With the annual AWP conference underway this weekend in Chicago, Illinois, I’m torn between wishing I was there and being glad that I can spend the weekend writing rather than managing an exhibit booth or presenting a paper. With its list of attending luminaries, the conference can be a daunting place to read one’s work. I found this to be the case particularly in 2007, when I had the task of chairing and presenting on a panel paying tribute to one of our country’s greatest living poets, Stanley Plumly. Working on that paper made me a little crazy, and drove me to — well, you can see for yourself, in the account below.
March 19, 2007
Wrestling with Nick Hornby: Or, How I Discovered I’m Not a Lad
Early in my teaching career, a young woman in an undergraduate creative writing workshop said something I’ve never forgotten. It was the first day of class, and I’d asked each student to name a favorite writer and to tell the class why they liked that particular author’s work. I was pretty pleased with the list so far – no Stephen King or Kahlil Gibran, at any rate – when the young woman in question raised her hand.
“I don’t read much,” she said, “because I don’t want to be to influenced by any other writers. I want to sound like me.”
I was flabbergasted. “But how can you want to be a writer if you don’t love reading?” I wanted to blurt. “And how can you think you’ll be any good if you don’t know what else is out there?” But even then, I knew that sputtering indignation was not the way to win over young minds. I made a brief, passionate case for reading deeply and widely, invoked the poet Michael Collier’s theory of ratio – you have to read a hundred good poems to write one good poem – and moved on.
But her words came back to me recently when I had a rather unfortunate experience of my own regarding influence, voice, and the question of just who it is I’m trying to sound like in my writing. The influencer in question was Nick Hornby, and he nearly drove me to a very public embarrassment.
In early March, I was scheduled to give a presentation at the AWP – that’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs – annual conference, as part of a tribute to the poet Stanley Plumly. Stan was my thesis advisor in graduate school, and probably the most important teacher I’ve had. He is widely admired and loved, and I was nervous, both about my paper itself and about the fact that I was also chairing the panel. I’d worked up a thesis about Stan’s love poems and how they subvert the conventions of romantic poetry in dark and ultimately elegiac ways. It is a subject I feel strongly about and I wanted to do it justice, and to do him justice. So I wrote the paper and rewrote it, scrapping whole drafts and starting over, and over, and generally tying myself into a knot.
As diversionary reading, I picked up Nick Hornby’s collection of essays, The Polysyllabic Spree. The book gathers 14 of Hornby’s monthly book review columns for The Believer magazine, and each column begins with two lists – of the books that he’s bought that month and of the books that he’s actually read. The lists are funny and revealing all by themselves, and the essays have everything in them that I’ve come to love about Hornby’s writing – the wickedly conversational tone, the blending of highbrow and lowbrow culture, the moments of serious insight followed by a belly laugh, all whipped into something that feels like a very good pub conversation. (Is there any living writer it’d be more fun to have a pint with than Hornby?)
Here are some examples of what makes him such a great read. Hornby on why Chekhov’s short stories are underrated: “When you’re young and pretentious, you want your Greats to come to you with bells on, otherwise you can’t see what the fuss is about, and these stories have no bells.” On Cyril Connolly’s critique of P.G. Wodehouse: “Connolly is sniffy about him several times over the course of Enemies of Promise, and presumes that his stuff won’t last, but he has turned out to be as enduring as anyone apart from Orwell. Jokes, you see. People do like jokes.” On a biography of Arsene Wegner, former manager of Hornby’s beloved Arsenal soccer (that is, football) club: “I couldn’t, hand on heart, argue that it transcends the genre, and you probably only really need to read it if you have an Arsenal season ticket. And if there is one single Believer reader who is also an Arsenal season ticket holder, I’ll buy you a drink next home game. What the hell – I’ll buy you a car.”
Well, compared to Hornby, my own labored little paper started to look like just that – labor. Where was the fun, I thought? The clever asides, the hilarious personal confessions, the flashes of brilliance couched in the rhythms of everyday speech. Never mind that his task and mine were very different. Never mind that our audiences were very different. I was in the grip of literary influence, and it’s harder to get over than the flu.
“I’m starting over,” I announced to my husband one Sunday morning, having kept him up until three a.m., re–reading some of my favorite Hornby moments aloud.
“The Stan paper?” he sighed.
“Yes, and I’ve got it now,” I said. “I have to let myself into the paper. No dry academic stuff here. I have to be me.”
By me, of course, I meant Nick Hornby. We both knew this, but my husband was kind enough not to point it out. A writer himself, he has a kind of genius for how to deal with others in the throes of inspiration, or what passes for inspiration.
“Just be careful,” he said, cautiously, in the tone you might use to talk a hyperactive child down from a roof. “It sounds to me like you’ve got a really good outline. Don’t make any drastic moves.”
Drastic, I thought. Ha! Just you wait, pal. I’m gonna astonish you with my colloquial brilliance. I’m gonna make you laugh, and hard. And upstairs to my office I went, enormous cup of coffee in hand, full of foolish intentions.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. I spent a few giddy years in my late ’teens and early twenties careening back and forth, in my poetry, between imitating Anne Sexton and imitating T.S. Eliot. (Imagine the fun – and you’ll have to, because I’ve burned the results.) But there was lot less at stake back then. My prospective audience was essentially a party of two – whatever boyfriend was currently on the horizon, and my dog. Any potential embarrassment was relieved, on the boyfriend front, by the fact that he was, inevitably, sharing his own pathetically derivative poems or songs or stories with me. (Isn’t that what young love is for?) And as for the terrier, she displayed the wisdom of her breed by responding the same way every time I read a new poem aloud – a lick on my face, then she’d curl up under my chair and fall asleep.
But with the Stan paper, I knew I was going to have a sizeable audience, and of the most demanding kind – other writers. Successful ones, at that. And of course, Stan himself was going to be there. This was no time to pretend I was a middle–aged British soccer–loving father with three kids and a penchant for occasional rowdy behavior. I mean, I’ve never even been in a pub fight. I’ve been to one soccer game, DC United at RFK Stadium, and the crowd was small and polite. To put it simply, I’m not a lad, nor was meant to be.
My attempt to become one was, mercifully, brief. I was only three paragraphs into my new draft when I sat back with a satisfied sigh to reread my handiwork. It was, as you may expect, terrible. Instead of a strong voice, it had no voice at all. The jokes weren’t funny, the insights were smudged, the “I” was not endearing but annoying. I deleted it all, then returned, hangdog, to the living room, where my husband was reading the paper with the tense posture of one waiting for a bomb to go off. One look at my face told him it already had.
“I think you need to take a break,” he said.
So he did what any sensible man would do – he took me out. To an elegant restaurant, not a pub. I drank Argentinean wine and ate various gorgeous little appetizers and remembered who I was, a little. And the next day, I dove back in and rewrote the paper one last time – as myself, not Nick Hornby. When I delivered it at the conference, it was a success. The audience was moved and pleased, including the Big Guy himself. I even got a few laughs – based on my own life and experience, not Hornby’s.
I still tell my students that writers need to read deeply and widely; I still think that that undergraduate, all those years ago, was doing herself a disservice, and hope I persuaded her of the wisdom of a different approach. But the Hornby episode has given me a new sympathy for her position. I did, however, learn a lot from the excruciating 24 hours I spent wrestling with him. I learned, among other things, that his style is deceptively simple, that it’s really very hard to make it sound like it all comes so easily. I always knew he was a great writer, but now I know why.
And I’d like to pay him back. If Nick Hornby ever comes to Washington, DC, I’d be happy to take him to a Redskins’ game, and share a little of my love for American football. What the hell – I’ll even buy him a beer.