I was once in a writing group with a woman who was as sure of her literary destiny as I was unsure of mine. Whenever I would lament, after the latest round of rejections, that I would never become a writer, she would solemnly assert, We’re already writers. We just aren’t authors yet. This statement managed to be both true and ridiculous at the same time, a neat trick, and it comforted me not at all, as you might imagine.
I was reminded of this when I visited my parents a few weeks ago, the first time I’d seen them in a while. They are old, so old that I was seriously afraid I wouldn’t get to see one or both of them by the time the pandemic crisis had eased enough to permit me a visit. They’ve reacted to the fact of the curtain-lowering on their lives in different ways, as they’ve done pretty much everything. My father has withdrawn. He doesn’t like talking, and when anyone talks to him, he averts his eyes and maintains what might be misinterpreted as a sour expression. I don’t think he always feels as disgruntled as he looks, but at 92 a person likely doesn’t care much about putting other people at ease. He can’t see, hear, or walk very well; he can’t partake in most of the things he has enjoyed for most of his life; why should he worry that someone might take the grouchy look on his face as a personal affront? I can’t say I blame him.
My mother, on the other hand, seems hell-bent on dredging up the past. She seems to imagine I do still blame her, still hold ancient grudges for her not being a good mother, not being there for me and my sister—grudges which, I’ve told her again and again, I might once have nurtured but don’t anymore. This isn’t quite true but might as well be. Any lingering resentment I have, I fully acknowledge as trivial. She has done me very little harm and very much good, and has certainly always meant well.
That said, it’s still difficult at times to remember the part about meaning well. During my visit, I started talking about my most recent career turn—teaching high school English—and how I never expected to end up there, or really anywhere else I’d ventured throughout my professional life. I had never known what I would be, and yet things somehow managed to work out all right.
My mother listened, or appeared to do so, and then said, “I always thought you would be a writer.”
At another time in my life I would have laughed out loud. Really? You sure had a funny way of showing it. Was it reverse psychology, then, all those times you suggested more stable and lucrative avenues I might pursue? I held my laughter and sarcasm in check, though. “I did become a writer,” I said. “I wrote several books. They didn’t sell much, but I wrote them.”
She said nothing, and I knew this wasn’t what she meant by “writer” any more than it was what I meant when I told my cheery friend I wasn’t one. My mother had meant for me to write The Joy Luck Club. She had wanted to brag about me and my many best-sellers. Perhaps she had pictured seeing her name on the dedication page of my latest novel, thanking her for all her support and encouragement.
The funny thing is there’s almost nothing less encouraging she could have said to me if she tried. I had always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write best-sellers, lots of them. I imagined who I’d thank on the dedication page—my parents, my sister, my husband and our dog. (There was of course no husband or dog at the time I started imagining these things but I figured there would be, and at least that part of the scenario worked out.) But writing is different now, or at least authoring is, because it isn’t enough merely to craft books; one must craft one’s self, create a persona and a following, and keep it going. Granted, publicity and marketing are hardly new concepts; writers have always had to self-promote. But when I first dreamed of my name getting successively larger and larger on hardcover book jackets as I became a bigger and bigger success, there was no such thing as social media. Computers were as big as rooms. Photos were on film and came back days or even weeks after you took them, depending on how promptly you brought them in to be developed. An “author’s page,” if that was even a term, would be a piece of paper mailed (later faxed—ooh, technology) to a newspaper or magazine to excerpt from in an article that eager fans would cut out and push-pin to a corkboard or Scotch-tape to a wall, where it would stay, unupdated, until it curled and yellowed.
I did not become a writer the way she or I envisioned, and at this point I probably never will. That vision has very little appeal to me anymore, and to be brutally honest with myself I just don’t have the talent, not for writing popular books nor being a popular writer. Self-promotion makes my skin crawl—I think I’ve used my Instagram account for a total of three minutes ever—and my best attempt at the kind of mind-bending plot twist so popular these days was it turns out it really was suicide and not murder. (A spoiler, and kind of lame, but don’t let it stop you from buying the book.) I accept all that. I still write, obviously—for here we are—and I still love books. They don’t have to be mine for me to enjoy them, any more than I have to feel like a spectacular failure at life because they won’t ever be mine. We reconcile ourselves to our own lives in different ways, while there’s still time.