“It’s Not All Over…” On Persisting in Writing and in Life
Mark Ernest Pothier in Conversation With His Younger Self
I was stunned when my first short story was published. It was one of four stories selected for the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award in 1993; I was 34. The paper flew me and my wife from San Francisco to Chicago for a grand literary banquet; we were seated at the front table next to E. Annie Proulx (there for the Heartland Prize) and Wayne C. Boothe, whose The Rhetoric of Fiction sat on my desk back home with a bookmark in the section about unreliable narrators—my go-to P.O.V. As a newbie to author table-talk, I fretted over the knot in my tie and kept my mutterings to food topics.
Ms. Proulx was also quiet at the table, but generous later when she showed my work to her Park Avenue agent, who seemed to represent half the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling world, and who then took on my hastily drafted first novel. All this in eight months, during which I was unable to sleep, write, or talk to anyone about anything other than My Book.
But no one picked up My Book. When my Park Avenue agent, who had a voice like silk, and who’d always been gracious and honest with me, said, “I’m kind of out of ideas,” it took me a very long time to realize: Me, too. I was stunned again. I drifted into a decision to pull back and find a reliable job to cover my half of the rent while San Francisco lurched into the dot-com boom.
My third attempt at a novel, Outer Sunset, will be published by University of Iowa Press on May 15, 2023. I’ll be 64. Much of it was written on once-a-week “writers’ nights” at the library, which my wife and I scheduled around raising kids and workaday life. After so many years, this novel feels earned: the book deal came after countless drafts, queries to 200-plus agents, and as many rejections (minus one). I think I know what I’m doing now. All the same, this new round of good fortune can feel overwhelming sometimes. Too much.
Despite a full adulthood of changes, I often feel as shaken and off-balance as my 34-year-old wannabe-writer self once did. I’m not sleeping well; my edges are worn, my focus thinning. And that younger guy keeps popping up, looking lost and anxious all over again, tapping me on the shoulder as if I am now supposed to help him, somehow. Like he needs my reassurance: Yes, you’re making the right choice.
It’s exhausting, so close to launch. What to do? To get on the same page, I interviewed him.
Me Now (“Now”): Let’s start by acknowledging that, since your first novel has fallen through, despite the prize and all, you’ve chosen to seek professional counseling. For the first time in your life. From my side of things—30 years ahead of you—I can reassure you there: Good decision! It’s always good to talk to someone.
Younger Me (“Younger”): Duh.
Now: But why do you say it’s “all over”—that you’ve already “failed”? Why not see if another agent has different ideas? Worked for me.
Younger: Don’t you recall these rejection letters? The senior editor who says he’s sorry, but would love to be there when I finally give my “stylistic horse full rein”? Or the other one, who’s looking forward to when I “harness” all my “considerable potential”? I’m not sure what to do with this sort of feedback, but I do think it’s safe to assume the Park Avenue agent knows what she’s talking about—that she did her best, and that my novel simply isn’t good enough.
Now: You’ll say that about your work for years to come, you know—that it’s “not good enough.”
Younger: Oh. Really.
Now: It sounds like you’re growing kind of cozy with these rejections. Like you enjoy how high-caliber and contradictory they sound. I see you’re tempted to work in that “I’m just a first-gen college farm boy” thing, too.
Younger: I’m figuring that part out. But what I am certain of is: I tried my best with this failed novel. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to explore the possibility that “my best” isn’t good enough to hop over the wall. Happens to people every day. Maybe I had too much good luck all at once.
Now: You sound cynical! Do you really think your story won the Algren—out of thousands of entries—and Proulx’s attention and the agent’s support because of luck alone?
Younger: I have my doubts. A first-person story with an old white male wannabe writer speaking as an unreliable narrator, martini in hand: That’s not such a hard sell.
Now: You may be surprised, one day.
Younger: Well, that’s the bogeyman in my mirror. What can I say.
Now: What do you hope to change in counseling, then? Aside from getting some rest?
Younger: A new story, maybe? I met this certified counselor, Dorothy, in a spirituality workshop. We’re learning to do centering prayer—like in Franny and Zooey—where you sit still, stifle your inner chatter, and listen. I’ve been trying for months and getting nowhere, for obvious reasons. But Dorothy’s got it. She’s old—like 50!—but she still rides her bike around the city and backpacks alone in the Sierras. Looking into her eyes is like looking down a well. She creates peace when she speaks. And, best of all—she works cheap! I can even do this through the Employee Assistance Program at work.
Now: But you haven’t said what you hope to change. Have you considered whether you might be doing this for diversion? Simple avoidance? I’m asking because I remember how you procrastinate by insisting on perfect conditions before writing, like the special chair, coffee just hot enough, all the neighbors quiet…
Younger: I didn’t say I plan to stop writing. I’m not going to counseling to run away from writing.
Now: What if writing is the thing you’re using to divert yourself from even bigger issues, stuff you might dig up during counseling? Family messes, for instance?
Younger: What if? We’ll see. At least I’m taking steps, instead of sitting around talking to myself.
Now: What if what you’re really, secretly hoping to do is make lightning strike twice? Hoping that this high-stakes year you’ve just lived through—this drama—might happen all over again, but that this time you’ll know exactly how to master it and make things go the way you want?
Younger: I’m not thinking that clearly. It’s possible. I don’t have the crutch of hindsight you do. But your attitude—the control—doesn’t sound right.
Now: What if it’s simply envy you’re struggling with? Because I can tell you: You’ll be seeing a lot of friends and fellow writers do quite well for themselves in the years ahead. Those other Algren winners, for example—they’re all going to sell their novels, and two will be NYT bestsellers, and one of those will also win the National Book Award and get on Oprah—all before you ever get another story in print.
Sure, you can tell yourself that these writers live in New York and work in publishing or they’re Ivy-Leaguers or they’re more sophisticated than you, but you’ve met them and you like them and you’ll always know in your heart that their success was worked hard for and earned. Don’t you worry about carrying a little chip on your shoulder, dismissing people who “make it” as sellouts? Aren’t you afraid this might poison your writing? Your love of books?
Younger: [Long pause.] Well—I sure do hope not. At all costs I want to avoid becoming a caricature of the bitter, drunken, failed writer and father. But I guess feelings like that might arise, sometimes. Add that to the list of stuff I’ll work through with Dorothy: Learning how to not become an angry old fuck.
Now: Easy now.
Younger: You started this.
Now: I’m asking what your hopes are, in this moment of self-defined “crisis.” Not what you want to avoid.
Younger: My hopes for counseling?
Now: That, and for letting go of your first novel. What’s the goal?
Younger: And just so I’m clear on why you’re asking me to get all “strategic” about life here: You’re pretending you don’t already know where my choice to stop and take stock will lead?
Now: I may not fully understand the moment you’re in, just as I didn’t fully understand it 30 years ago. If I had, it’s doubtful we’d be talking now. Today, in addition to feeling shaken, I also feel foolish to still have doubts about the value of my writing, the integrity of my public face, and about how far I’m willing to go this time around to promote my work to reach as many readers as possible.
I even doubt the value of literary fiction in the face of how fast the world’s falling apart. You won’t believe how thoroughly that World Wide Web will transform culture; how transactional, quantifiable, and stark all those yes/no software “choices” will make every interaction; or how easy it will be for bad, powerful people to lie convincingly, instantly, on a global scale (and in 3D!); and how strong, nimble, and clever you’ll need to be to keep up, stay true, and follow your heart. Hell, even just to know your heart. And then teach your kids?!
Looking back at you, as you and your wife begin to raise babies, and crank up your careers, and tend to your aging parents, and make and lose friends, and move, move, move—I guess, from my side, I’m seeing you as more alive and in touch with your heart, right in the middle of this “failure,” than I am now. Or may ever be again.Why do you think you don’t know your own heart better now, in your old age, than you did back here?
Younger: You don’t know for sure what you may have given up at my age, or why.
Now: I know I’ve done the best I could for all my people. I’ve successfully dodged most of the hangdog, wannabe life—which may be the main outcome of the self-examination you’re doing now—but no, I’m still not 100% certain about all the choices I’ve made. Hence this brief interview.
Younger: You surprise me. The percentage.
Now: I’m asking you—my younger, more energetic, hopeful, less-heartbroken, and better-rested (you are, believe me) self: Why am I off-center? What can I do about it?
Younger: I could ask you a question.
Now: If you do, we go into it knowing that unavoidably ends this conversation. Game over.
Younger: Or—maybe I’ll ask, but you don’t answer. Not here.
Younger: Because what you’re describing doesn’t sound like your everyday fear of penury, pain, or death.
Now: There’s always that. But no—not the same thing.
Younger: And, if I hear you right, you’re certain it’s been triggered by the fact that you’re finally publishing a novel.
Younger: So, my question would be: Why do you think you don’t know your own heart better now, in your old age, than you did back here, when you were me? Who wouldn’t feel agitated when finally making real one of the highest, longest-held dreams of their life? It’s exciting, right? Why should that seem unnatural? Or like it’s some problem to fix?
Why not focus on all the good conversations you’ve shared over the past 30 years with writer friends, people you’ve known and loved for decades? Why not recall all you’ve read and written, and the depth and richness that’s brought to your everyday life, and how it’s informed the raising of the two beautiful kids we’re planning while staying happily married, all that time? Imagine how pale the life you’ve lived (ahead of me) would have been if I hadn’t stumbled awhile over these questions you’re replaying now?
Articulate that; burrow down, through, and go under that, just as I’ll do soon with Dorothy on my side, and then you’ll be rid of me, once and for all, when you answer me: How priceless and delicious a gift was that—to have had a literary life?
Outer Sunset by Mark Ernest Pothier is available from University of Iowa Press.