How to Write Posthumously

December 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, the transcript of an address by Jeffrey Eugenides delivered to the recipients of the 2012 Whiting Award. By writing posthumously, of course, he means writing without the natural inclination to compromise one’s writing when people start paying too much attention to it. (Hasn’t been a problem for me, so far. But I wholly understand it.)

Your audience, as it grows, your need for a teaching job, the fact of being taken seriously and reviewed by people—all these things might lead you to over-analyze your words and censor them. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.”

To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. … The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life?

Coming shortly after this year’s ALCS, Eugenides repeats the words of a Detroit Tigers pitcher, Doug Fister: “Stay within yourself.” In other words, do not change your game in response to the expectations of an opponent, or the marketplace.

One of my problems is that I keep looking up at the top of the hole, where the daylight is, when I know the only way to get where I want to be is to keep digging.

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