“I write to make sense of my life.” —John Cheever
I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, and it’s been extremely illuminating in many ways. John Cheever, considered one of the best 20th Century short story writers, struggled at times, as most writers do, to trust his impulses in creating short stories and novels. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and for much of that time, William Maxwell, long-time editor at that magazine, was both his good friend and editor. This relationship eventually became a problem for them both.
Maxwell, a fine writer himself, wore blinders when his writers attempted to move beyond the traditional realist fiction that he favored. At a critical time in Cheever’s life and career, Maxwell refused to publish any Cheever stories that didn’t fit into this narrow groove, causing Cheever to doubt his craft. He somehow managed to regain his equilibrium and found publishers who wereinterested in his deviations from the naturalistic mode. But because Maxwell had so much power to influence his friend, it was difficult for the latter to break away.
He eventually did, but Cheever’s evolution reminds me of problems I also faced while enrolled in San Francisco State’s Creative Writing Program. Like him, I ran into teachers/authorities who didn’t encourage my fabulist tendencies, urging me to focus on the mainstream story.
As writers and teachers, we need to be more aware of the range we have available to us so we don’t limit our own or others’ imaginations. Eudora Welty has wisely pointed out that “Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can’t tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We’re all different from one another even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves.”
I’m grateful that Cheever fought back and eventually did trust his own voice, a distinctive one that still inspires short story writers from all traditions. Making sense of one’s life requires us to explore new modes and find alternative ways to express our discoveries.
I would love to hear from others who have had similar experiences. Even better, I would like to hear from writers who ran into those rare teachers who could help the writer find his/her unique direction.