The speaker is Thea Kronborg, the protagonist of Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, a prairie-town girl who’s carving out a career as an opera singer. She’s partly based on a real singer Cather knew and admired, but a lot of what she says comes straight out of Cather’s own experience as a prairie-town girl then carving out her own impressive career as a novelist.
“How can I get much satisfaction out of the enthusiasm of a house,” Thea asks, “that likes her atrociously bad performance at the same time that it pretends to like mine?” She’s talking about a rival singer, one who doesn’t live up to Thea’s idea of what vocal art ought to be. “If they like her, then they ought to hiss me off the stage. We stand for things that are irreconcilable, absolutely.”
The Cather pilgrimage happened on my 57th birthday. It was fortuitous more than planned—my son had been intending to fly to Chicago for his annual G (as in Godzilla) Fest until he suddenly suggested we make it into a father-son road trip—but it turned out to be a powerful thing. Once I realized we’d be driving within fifty miles of Red Cloud, Nebraska, I decided to Cather it up good: listening to an audiobook of My Antonia (sending Nicky back to his earbuds), reading Five Stories when I wasn’t driving, making reservations at the Cather family home, now a guest house run the Willa Cather Foundation, doing the Cather tour run by selfsame Foundation, even having breakfast at the cafe with the hand-lettered sign in the window reading WE SELL CATHER. It was only two days that I spent immersed in her flat, hard country, her bright-burning ambition, and her spare, perfect art—but those two days have stayed with me.
Comic Con was a different sort of pilgrimage. It was my 31st year in a row going to that thing. I was going there when I was “just a fan,” and I was going there when I was writing seven scripts a month for DC and Marvel; I was going there when I gave up writing the comics themselves to write about their history, and I kept going there when comics were just about the furthest things from my mind. (Lest this sound like some sort of morbid compulsion, I should tell you that the main point of the trip now is to hang out with my friend Joe Filice and his family, with the Con as a pretext and an organizing principle.) Every trip there, whether I like it or not, becomes a journey through my own creative and professional past.
And God, did I ever use that “creative hate” in my past! There were writers I loved, admired, emulated, tried to learn from. But there were other writers I couldn’t stand, writers I loved to bitch about and rage at, to satirize and mock (never to their faces, of course). And they were on my mind every bit as much as the writers I loved. Maybe more.
These weren’t inept or egregiously bad writers. They were mostly popular or well respected, usually with good reason, but with aesthetics or goals or intended audiences drastically different from mine. They weren’t doing me any harm. Sometimes I tried to convince myself that they were taking away my audience, or degrading the form to the point that no one would be able to recognize good work, but that was only to justify my hostility. Nor was this about simple jealousy, although that would be easy to assume. I could be very happy for another writer’s success, even when it was much greater than mine...if it was a writer I liked. It wasn’t really even about competitiveness.
I needed those writers to define myself. I wasn’t one of those writers who seems to have been born with a vision of what he must write. I wasn’t even very good at knowing who I was as a person, let alone as a writer. I spent a long time working at self-definition. For that I needed mentors, collaborators, and role models, but I also needed people to contrast myself against, people about whom I could say, “I’m definitely not that—so that must mean I’m this.” If I was clear on what I didn’t want to write, if I made that an anathema that would repel me every time I found myself drifting toward it, then I could stay on my own slowly emerging path.
I found a lot of people to play that role: novelists, screenwriters, comics writers, and essayists, young writers emerging alongside me, aging veterans, and some who weren’t around anymore. I even had Thomas Wolfe on the list for a while (So damned self-preoccupied! Too many words! No discipline!), even though though the poor mug had been dead and losing critical favor for decades before I was born.
And the more rage I could stir up against them, the more focus and energy I could bring to my own work. I nursed what Thea Kronborg calls the “contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”
Somewhere along the way, that all changed. As I became more comfortable in who I was and what I was doing as a writer, I lost my energy for mocking and complaining about others. Then, at some point (around the time I became a dad, I think) I began to develop a compassion and a feeling of solidarity with everyone else who was pursuing this nerve-wracking career, whether the results were anything I liked or not. And, having lost the need to define myself as Not That Guy, because I finally had a sense of myself as This Guy, I began to appreciate writers I had been unable to like before, even to appreciate them precisely because they broke my personal rules. Thomas Wolfe could churn out some pretty powerful descriptions with all those words.
I figure we’re all out there doing our best, trying to do what we think is good or hope other people will like, and there’s room in the world for all our different aesthetics and philosophies and abilities. These days I can’t even work up the energy to mock the woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. (In fact, I can never remember her name, which itself is different from the old days. Back then I would have had her name seared into my frontal lobe.) I assume she’s doing what she loves to do, and lots of people like it because it speaks to something in them, and that’s really fine with me. I do what I believe in doing, and people can stop to look at it if they want to.
Not that I don’t still have strong opinions. Not that I don’t get annoyed when a writer I like lets me down, especially if I think it’s from laziness or self-indulgence (you should’ve heard me when I finished The Goldfinch). I’ve just found that anger and judgment take more out of me now than they give back. Our emotional energy is finite, and I need to direct mine where it will do some good.
But I do try to catch myself when I’m tempted to tell some younger writer to lighten up or to lecture him on having compassion for our ink-stained comrades. I’m where I am because I went through the process, and the process, at least for me, required a fair amount of what Willa Cather had the guts to call “creative hate.”
There’s something attractive about those feelings, too. There’s a vitality and a potency in that kind of negative intensity that my grown-up acceptance and compassion can never completely replace. I suspect Cather felt the same. Her judgments of younger writers became more measured and philosophical even as the youngsters started making fun of her, but she still let Thea Kronborg have her rage. Even when I feel stupid for some of the arrogant judgments I laid on good writers when I was young and self-obsessed, I can still hear the nobility in Thea’s call to arms:
“You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesn’t matter, then nothing matters.”