Following Your Own Path

In the eyes of others you have something called a Career. Certain people, should you be lucky enough to have them, like your agent or your editor, will hasten to tell you that what you need now for that career is another novel or another book of the same kind of poems that everyone loved last time. It is very difficult to ignore the practical exhortations of such parental figures in your life, but if you can afford to, you ought to ignore them with a gleeful sense of relief. The voice of responsibility can all too easily shout down the small shaky voice of your originality and your need to find another way, a road that you, at least, have not yet traveled. And your need, if necessary, to fail at it.

It doesn’t need saying that the world is not set up to honor your as-yet-unfulfilled hopes. It tends to reward what is called a track record, implying that it is all a foot-race with winners, losers and also-rans, and a race with a clock, a race around a narrow unchanging track. Not only is your reputation at stake when you walk off attending to a distant voice, like Ferdinand the Bull who wanted to sit pacifically under a cork tree rather than fight, but every time you ask some foundation or writer’s colony or whatever to buy into your uncertain future, of course all they can expect to go on is past work and project description. To answer truthfully at a moment of change would be like a suitor for someone’s hand in marriage answering the inevitable question about career prospects by saying “I think I’m going to walk barefoot across America” or “I’m going to spend my time developing a blue rose.” We shouldn’t be surprised if our patrons are too dismayed simply to hand over the purse full of cash—we are declaring ourselves subject to a master other than nurturance of career, following a vagrant singer into the wild. Sometimes it leads us out the other side resplendent, sometimes we’re never heard from again. And so we tend to perjure ourselves and say, “More of the same.”

Needless to say, your internal doubts are by far the hardest to deal with. To make yourself an amateur is painful, it is like hitting the keyboard with gloves on. Why abandon what you do well? Why allow a long interruption in your visible output? Why take the chance, perhaps a long chance, that you’ll become a good poet or whatever is the new skill needed? Why all this uncertainty? Each writer has to answer the question for herself, himself. But the writing child I was never thought much about habit or ease, and certainly not about career. She thought about how to use the word cascade as often as possible, or to find a place for halcyon, or wondered why there was no English rhyme for orange.

Rosellen Brown

Transcribed by me from Brown’s essay “Don’t Just Sit There: Writing as a Polymorphous Perverse Pleasure,” on pages 26–26 of Writers on Writing, ©1991 Middlebury College Press.

 

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