Tuesday, April 24, 2018


I have known since the age of twelve that I was called to be a writer. I don't remember at first hand having heard that vocation, but my mother told me about it many years later and I have no reason to doubt her memory. At least by the age of fourteen I was reading voraciously--Isherwood, Auden--and writing passionate poems about saving the world and other topics on which I was magnificently uninformed.

It was in my adolescent years, too, that I remember having discovered the genre that most appealed to me and that I practice to this day: the essay. One of the few pleasures I recall from boarding school days was sitting in a classroom that overlooked a gravel courtyard and across to the mock-Gothic building where our teachers--at least the bachelors among them--had their rooms; and writing essays. I was good at it, and I bathed comfortably in the acknowledgement an encouragement of my English teacher. My poems were borrowed from the likes of Rupert Brooks and Wilfred Owen. My essays, I like to think, were all my own.

I went on, through university, to become a poet. I was fortunate, in my twenties, to be a poet and translator of poetry at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where I studied and spent time with numerous other poets from throughout the world. By this time I had a family to think about, however, and lacked the confidence in myself as a writer to set my sights on a career as a professional writer. Instead, I plunged headfirst into academia. This, I thought, would be the ideal day job while I pursued my real vocation on the side.

How wrong I was! Academia was never a comfortable fit for me. I was never at ease as a teacher, except with that small handful of students, mostly graduate, with whom I could establish a creative personal relationship; nor as the administrator I became thereafter. The realization hit me with incontrovertible force after more than a quarter century devoted to a profession that brought me an income and, yes, despite it all, a certain satisfaction: this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I was supposed to be a writer.

So I quit academia in the mid 1980s. I can say with at least somewhat justified pride that I have not had a job in more than thirty years. Plenty of work. No job. And writing has become an entirely natural and necessary part of who I am. I look back on my "career"--I don't really like that word--with the knowledge that I have been fortunate. I have published extensively as a poet, novelist, memoirist, art and literary critic. I'm also a realist: as a novelist, I am no Saul Bellow or Philip Roth; as an art critic, I am no Robert Hughes or Michael Kimmelman. But I have written a great deal, have published a great deal, and have received a great deal of favorable feedback on what I write.

So here's the priority with regard to that working part of my life. I will continue to write. Though I am often slower about getting to the keyboard, though I have less of a sense of urgency to get out there and say something--about art, about books, about movies I have seen--there is no thought of "retirement." To my great benefit, I am freed from ambition and the expectation of, or need for popularity and best-seller readership, though never from the desire to communicate with my fellow human beings. I do not, emphatically, "write for myself"! I write to be read, and will continue to use such means as I have at my disposal to ensure that what I write is available to readers who seek it out, or stumble upon it.

The important thing is not to be caught up in the kind of attachment to outcomes that leads to suffering. The important thing, as I understand it, is to take pleasure in the process, to be content with the knowledge that this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life, to be continuing to make new discoveries about what it means to be a human being on this planet, and to pass my discoveries along to my fellow human beings.

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