Incredibly… Jealousy Inducing

December 16, 2011

I have a visceral reaction to Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s not pretty, in fact, it’s pretty ugly and uncalled for.

In the fall of 2003 I walked into Joyce Carol Oates’ office in the building at 185 Nassau. I was a senior in college, and I had been delighted the previous spring to learn that not only was I granted permission to write a creative thesis, but that she had selected me (she had selected me!) to be a thesis advisee. I was nervous, she was famous. And she was small, with an iron core, wrapped in bonito flakes, sheets of fluttery tissue paper. I have respect for her as a writer. Especially after she broke my heart with this New Yorker piece about her late husband. That day, however, I felt clunky, impossibly big and stuttering.

So what will you write your thesis about ? she asked me from the other side of her desk. I had taken many writing classes, but never with her.

I think I’ll write a book, I said.

She looked back at me skeptically, more iron than fluttery paper at this moment. Did you start yet? She asked.

Well, no.

Jonathan started over the summer. He nearly had a full draft by now.

There’s no worse feeling than being behind before you even start. Unfortunately, I feel that way a lot. She didn’t tell me I couldn’t write a novel, she didn’t actually know anything about me beyond the portfolio I had submitted with my application to write a creative thesis. Perhaps she had guessed that I was a little OCD about detail and description and that I was much worse at plot development. And so I wrote a collection of stories about the same characters. A cop out really. But Jonathan, her thesis advisee from a few years earlier, he wrote a novel. He started over the summer. And now, not only has he had a few (wildly) successful books, but the film industry is buzzing about the adaptation of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” I haven’t seen it, or read that novel, so I don’t judge, but I still have that visceral reaction, that anxiety about being behind. Behind what? you might ask. I’m not sure.

So I begin my New Year’s Resolution a few weeks early. I will feel excited for Jonathan Safran Foer and the others like him who make me feel nervous that I have to (proverbially) spend the rest of my life writing short stories just because I didn’t start over the summer. I will celebrate their success, and applaud them, knowing that their hard work and talent paid off. And mine will, too, whenever I get there. I don’t have to write short stories because JCO told me to, or because someone else started a little before I did. Fortunately, there’s room in this world for all of us and their success just means that there’s a place for mine even more.


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