I want to take a moment to talk about the middle of things. The middle of things is less exciting than the beginning and less dramatic than the end. Middles can seem humdrum. Say that your current relationship to writing has been like falling in love: we exalt falling in love as the finest of all possible experiences. But the reason people marry and stay married is that the middle, when it can be made to work, far outclasses the beginning. Ask people who have been happily married for a decade or two whether they would like to start all over again, and you’ll find that they mostly wouldn’t, even if some are tempted by the occasional dalliance. It gets to be that way with your writing, too, as you get an ever-clearer sense of what interests you, what you can do, what you’d like to be able to do. Your mature work is the outcome of your early work: that there can be no meaningful middle without a meaningful beginning. But the middle is as joyous as enduring love.
The article, which appears on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner Blog, was adapted from a speech Solomon gave at the Whiting Writers’ Awards on March 5th. He begins by recounting a humorous experience that anyone who’s ever been a young writer or artist can identify with. When starting out after graduation, a friend connected him with a biographer who he hoped would find him a job.
The advice I had in mind sounded like this: “You must call so-and-so at this number and say I suggested it and he will publish you and give you loads of money.” After giving me a cup of weak tea—no sandwiches, no pastry, not even sugar or milk—he said, “I have only one piece of advice for you. Have a vision and cleave to it.” We then discussed the weather for twenty minutes.
Solomon spends most of his talk discussing Rilke’s timeless, “Letter’s to a Young Poet.” One of my favorite parts of the discussion centers on Rilke’s suggestion that writers claim the urgency of their vocation and find a suitable topic.
Rilke has written, “Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life upon it.” That rhetoric of urgency is the credo of most writers: we may be on this path for profit, for fame, for catharsis—but, more fundamentally, we are there because it seems the only possibility.
In his concluding paragraph, Solomon deepens and expands on the idea of urgency by suggesting that the act of writing itself is how we make meaning and ensure justice in society.
I used to say that my books were my children, but now that I have actual children I’ve found that books are by comparison rather pliable and accommodating, if somewhat less affectionate. I can speak to you lightly about time, about getting to be middle-aged, about having a vision and cleaving to it. But in some ways I failed to have such a vision. I grew up in a time when my current life was unimaginable, in a time before gay marriage, a time before people like me could have children, and my ignorance of what was to come engendered a paralytic sadness that has turned out to be irrelevant. I don’t know what you may presume impossible, but I can say that some of it will turn out otherwise. Equally, I can say that forms of justice that seem unshakably strong will fall apart while you aren’t looking. Since I was your age, women’s reproductive rights have eroded steadily, anti-immigrant resentments have surged, and incidents of appalling racism have gripped the national conscience even since we reëlected our first African-American President. I wish I could tell you which issues will move forward surprisingly fast and which will slip unaccountably backward. There will be surprises in store on both fronts. All I know for sure is that those twenty-six shapes are what we have to defend our liberty and sustain our hope.