Not long ago I watched an interview John Updike conducted with the New York Times a year or two before he died. The subject of Updike’s age came up relative to his writing ability. “This is why I’m still writing short stories and submitting them to The New Yorker,” said the old literary giant. “It’s good to know I can still do it.” I fully understand the appeal of passing a test. I may not be in my seventies, but I understand wanting to feel vital and relevant. As a writer, I fully understand the short thrill of the concrete, external validation that is an acceptance letter. But at what point do we get to stop asking this stupid question? After all, wasn’t Updike’s question merely a variation on the very same question any writer could ask the first time he sits down to write his first short story: “Can I do it?”
How worthless that question and how worthless the answer. Hadn’t Updike heard the answer hundreds of times before? Hadn’t he heard the answer when he won his first and then his second Pulitzer? Hadn’t he heard it with each of the twenty or so novels he published, to say nothing of the hundreds of short stories? How many times must a question be answered before we understand it never should have been asked in the first place?
I would like to tell you that I have never asked that stupid question, but I have, and too many times to count. I have asked it and heard every answer from no to yes to every shade in between. And still I ask it again under the veil of some new story, some new challenge. The answer never means anything. Yes or no, I am always left where I began: asking myself what I would like to try next.
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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com