Adrienne Celt on Losing Her Creative “Rival” Too Soon
Memories of Grad School and Ambition, Death and Regret
One lecture I remember particularly well from grad school was about how static objects in a story can offer useful information about your characters. We heard this lesson in a dark, third-story room where the only windows were high up on the walls; it was cozy, like a bunkroom in a ship, and the professor liked to keep the lights in the back of the room low, while the ones focused on the whiteboard were quite bright.
I don’t think anyone sat in the back row of desks, since we were a small class, but if they had, they probably would have fallen asleep, lulled out of consciousness by the warmth and the shadows. Remembering that room now, I can’t help imagining the sound of rain on the windowpanes, soothing and regular, but that’s almost certainly wrong, since the room was in Phoenix, Arizona, and there just isn’t that much rain there.
Here’s how a static object can help you: by staying the same. Over the course of a novel or story, your characters will almost certainly change, whether by growing in strength and intelligence or simply facing new challenges and emotions. If an object shows up at different points in the story, the character’s evolving state of mind will be reflected in their reaction to that object: a teenager might see a bottle of wine as a sneaky triumph, whereas an older, borderline alcoholic might see it as a talisman of regret. The same can be true of a dynamic character’s interactions with static people: the man who’s usually kind and polite to his butler reveals something to you the day he screams at the man for putting too much ice in his cocktail.
I suppose the same thing is true in real life.
In the lecture, my professor used an example from a novel he was writing to illustrate the point, though I can’t remember which scene he chose; I think it was set on an airplane. What I do remember is how he stopped midway through his description and got a distant look on his face.
“Every time I finish a book,” he said, “I wonder if it will be my last book. Have I already written my last book? I might have.”
We were all quiet. As students, none of us had even written our first books yet, and it was a chilling idea, like death: the thought of finishing your last one, and still having to move through the world, as though you were the same person you’d been when your whole career was ahead of you. It altered, at least in that moment, my understanding of what a book was, from being something I would invent to being something that came from within me, prearranged. Something sitting on a shelf inside my chest, waiting to be picked up and transcribed into the physical world. I thought: what if the shelf only has so many?
The room felt colder after that, less like a bunk and more like a bunker. I remember becoming more aware of my uncomfortable desk, and the way the light at the front of the room was glaring, icy. If it was in fact raining, the sound would no longer have comforted me, because I would’ve been anticipating my trip home, and wouldn’t have been eager to bike through a storm. But of course, since we were in the desert, it’s likely the weather was only in my mind. When I stepped outside that night, I’m sure it was as dry as a bone.It was a small program, where everyone was forced into a sort of ideological siblinghood, bound together by something elemental.
A student from my graduate program died a few years ago, and ever since I heard about it, that lecture has been echoing in my mind. She was younger than me, and a year behind me in our coursework, though both of us have been out of school for a long time, now. We hadn’t spoken since I graduated and left town, because we weren’t really friends, but we knew each other, and I kept track of her in a familial way. It was a small program, where everyone was forced into a sort of ideological siblinghood, bound together by something elemental, even if we weren’t nice to each other all the time. It’s shocking to me that she could be gone, even though I hadn’t seen her in years.
She had a beautiful face, with enormous eyes and a mass of dark hair framing her features, untamed. She had a beautiful, compelling arrogance that told you she would accomplish everything she wanted to in her life, and you had better watch out or you’d get run over by the express train of her ambition. She was also very talented, which made her ambition exciting, causing me to frequently wonder what her first novel would be about, and how the world would respond to it. I think now about the idea of living in the world with no more books in your heart, and wonder if that would be better or worse than dying with all the books in your heart still unwritten.
I can’t decide.
Once, at a party early in her first year, this writer, who I will call L (not her real initial) told me that I was a classy person, which I would come to learn was her highest compliment. She liked people who could hold themselves together and project dignity, loveliness, strength; she liked people who knew their own worth, and who were able to show it to the world in legible terms, using style and accomplishment. She was also capricious about how she designated classiness, and would later revoke that attribution from me, shaking her head slowly at an unflattering outfit I’d had the audacity to trot out at a party.
I was classy on Halloween, dressed as Betty Draper from Mad Men, and not classy at the casual get-together we both attended just before the holidays, where I wore the bridesmaid dress from my sister’s wedding—a pink, raw silk number that I was trying to get some use out of before giving up and donating it to charity. That dress never fit quite right, and L was correct that I didn’t look great in it. I had hoped to carry it off on the strength of the happy memories it conveyed, but as it turned out those memories were only available to me.
“Not classy,” L told me, shaking her head and running a finger over a small swatch of fabric on my shoulder. I flinched. “Why not?” I asked. She shook her head. “The tights,” she said. “It’s not good with the tights and,” L gestured up and down my body, “the whole thing.” At the time, I was annoyed at her. I flounced off in a huff and got a glass of wine, whispering with another friend in the corner about how L was being a bitch. Who was she, after all, to tell me what I could wear, or what it meant?
What I didn’t understand, then, was that her comments weren’t really about me. At that point I still believed on some level that I was the protagonist of the whole world, and so anything that happened at that party—which I, the protagonist, was attending—reflected on who I was and how I felt. But of course, to L—whose self-regard was at least as strong as mine, if not stronger—she was the protagonist that night, not just of the party, but of the universe. It wasn’t her job to boost my confidence, it was her job to speak her mind, and get reality to bend a bit closer to her internal rubric for perfection. Which she did. Later that night I looked in the mirror and saw all the places where the dress bulged or squeezed, where it hadn’t been cut long enough for my torso, so a seamstress had to add an awkward band of fabric at the last minute. I never wore that dress again.
L was profoundly sure of herself, but in her way she was generous, too. She wanted the world around her to be beautiful, and was willing to art-direct it towards those ends. She could be bratty and aggressive—but she was also very young. I’m now 15 years older than she was that night, and looking back on what she said I’m more amused than irritated. She had so much gall. I don’t necessarily think it’s a virtue to say everything that comes into your mind, but plenty of things are impressive without being virtuous. Maybe this is one of them. Maybe L was.
I don’t think she’d mind me saying so.I have a hard time with the idea of severing myself permanently from the yardstick of L’s progress.
L was already a published writer by the time she got to grad school, and after finishing out the program she continued to thrive, placing stories and poems, winning awards. She lived with her partner, another talented writer from our program, and I watched them from a distance, using the modern, false intimacy of the internet. I felt a rueful pride when she did well, imagining her into a rival for myself, one half of a two-person competition. It was useful, if impersonal. When she published something, I wanted to publish something else, in a bigger venue. In my mind she was a kind of device, a mechanical rabbit, to make the greyhound inside me run. I have no idea if she thought about me at all—but to be honest, she probably didn’t.
Lately I’ve grown to recognize that my own drive and ambition come at a cost: not only do I find it difficult to forgive myself if I go through a day without getting new and exciting work done, I judge myself harshly against the expectations and accomplishments of other people. As psychoanalysis goes, this is elementary, I know—but it has shaken me a little. The more I recognize the degree to which external validation is valuable to me, the worse I feel, and the more I seem to need that validation to regain equilibrium. The best thing I can do when I fall into the vortex of these feelings is step away from the outside world and do my own work in private, let my own thoughts travel broadly and strangely with no particular goal in mind.
But I have a hard time with the idea of severing myself permanently from the yardstick of L’s progress. Not just because her strength gave my own work an extra urgency: the thought that I should go faster, be better, to make sure that I kept up. Rather, because it shows me how little fate cares about our passions. No matter how much energy we put into them, or what kind of people we are—gifted, rare, ordinary, peculiar—the things we like best about ourselves can be allowed the crumple up and drift away like onionskins. Maybe we run out of books to write. Maybe we get sick, or we die. Either way, we really have no say in the matter.
The other day I had a conversation with another novelist about how, perhaps in heaven, we get to read all the books that we didn’t finish—the ones we put aside for something else, or the ones we would’ve gotten to if only we’d had more time. There may be an infinite number of these, or there may be six or seven of just the most perfect; I don’t know. I don’t run heaven. But I like to think that L is there now, glorying in the beauty of her mind. This vision, if entirely theoretical, seems like the least that I can give her.We were two women, quite different, but similar in our ambition.
As we change, the things that do not change can come to define us. This is an ego-centric position, even if true, and an isolating one at that. It is good craft advice. It is bad life advice. It suggests that we need not ever step back and consider how much exists beyond the walls of our own experience.
Maybe there’s no crime in me drifting back to the dark graduate seminar room in which our professor delivered a meaningful lecture, noting how my response to the lecture has evolved over time. But it’s harder to accept the years and years in which I flattened L—a whole person—into a bit player in my life. Of course, if she’d known, L would’ve just rolled her eyes at me. “Not classy,” she would’ve said, and she would’ve been right.
After we lost touch, L went on to another graduate program; she got married; she mentored younger writers; she wrote. Probably there were days when she woke up and felt the soft warmth of a blanket bearing her down into her bed; moments in which she tasted a soup transform as she added spice; days when she walked until her knees hurt and feet ached. Probably she kissed her husband and smelled his one peculiar scent moving towards her, felt his warmth radiating towards her with a love that was hers, only. She lived a large, round life, and though it was cut short, unfairly, it was not about me.
Sometimes I think about this: I wonder, what if, on a day when I happened to see her name in print, I hadn’t directed the spark of energy I felt towards my own ambitions, only? What if I had written to her, and sent congratulations, and asked how she was? We were two women, quite different, but similar in our ambition. Maybe we would never have been close, but we might have glanced off one another in our trajectories: two bullets speeding through space and changing direction, by virtue of meeting. We might have had a conversation, at least. Whatever there was that went unspoken between us—which will now be unspoken forever—in that space, we would have known.
Adrienne Celt’s End of the World House is out now from Simon & Schuster.