Doing things the hard way, never being discovered–Philip Levine on writing

So my reflections this week have to do with a note I recently received telling me I would “make my mark.” Future tense. I already feel like I’ve done a great deal of work, and that marks have been made, and who only wants to make one mark anyway?

I remember at VT one of my beloved senior faculty (male) always referred to a male colleague as having “developed into a leading scholar” but all the junior female faculty were “developing.” Uh-huh. It’s a subtle, but very effective, way to deny accomplishment.

There comes a point in every young “developing” person’s life that they are no longer the promising young thing, and are, instead, the washed-up middle aged person who never delivered on their early promise.

It’s best not to think too much about this when one is feeling washed up, taken for granted, and overlooked. For those of us who never get to be the fair-haired child, it’s probably better just to do the work that gets us off, and ignore all the nattering about how someday, oneday, you’ll be good enough. You won’t be. So screw it. Do what you want. Then if by chance somebody notices, you will have the good sense to know what it is–luck–based on a foundation of real work that meant something to you

Some very good advice from Philip Levine in his interview with The Paris Review (a sure sign one has made it…):

Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered. I think I did it the hard way. I didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; I waited a long time; I didn’t go to a school that would give me advantages. I didn’t publish a book that anyone read until I was forty. But to be utterly honest, I think if something hadn’t happened about then I might have become a very bitter man. It was getting to me. If I’d had to wait until I was fifty I don’t know what lousy things I might have done.

One caveat: kissing asses seems to have outsized rewards; I call it a job skill. If you can do it and preserve your sense of self, by all means. I can’t do it, and I am too old to learn it…so I guess that means I shall never “make it.”

Whatever “it” is.

But I still have the unstructured hours of creative work, and world enough, and time enough to explore. That’s lucky enough for me.