A confession. I had never, until starting this magazine, met a “famous writer.” Not even close. Now I have, though famous, for writers, is quite the relative concept. Which is to say, a writer can sell millions of books but still, name-wise, be less known than a the latest Hollywood ingénue. No matter – at least writers needn’t worry about paparazzi.
But I’m a writer, so I pay attention to certain things, and if someone has been on “The List” or won this or that award or spoken to Oprah, to me, at least, they qualify as famous. And the first time I met such a person, I have to admit, I was a little nervous. But I needed to be a professional, so I stowed my awkward awe and tried to behave as if this person were just a stranger whom I had invited into my home for a friendly chat.
I’ve since gotten over the shock of meeting famous writers, and all for the better. It will not do to put anyone on any kind of pedestal. Andre Dubus (coming Monday in our July issue) talked about how some people feel that they are called to writing the way someone is called to the priesthood.
I could relate. I was not raised with any sort of religion, but I was quite the spiritual kid, and so writers took the place of the saints. Where others had Jesus and Moses and Psalms, I had Eliot and Cummings and Faulkner. You have to get it somewhere. Trouble is, I had elevated these writers to sainthood because I needed them there, up on Olympus where Truth resided. Then when it came time for me to write . . . well, I was no saint, obviously.
This is why meeting famous writers was so valuable. They were, in fact, just people. So yes, the mantel “Writer” belongs to anyone who would choose to claim it. But Andre Dubus made another very important distinction, which is that at the desk, he is a better man—more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental. This, I think is why we love the writers we do, because we are seeing their best side. We all have a best side. Greatness arises when you understand that being fallen some of the time does not negate the beauty and wisdom you feel and share the rest of time.