Monday, February 02, 2009

Self-Doubt in the Great

Recently, in discussing the writer's self-doubt in the comments with writer Greta, I speculated that even my hero the recently passed John Updike probably had such moments.

In one of the tributes to Updike in The New Yorker since, I found proof of this. In a letter to novelist E.L. Doctorow, Updike wrote that as a young man he was busily unfolding his own stories with techniques learned from others (which, may I say, he utterly transformed.) But, writing one day in his later years, he said: "now I am almost paralyzed by thinking of the great number of contemporary writers who know things I don’t know and can do things I can’t."

Doctorow's comment: "The self doubt of this prodigious talent moved the hell out of me."

But he wasn't paralyzed. He kept writing and publishing. He kept at it, in spite of any wobbles.

(Tomorrow: a piece I wrote years ago about my one encounter with Updike.)

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Debra W said...

Peggy, I really enjoy the way that you learn so much from those you admire. You are truly a sponge when it comes to learning about the written word. That is part of what makes you such a unique and wonderful writer.

Looking forward to reading about your Updike encounter!

Peggy Payne said...

Thanks, Debbie. Now I remember I was just recently carrying on about Naipaul. Who's still alive and writing.

Greta said...

BOLDness pays off, Peggy. I learned today that I've been accepted for the summer workshop. Yeaaaaaa!

PS: I've in the habit now of reading your blog every morning before I start to write. Maybe that's helping, too!! Not to put any pressure on you, but I'm disappointed when there's not one there with comments. Ha!
oops, PPS: I've decided to find contests to enter for short stories so that I can get in some practice on rejections. I'm serious, even tho I say it jokingly.

billie said...

My agent told me once when I expressed doubt and the desire to get better and better in my writing that in his experience that was a mark of greatness in writers.

I was completely buoyed by that, and hadn't thought of it in a long while until I read your post.

It's interesting - I was on a writing retreat all last week and was on a daily basis both frustrated and challenged by the idea that my idea of the book I'm editing is so much harder than the execution of that idea.

There's a nebulous quality to getting it right - not perfect, but simply right. It's the doubt that pushes us to work harder, I think.

Peggy Payne said...

Yaaay, Greta!!! Wonderful news.

I'm delighted you're visiting here every morning. I'll do what I can to be here (I am most days.)

And I love your idea of getting practice in rejections. That's a can't-miss strategy; either you get the practice you need, or you have the pleasure of acceptance, or both.

The Greta Strategy is going to travel.

Peggy Payne said...

Billie, I was struck by your thoughts on the nebulousness of getting it right.

There's a novel by Frank Conroy, BODY AND SOUL, about a musician who at one point says to his teacher that his hands on the keys seem to come finally to a wall that they can't get over. And the teacher says something on the order of: keep on bringing yourself up to that wall and imagining yourself over to the other side. And you'll find that that, surprisingly, it eventually works.

It's a hypnotic approach, really, though not billed that way. I think it does work, based on the principle of: you know more than you think you know.

And Conroy was both an exceptional writer (his memoir STOP-TIME) and a fine jazz piano player. I went to the pub party for that novel, which was in one of the side chambers of Carnegie Hall, and the author sat down at the piano and was amazing.

billie said...

Peggy, I agree - your thought seems borne out by the fact that many, many times when I am editing I arrive at entire passages that seem to just sing - and I have absolutely NO recall of having written them.

It's as if getting past that wall, in some sort of hypnotic creative trance state, works, but you don't remember being there. :)

However, I know enough to trust it and like the piano student, I keep going back, waiting for that magical leap over the wall.

Peggy Payne said...

What a delight to find those passages, Billie. And even the not-so-modest Naipaul says something on the order of: When the writing is going well, it's not coming from me.

I think it's to a great degree a matter of keeping at it long enough, having the fingers on the keys when the channels open.

Greta said...

Last night I was reading Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture. He had a vision and use of "the wall" in his life. FYI only. I'm not a book reviewer.(but I'm enjoying it)

Peggy Payne said...

I watched The Last Lecture on Youtube, Greta, and also found Pausch, and his wife, very inspiring.
I'm glad he got a lot of extra time, well, more than he expected anyway.

And, you are too a book reviewer.