Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Literary Role Models by Cara Hoffman

When I was a child my favorite story was a piece by James Thurber that my mother used to read to me.  It was called “Something to Say,” about an alcoholic writer named Elliot Vereker.  Vereker was an eccentric whose genius was confirmed by the number of terrible things he did; freeloading on friends, crashing parties, breaking light bulbs on the ground because he liked the sound of shattering glass, wrenching plumbing away from the walls of other people's apartments and denouncing the achievements of those around him.  Despite this he was loved and respected—seen as a man of talent and substance.  To my eleven-year-old mind, Vereker seemed the perfect role model.

The same year I fell in love with Vereker, my mother read me The Sun Also Rises, Portrait of the Artist, Waiting for Godot and The Canterbury Tales.  It’s safe to say I came to envision a certain literary lifestyle as a child and set out to achieve it.  Bums, wanderers, drunks, and lunatics populated my internal landscape.  Mostly because they were to me, at nine or ten or eleven, incredibly funny, possessed of some great mystery.

I wrote every day as a kid, and every day as a teenager, and nearly every day as an adult.  Writing and reading were worlds without hierarchy.  Without rules.  Where the sneakers you wore or the place you lived, or later, the jobs you had to take, didn’t matter.  Writing was a place where experiences, euphoric, or mundane, or incredibly shitty, could be put to use.  Could be made into something, instead of just making you into something.

I carried this feeling with me everywhere.  It helped me leave home and leave school and leave the country.  It helped me have a baby.  It helped me work for a radical newspaper and leave work at a literary magazine for a bartending job that brought me to the setting of So Much Pretty.  And it helped me get through the days while working at a small town Daily—where people really do come into the newsroom to scream in your face when they’re pissed.  Scream at me, part of you thinks.  Now I know what it feels like to be bored and disgusted at the same time as worrying I’ll lose my job.

Thurber was satirizing the idea of genius with Eliot Vereker.  The well-worn concept that in order to write you have to be some kind of brilliant fuck up.  Some kind of suffering monster.  And this is probably what I loved about the story when I was young, how insufferable Vereker was—how he was an upfront loser, a cad with everyone but they insist he’s special, smart.  His eccentricity proof enough.

James Thurber
I have loved many eccentrics, and many drunks, all of them one kind of artist or another and I was for a time, in good company with them.  I love many of them still, but no longer buy the mystery, don’t believe the hype.  I think of these Vereker-esque personas a good deal these days while I'm preparing for another book tour and answering questions about myself.  What fable does the reader want about the writer?

For me the characters they create, the language they use and and stories they tell are more important than anything I could learn about their lives.

But he fact is this: You are what you do.  And there are few professions as exhaustively personal and revealing as writing— I can say many things about myself and already have in this short essay, but there is little I, or any other person you don’t really know, can say, especially to a mass audience, that would reveal with sufficient depth who they actually are.  If you really want to know who I am, you can read my novels.  I promise you'll find me there.

My thanks to Cara Hoffman for allowing me to reprint this essay from her blog.  Cara's new novel, Be Safe I Love You, is available now from Simon & Schuster.  Library Journal called it “A searing, unforgettable, and beautifully written tale about the corrosive effects of war on the psyche, a contemporary version of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with a female protagonist.”  Be sure to tune in to my conversation with Cara on Booktalk Nation tomorrow night (April 3) at 7 p.m. ET.  Click here to register for the free phone session.

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