean, fuck those fears.

Say it to every sensible, depressing, cowardly notion that visits your swirling brain, to all the things that paralyze your freedom to write.

Ah, fuck ‘em.

Same goes for your Cinderella fantasies of winning a big literary prize, as well as your Eyor-esque certainty that your work will never see the light of day.

Fuck ‘em both.

You will fail, of course you will. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll write some lousy sentences, unnecessary scenes, stories that run out of steam and novels that are not, perhaps, your best work.

*

It is, my friends, the occupational hazard inherent in choosing a profession—the storyteller’s profession—that keeps you, despite how many years you’ve labored at it, forever a novice, a debutante, a lone explorer setting out to define a new world.

A profession that keeps you at the beginning, just the beginning, of your great career, because there’s always a new story to write, a new sentence to compose, a voice, made of words alone, that has not yet been heard, that only you can discover.

*

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I’ve been rereading Iris Murdoch of late—because I’m still figuring out how to do this and good writers are, finally, the best guides. (Although of course, great editors like Patrick and Hannah and Maribeth and Will help too.)

Murdoch uses a term I’ve grown very fond of: “Unselfing.”

A lovely word to hold up against our “selfie” culture. A lovely way to define what we do when we face our own writerly fears and say, Ah . . . well, you know . . .

Unselfing. In Murdoch’s world, it’s a complex concept—all the best concepts are—because Murdoch was both a philosopher and a novelist, as, I suppose, all the best writers are.

Unselfing, she contends, is the great gift of both art and nature. It is the ability to shed, if only momentarily, what she describes as our “fat, relentless ego.” It is the ability to leave the self, if only momentarily, in order to see clearly.

Great art, she says, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis (that would be writer’s job) and its enjoyment (the reader’s job) it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul.

(Great art), she says, is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream-life of the consciousness.

*

Coincidentally, or not, there’s an echo of Emerson in this:

The poet who shall use Nature as his hieroglyphic must have an adequate message to convey thereby.

An echo of Whitman, too: whose Song of Myself might seem the very opposite of unselfing, except when you consider: for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

*

So here’s the thing to remember: We who work at the literary arts are out to procure, for one another, for all of us, pure delight—delight in the independent existence of what is excellent, delight in the perfection of form. We are out to capture, through our stories, the unpossessive contemplation that frees us all from our relentless egos, releases us from the selfish obsessions that restrict our lives, that make us petty and distracted and alone.

*

We write in order to shed all the selfie-taking distortions of narrow-mindedness, one-sidedness, grievance, opinion, so that we can recognize, define, illustrate, the authorities and truths of the human heart that unite us, the authorities and truths that every storyteller is bound to pursue.

*

I know, I know. Rather hyperbolic, all that. Rather naive, too. Don’t we all just want to sell of few books, make a decent living? Maybe sign that Netflix deal?

I know, I hear it.

Despite the fact that I’ve been a novelist for over four decades now, I’ve also spent some time in the real world, and so, of course, I’ve heard it all:

All those devastatingly intelligent voices that say our culture has long outgrown any aspirational adulation of dead white men like Emerson and Whitman and Faulkner.

The cool, incisive chorus that so cogently contends that our shrinking attention spans have rendered print all but dead. Rendered complex concepts posed by philosopher novelists utterly obsolete.

I know the sound of the clamoring crowd that predicts AI will put us all out of business. Put difficult, original, delightfully unselfing storytellers out of business.

I’ve heard all the clear-eyed objections to my starry-eyed, English Major notions about the soul-stretching importance of literature.

I’ve heard these arguments, turned them over in my mind. Taken every one of them to heart. I’ve been at various times dismayed and terrified and depressed, and relieved, by the good sense they make.

On this wonderful occasion at the beginning of your great careers, I advise you to do the same: Listen carefully to all the sensible warnings about our futile, delusional, outdated pursuit. Admire the real world logic of every dire prediction that the literary arts are dead. Turn these intelligent voices over in your heart and in your mind.

And then, because there is always a new story to tell, say, Ah, fuck ‘em.

And begin again.

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Meet One Story’s 2024 Literary Debutantes here.

Alice McDermott



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