A Writer’s Road

That's it, lure 'em in with the pretty faces...

That's it, lure 'em in with the pretty faces...

Revolutionary Road the movie will be getting plenty of hype the next few weeks, with its reuniting of Kate Winslet (sexist comment alert: Yum) and Leonardo DiCaprio. And that is also translating into attention for Revolutionary Road the book and author Richard Yates. A reprint has just come out in paperback, and yesterday Tribune writer Jessica Reaves had an “appreciation” of it and Yates.

What caught my eye in the Tribune article was the first sentence: “Writing, it is often said, is a profoundly solitary pursuit. It is not romantic, nor is it lucrative.” Well, yes. I’ve often detailed here some of my struggles in the writerly life, a large part of the Crisis, and I know there are many more blogs out there with the same theme. Reaves goes on to say how writers often tell non-writers about the loneliness of their task, but the dignity as well, and how some even claim “the process of writing is reward in itself.”

As Reaves then says in much nicer language, that is just bullshit.

I nodded along as I read what followed: “Writers are just like everybody else. They want to be praised. They want a glowing review.” They want exterior assurance that their interior effort has value.  They want to think someone is actually reading them, a concern of mine as I toil over this blog and even my professional work. That’s one thing about theatre: no guessing about how many (or few) people are showing up each night. And that can bring instant gratification…or mortification.

Reaves used this intro to launch her essay on Yates, who won praise for Revolutionary Road and other works,  but didn’t reach the level of acclaim equal or lesser contemporaries did. And whose battle with the bottle was nothing so novel (thanks, Elvis), but it did make his later career a struggle and add to his list of health problems.

Reading the appreciation, I remembered my own brief brush with Yates. Not that he talked to me; it was more at me, and a room of other would-be writers at Emerson College. This incident was so hazy, I had to do some online research to verify it could have happened as I remembered. The Yates bio A Tragic Honesty, by Blake Bailey, seems to offer the proof I wanted. Yates taught at Emerson College in the fall of 1987. I was there at the time in the recently initiated MFA program, hoping to pursue this crazy dream of learning how to write plays. (I have mastered the writing of them; now comes the trick of writing good ones.)yates

The Writing Department sponsored Friday afternoon get-togethers featuring the staff and I think some guest writers. The profs read and talked, the students drank of their wisdom and, I believe, cheap wine, and everyone felt satisfyingly collegial. Yates, I’m sure, read at one of the sessions I attended. The picture of him I found online looked like the image that remained in my head from that day. And the stories of his heavy drinking matched the impression I got then too, either through gossip or his demeanor or both.

I wish I could say his talk inspired me. Can’t remember a blessed thing he said or what he read. But I did get the sense of someone who had fought to make his life with words have meaning, leave an impact. And it was that memory that led me to read Revolutionary Road a few years ago, when a book club I belonged to offered it as a modern classic, often neglected.  I certainly related to the story of suburban angst and the struggle to define the self. And I remembered again why I would never try to write a novel; best to leave such things to the pros.

I don’t know if the new movie will do the book justice (how many do?). But it should bring renewed attention to a fine writer. Reaves begins her article with a quote from Stewart O’Nan on Yates: “To write well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy. Amen to that. But at least it implies that at one point, he was known, else he wouldn’t be forgotten. That was probably no solace for Yates. It wouldn’t be for me. Of course, the real trick to begin with is writing well.

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~ by mburgan on November 30, 2008.

9 Responses to “A Writer’s Road”

  1. Yum?

  2. What can I say–always had a weak spot for her acting talents.

  3. Glad to hear you are writing plays. Besides teaching at Emerson that semester, Yates actually did a reading with poet Bill Knott (pix are in the Emerson library archive), so you were there. Bailey’s biography is thorough and first-rate, but if you might also enjoy my memoir SAFE SUICIDE (see http://www.dewitthenry.com), where I give an account of my friendship to Yates and his contributions to PLOUGHSHARES (www.pshares.org).

  4. I identify as a strong, at times radical feminist… and I see nothing sexist about saying “yum” about a woman. It just means you’re attracted to her; what’s sexist about that?

  5. I guess in the possible world of sexist comments, that wasn’t one of the worst. Thanks for your perspective.

  6. Brad Pitt Yummy!!

  7. see people read your blogs…I am finding them quite enjoyable and a very nice way to get to know you better.
    Brad Pitt? Now Mark Harmon is yummy.

  8. Thank you for the first comment. As far as Mark Harmon–don’t mention him. One of my great disappointments in life was going to the Daily Show years ago and Jon Stewart was not the host (replaced by Steve Carrell, which is retrospect is not so bad) and Mark Harmon was the guest. Boring!

  9. oh..that is a bit funny

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