“A complicated affection, sometimes tinged with shame”

by luckyperro

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I love when I attend a discussion or reading by an author and it completely changes the way I view his or her work, the craft of writing, and, occasionally, the world.

A few weeks ago I attended a discussion and reading by two authors I haven’t read, but had heard a lot about because they are both young and very successful: Chad Harbach and Karen Russell.  I invited a friend who had read both their books–and whose opinion I trust–and she was not entirely enthusiastic about their work.  So I didn’t plan to read either of them–until I heard them speak!

The discussion was kind of all over the place, because the person leading it seemed unprepared and a little loopy, but it ended up being, as my friend Sarah cleverly summed up, a great illustration of the contrast between a truly inspired artist (Russell) and someone who sets out to write a great book and, through hard work and persistence over a period of ten years, does it (Harbach).

I think Sarah had a little more admiration for Russell, but I still have a ton of respect for someone who goes after a goal like that–perhaps even working against his own nature–and succeeds brilliantly.  As he said, he put in hin 10,000 hours, and he taught himself the craft.  His model is, obviously, the less sustainable one (she has just put out her third book, the wonderfully-titled Vampires in the Lemon Grove, while he probably won’t complete another for quite some time), but it sounds like he’s produced valuable work, and he gives hope to those of us who may not think of ourselves as artists.

Russell easily won us over because she is one of the funniest, most likeable people ever, while Harbach seemed aloof and overly impressed with himself.  An example of one of her charming zingers: since she often revisits her southern Florida roots in her work, she was asked about her relationship to the place: “It’s like how you feel about your family: a complicated affection sometimes tinged with shame.”  I heard her again on NPR a few days later and ended up telling Sarah, “I’m not so sure I want to read her books as much as I just really want to be her friend.”

Harbach did say something interesting at one point, quoting a joking statement by a writer friend of his, about how, in order to write well, “you just have to make yourself into the perfect human being and then write naturally”–the point being that writing is a revelatory process, and your deepest thoughts will out.  This seemed like an obvious idea that, at least to me, wasn’t obvious until he said it.

This talk didn’t quite change the way I see the world, but the next one I went to did.  Stay tuned for a read-out of an amazing talk by Alexandra Fuller about violence, death, and the loss of innocence (not as depressing as it sounds!).