Separating the Writer from the Writing

When we are moved by something we read, for better or for worse, in pleasure or rage or boredom, we tend to make assumptions about the person who wrote it.

I assume that most writers write out of life experience, because I do. My fiction, especially, comes out of things I've seen and heard over a lifetime, and some of my fictional characters come a little closer to who I am than do my journalism subjects.

But they are not me. Rather, they may be more of who I wish I were -- or who I'm afraid I'll turn into.

I should know better, but I have trouble separating writers from their writing. I'm thinking about a novel I read 30 or more years ago, whose title I don't want to mention, but whose main character had outsized thumbs that made her a hitch-hiking prodigy. I loved the novel -- until I met its author at a book signing and found him to be condescending. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe one or both of us was having a bad day, but I couldn't force myself through his next novel. Conversely, I was lukewarm about the novels of Jerzy Kosinski, until I met him and had a long conversation about writing in a foreign language (Kosinski was Polish, but wrote in English). I eagerly read everything else he wrote.

In the late 1970s, I was somewhere between a master's degree and dropping out of a doctoral program in Spanish literature at the University of Michigan, when I met the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Several grad students in the Spanish department had been invited to meet with him at a reception. Borges, who was blind, and who was already ancient, sat in an easy chair -- we sat on random chairs and even the carpet at his feet -- as he told rambling old-man stories about gauchos. Though we all spoke Spanish, he told his stories in English, in a Welsh accent actually, that he had inherited from his mother.

The next day, Borges gave a lecture at the university, or rather, he sat on stage and let people in the audience ask questions, which he would answer with responses as labyrinthine as his short stories. Instead of the Welsh accent, he now spoke with a decidedly Hispanic inflection. Then someone asked about his story, "Borges and I," in which he hinted at being himself and yet having to deal with the famous persona known as Borges, and it became clear that right then and there onstage he was playing the role of Borges the writer. Which one was really him?

Ten years ago, I was invited to read from one of my books at a bookstore near Phoenix, and I was paired with a young writer who had just published her first novel and was an ascending literary star. She had been invited to work on her book a a prestigious writer's colony, and to her great luck and credit, the book had already been designated as "important" by the gatekeepers at her New York Midtown Publisher and the literary press. Out of respect as much as curiosity, I went out and bought her book to get a feel for the writer I would soon be meeting.

I wanted to like the book, but I didn't. It seemed obvious to me, a bit presumptuous, in that way of someone trying to appear wiser than she really was. I decided to put it aside so that, in the event she asked me how I liked it, I could say, "Oh, I haven't finished it yet."

Of course, she didn't ask. She couldn't have cared less about what I thought of her book, and she had no intention of reading mine.

And that was OK; I liked her anyway -- immensely. She told stories about meeting her equally illustrious writer husband because they shared a publisher of their Dutch translations. It seemed a marvelous adventure for a young writer, and I was happy for her. I vowed to go back and finish her book.

But I still hated it, and I didn't get one chapter farther into it. Oh well.