This blog is late. I don’t mean a couple days after deadline. No, I mean it’s-been-months-and-I-still-haven’t-found-a-topic-to-write-about late. I have so many emails sitting in my inbox kindly, and more recently, desperately, asking me if I have a blog written yet. And would I please, please, please write something?
This week, a biography of the New Yorker journalist, Joseph Mitchell hit bookstore shelves. A reporter who immersed himself in the mid-century streets of New York City to capture the eccentric of the everyday, Mitchell immortalized a city between modernism and what came before—gas lamps and saloons and the Depression.
What has captured the imaginations of most of his readers (and is the subject of the biography) is not his prolific profiling and immersive journalism, but the thirty years he wrote nothing. For the final chapter of his career, Mitchell rode the elevator to the New Yorker headquarters. He sat in his office. He went to lunch. But his office was silent—no clicking typewriter keys, no shuffling of papers.
Several years ago, Anthony Marra stopped by Lemuria bookstore (and also my place of employ) to sign his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. He wore the same blue, button-up shirt he wore in the author photo. He was kind and asked as many questions about us as we did about him. In a quiet moment, before the storm of people came demanding his autograph and a witty answer to their questions, Tony and I talked about writing.
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a Stegner fellow at Stanford, Marra had done everything right. His debut novel was a smashing success and would go on to become a finalist for the National Book Award. We talked about his girlfriend who lived in New York City and the poetry she wrote. We talked about his Pushcart Prize, the short story that became the seed of his novel. And we talked about what he was working on next.
“Nothing,” he said. “I sit down to write, and all I can think about is what I have already written. It’s terrifying. What if this novel is the only story I have?”
Isn’t that what all creators fear—that what is behind us is also our last? “You are only as good as your last plate,” is the chef’s motto. But how many days, months, years can pass before you are no longer a chef, but instead someone who once cooked?
This week I found out that Anthony Marra’s next book releases in October. It might be a weak replication of his first, as second-novels tend to be, or it could be a step in a new direction. But that’s not what this is about. This is about trying and failing and trying again to write. Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you are blinded by the blank page.
The first sentence is for someone else; prove to your audience, the critics, your high school class that you have something to say. The second, third, fourth, etc. are for you; to prove to yourself that you still have something to say.