Look Back In Certainty

I heard Robert Ferrigno tell the following story about the novelist Michael Chabon. It’s a useful story, but if it turns out to be apocryphal, blame Ferrigno. Chabon was finishing his MFA degree. His culminating project was a novel, and he was in the final work-shopping session. Some of the other MFA students didn’t care for the book and were detailing exactly why. A few of them were taking perhaps more pleasure in this process than they should have. According Ferrigno, Chabon didn’t care because he had a check in his pocket for $250,000, the advance he received for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the very novel being so gleefully dissected.

This is a delightful story for writers, for in it we are all Michael Chabon, not one of those obnoxious MFA posers. What’s more, the money is the ace; it is proof. I don’t need to justify this work, someone else already has, and they’ve risked a thick wad of cash on this justification. Yet wouldn’t it be possible that as Chabon listened to these criticisms, he thought to himself, “What if they’re right? What if this book is as dull and derivative as they say? What if it’s a giant embarrassing flop?”

Of course, we probably don’t think this way because the book went on to become a bestseller and Chabon’s career flourished thereafter. But this is hindsight, and the fact is the money was proof of nothing. The only thing Chabon could have known for sure was that he was glad he wrote the book and he was glad people would now have a chance to read it.

It’s quite tempting to sanitize the past of all its doubt and uncertainty, especially from where we sit, the present, from whose vantage all those doubts and uncertainties seem so plainly silly. If only I had an advance scout who could run ahead two or three days and return with good reports – not of lottery numbers or winning horses, but with the simple reassurance that everything seemed to work out fine. Maybe then I’d listen to myself.

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