Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Notes on: "Overnight Sensations and 'You Can’t Hurry Love'"

“Overnight Sensations and “You Can’t Hurry Love” was the slapdash title of a talk I gave to the Alaska Writers Guild last week. My original intention was to turn the whole talk into a posting here, and perhaps I will do that yet, only it would be about four postings. The title refers first to that feeling we sometimes have (if I may presume a collective we, thank-you) when some unknown person, often young, becomes famous, overnight (as it were). On closer look, I have noticed that almost none of them acquired their fame (fleeting anyway, right?) overnight, but were often extraordinary people , working quietly in the trenches. Sometimes, of course, luck is involved, but luck is usually earned, too. The second half of my title “You Can’t Hurry Love” has simply been a writing mantra of mine for years and it comes to me from my adolescence in Detroit, from Diana Ross and the Supremes. It means a piece of writing is going to take you as long as you need to take to get it right. It will unfold in its own time, if you work steadily at it. Those were the two touchstones of the talk, which was then peppered liberally with historical literary examples in support, such as this line from Jim Harrison's introduction to the paintings of his friend, Russell Chatham: "To be an artist is to be a member of a ten-thousand-year old guild, not a competitor in a horse race." I've always taken that line to heart, notwithstanding that Harrison seems now to be writing a book almost yearly.

I suppose, if the talk had a subtitle it would have been something like, “A rationalization (confession) for why I work so damned slowly.” I’m a little over it now, the talk.

What I wanted to say here was something about the way I was introduced at the talk. Dave Brown, who did the introduction, asked, very reasonably, who are my favorite writers. Why is it that I am always surprised by that most logical of questions? And that I never want to commit an answer to it? I told him I would be likely to answer that question differently every time I was asked.

But when I thought more about it, I decided that the criteria ought to be the same for the answer to this question: “Which writers do I own very book they’ve written? Which ones do I go out and buy immediately? To how many am I thusly devoted?”

And so I answered him: Jim Harrison, David Mitchell, and Kem Nunn. And, without elaboration, now, I can stand by those three. Some time later I realized that, by that criteria, there are at least twenty more writers on the list. Some of the books I have not read, but intend to do so. When W. G. Sebald died, for example, I stopped reading him. I wanted to parcel out his unread works to myself over time, knowing that their number is fixed. I have all of Richard Powers books, and have been “collecting” them from the very beginning of his career. But I confess that I have only read the two most recent, The Echo Maker and Generosity. I loved them as I somehow knew I would. Now, I have only to decide in what order to read the remaining volumes.

What unread book would I most regret not having read, were that to be my last thought as I die? I have to figure that out now and read that book next. Ars longa, vita brevis.

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