For a long time I had always thought John Cheever was a fictional character created for an episode of "Seinfeld." It wasn't until I took a class in creative writing and was introduced to the likes of Ethan Canin (who counts Cheever as one of his influences) that I realized he was a real writer! I know, I feel stupid for not knowing that. Curious, I picked up a few of his stories and really fell in love with his writing. He had such a great way of capturing Middle America that I felt like he was speaking for his generation. Upon learning more, I learned that he suffered from some of the same inner struggles that I do - both personally and as a writer - so I felt compelled to pick up a copy of Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life. While a review of the book is probably beyond the scope of this blog (but will appear on my facebook page and maybe even my myspace page), I did want to share a few tidbits from the book that struck me as relevant to the writings of an aspiring writer, especially one that wants to walk in his and Canin's footsteps (I really like the way both of them portray the struggles of everyday people).
One came after he harshly insulted JD Salinger. In his response, he said that another reason for his "irritability is the fact that I am never content with my own work." Wow, does that hit home! I'll write a story or poem and share it with others who have good things to say about it, but I always think it can be better or improved upon.
Another comment he made was about writing. He said that "after dark the book seems to unfold before my eyes like a roll of pianola music...but in the clear light of morning I have my troubles." How true! I know I should do a better job keeping a journal because most of my best writing is done when I am lying in bed or driving in the car. It just all seems to come together for me and I write part of my story right there, in my head. I try to recreate it when I can, but it just doesn't come out the same as it did when it first germinated. I have a phone and mp3 player that do voice recordings. Maybe I should take advantage of that technology. Then again, when I am done, I might replay my recording and wonder what the heck I was thinking!
Finally, in the preface to "Stories" (a collection of some of his better short stories) he contrasts the work of a painter with that of a writer saying that the early work of painters can show how the artist was influenced by others. Not so with writers, he says. Instead "A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas of a fork." As disparaging as this sounds, it really is encouraging to know that even the great John Cheever took a while to develop his writing, that new writers, like myself, can't be expected to bang out something like "The Enormous Radio" or "The Swimmer" on their first try, that good writing habits take time to develop.