Letting Go

“At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.”
Philip Roth

By all accounts, Philip Roth is one of the most devoted and prolific of modern authors. From his twenties through his mid-seventies, he has produced a huge body of fiction. For most of his life, he’s lived alone, spending long days at a standing desk and writing, writing, writing. According to a New Yorker story by David Remnick, “Roth’s writing days were spent in long silence — no distractions, no invitations, no calls, no e-mails.” Philip felt that writing was a “fanatical habit” for him — one that he pursued to the exclusion of virtually all the ordinary trappings of life in today’s world.

When he turned seventy-four, Philip decided to reread the authors he loved most: Dostoevsky, Conrad, Turgenev, Hemingway. Then he decided to reread all of his own books, from his latest, Nemesis, which was published in 2010, to his earliest novel, Goodbye Columbus. Why? Here’s how he put it: “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And thought it was more or less a success.”

But having taken a backward glance, at the age of seventy-nine, Philip has decided to lay down his pen. After devoting virtually his entire life to the novel — having studied them, taught them, and written them, he’s decided to let go of his striving and give up his “fanatical habit.”

When he was asked if another book might still emerge, Philip waxed philosophical: “I don’t think a new book will change what I’ve already done, and if I write a new book, it will probably be a failure. Who needs to read one more mediocre book?”

Wow! How wonderful to have such a committed work ethic and a body of work that you can look back over and feel at peace with. And how wonderful to devote a block of time to reread and ponder those authors who first influenced your writing: What a gift to yourself. And most of all, how wonderful to have the courage to stand by the work you’ve produced and resist the temptation to keep adding to it, even though readers may long for more. Here’s a case where not writing is actually a form of writing dangerously. Bravo, Philip.

About karinwritesdangerously

I am a writer and this is a motivational blog designed to help both writers and aspiring writers to push to the next level. Key themes are peak performance, passion, overcoming writing roadblocks, juicing up your creativity, and the joys of writing.
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2 Responses to Letting Go

  1. idebenone says:

    Only tangentially; when I wrote my first novel, Mortal Engines, I was assuming that it was a grown-up Science Fiction novel, but when I tried to find a literary agent there was none who was even prepared to read it, let alone represent me. So I rewrote it as a children’s novel – or as what they call ‘YA’ these days – and showed it to Scholastic: I didn’t know any of the fiction editors there at that time, but I’d done some illustration work for their non-fiction list, so I thought they might at least take a look at it and tell me if it was any good or if I was just wasting my time. In the end they published it. Actually, re-writing it for a younger audience hugely improved the book, so it’s not a decision that I regret.

    • Hello,

      Thanks so much for sharing your writing experience — what an inspiring story!
      And thanks for reminding us that sometimes “letting go” means giving up a
      preconceived notion about the form our work would take. When you surrendered
      your original approach, something new and ultimately more fitting appeared.
      This is a great message to us all: let’s stay flexible and open.

      Write on,
      Karin

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