“To own only a little talent…was an awful, plaguing thing…being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little…”
–Yours, Mary Robinson
For the past month I have been haunted by this line from Mary Robinson. Lines about mediocre talent have a way of searing themselves into my mind where they throb for weeks before fading into a dull ache that never quite disappears, in the way of things you don’t want to believe but know to be irrefutably true.
Shaken, I went back through all of my work, six years of essays and stories, and read it exhaustively, hell bent on trying to prove something. I read, and in the detritus of thousands of dead words I ran into the occasional decent paragraph. The shock of it made me come away satisfied. There’s something here worth fighting for, I told myself, and for a week I was happy.
Then one of my college friends sent me a story to critique.
It was good.
Not good in the way of school assignments that get an A, or stories that are shown off by proud parents, but good in the way that I read it and the gaping hole in me that is always searching for beauty and wisdom wrapped up in a few elegant words, the part that is always hungry and rarely fed, that part read, and said this. This is good.
I read and my heart broke open in my chest.
It’s one thing to be held in the thrall of a dead genius. The space created by death still allows for self-delusion—another ten years and I’ll be able to do that—but it’s another thing to realize belatedly that you have rubbed shoulders with genius, cleaned kitchens together and stayed up until 2:00 in the morning discussing spoons.
All illusions are stripped away. There is yourself and there is genius, and there is the distance between you, and you know with an awful certainty what you are and what you are not. And then you look into genius’s face, and it’s an ordinary human face, two eyes, nose, Cupid mouth, spattering of freckles. You peer at the rooms and roads genius inhabits and wonders what it is she sees that you don’t. You ask yourself a thousand questions about innate talent versus hard work and in the end the all boil down the same wretchedness: Why not me too? Why was I passed over?
Because it’s hard this love, this obsession with words. It demands a life, hours spent pouring over books, days spent spacing out in company, years at the table scrawling over sheets of paper, ripping them up, starting over, again and again, and yes, again. You quit your job, you give it your life, and in return there are no promises, no comfortable salary, no accolades, nothing but the casual amazement and pity of strangers. You write? Oh. It’s a hard life you know. Doesn’t pay.
Yeah. I know.
But there are the things you can choose in life and the things you can’t, and then in the realm of things that just are, there’s love, and we are all helpless before love.
You love and you live with it. But it is hard to know, in the end, that your love, this love, exceeds your ability.
How do you deal?
For a week, I was a ghost on the street. The misery went deep, cut to the bone, and was impossible to voice. What do you say anyway? I love. I am not enough for this love. The pain is killing me.
I spilled it all out to another friend, one who does not write, and the friend blinked and said:
But why does it matter? Can’t you both be writers? You love writing. Nothing can change that.
And I said, yes, but—and I thought of the sheer perfection of that story my friend wrote, the way it opened a door into a new world where snow spilled from a pewter sky and men and women exchange cracked valentines standing on wet pavement, and I thought of my work, brightly painted, cardboard to the core.
Yes, but—it hurts. My God, it hurts.
A few days later I checked my e-mail and found another story with from the same writer friend with a note attached. This story was a glorious mess, elegant bones, mad eyes, and a crazy titling grin tripping over its own feet. It had the most goddamn perfect ending I had ever read.
Help, the note said.
I panicked. I was out of my depth. I was heartbroken and could not, would not. I shut my computer and looked out the window where the sky was a hard blue eggshell. There was dinner to eat, outside there was a city full of winding side streets and alleys waiting to be explored, and there was that story. And what it could be.
I went for long walks, I sat in a café downing mugs of tea haunted by bones and eyes and perfect endings, and I roosted in a library for hours dreaming of stories, muttering over my computer, cutting and rearranging, hissing grow grow grow at the screen. When I finished the stars were burning holes in the sky.
In the end it was pathetically little, some fat trimmed here, a few folds rearranged there, one or two observations, but it was everything I had to offer and it came from something deep within that will not be denied, no matter how I rage and roil with the sick jealousy of being second rate. It came from the overwhelming love of written words.
You love something.
You do what you can.