Reading writers’ journals can be like looking around the house of an absent host. He or she left you alone, and nothing prohibits your pulling books from shelves, checking addresses on envelopes, scrutinizing photos, or reading notes affixed to the refrigerator. Yet those moments have strange—sometimes off-putting—intimacy. Worse, you may discover something you recognize.
I’ve been skimming Edward Abbey’s Confessions of a Barbarian on Google Books. Included in Abbey’s journals is this description of a South African named Penelope, whom, Abbey says, he “fell in ‘love’ with for a few days” during a trip in Austria:
Interested in everything, all facets of human experience, she was not always interesting herself. Mildly talented in a variety of ways but with no genuine ability in any one field, she was like me, the perennial hapless self-amused dilettante, half-worried by the slippage of time but determined to enjoy failure anyway.
Encountering this passage was finding myself between two mirrors looking down a corridor of reflections. Being interested without being interesting is familiar, as is being a “perennial hapless self-amused dilettante.” I am both, and, since Penelope is like Abbey and I am like her, by the transitive property… I know what Abbey is saying.
Though fascination is the weather in my life, it never seems to settle into any season or climate. I paint a little. I write a little. I find music, watch documentaries, monitor current events, go to museums, surf blogs, do crosswords, follow professional journals, and periodically read people like Edward Abbey—a little. Any one, pursued exclusively, might be something, but together they add up to just about zero. They make me a dilettante. As for the adjectives—“perennial” in this context means “persistent or enduring,” check. As few good things happen to a “hapless” person, yes.
Abbey is disingenuous when he says he is like Penelope—or me. He was much more than “mildly talented in a number of ways,” as the existence of these journals (this is #20) attest. Devoted and single-minded, he made himself a writer. In an interview at the end of Confessions of a Barbarian, he said, “An MFA in creative writing makes a lousy union card” because “thousands of such degrees are conferred annually.” I have an MFA, and I wonder, as he does, if writing can be taught. He preferred, “A stimulus for students to write on a regular and frequent basis.” “The most important thing in learning to write,” he said, was “simply writing.” Not dabbling, writing.
I write and maybe Penelope did too, but the difference lies in the last phrase, “Half-worried by the slippage of time but determined to enjoy failure anyway.” On the evidence of his prolific career, Abbey didn’t abide passing time or enjoy failure. That perspective falls to Abbey’s lover. And me? Maybe you have to worry about dying to be ambitious. It can’t spur you much to make peace with screwing up.
Penelope might console herself as I do, by saying we’re not as bad as some. In Abbey’s journal, he attaches himself to Penelope because he’s rejected by the English in his tour party and she, being “on an intellectual par with me,” he finds “delightful and refreshing company.” It’s nice to be found delightful and refreshing, but it’s hard to miss Abbey’s hinted condemnation. He isn’t Penelope, and some part of him knows that.
In another response during his interview, Abbey said:
If you have talent and something to say, something that people will enjoy reading, then your work will eventually be published. In my case, the measure of success I’ve had in being accepted by readers and gaining a fairly high degree of assurance that whatever I’m working on will be published, makes it both easier to go on writing and provides an additional incentive to try harder to do even better. I haven’t felt any slacking off in my efforts simply because it has gotten easier to get published.
Abbey made it sound as if the only difference between himself and Penelope was that he was hap-ful where she was hapless. If you have something to say, you will be published, eventually. Yet, he also acknowledged hunger, an “incentive to try harder,” born of approval. Far from being “determined to enjoy failure,” he embraced its opposite, trying harder knowing he would not, could not, fail.
Perhaps Abbey forgot the drive that delivered him to that status. The everything-will-be-alright perspective did not serve Penelope so well. It hasn’t done much for me either.
As you’re wandering around that strange living room, you may pick up a framed photograph of your host that shows him beaming, his beautiful wife beside him, his perfect children around him. He looks fit and trim despite his age and smart in the just the right clothes for his build and color.
Here, you may think, is being right with the world. Here, you may think, is something I recognize I’m not.