The April 26th issue of The New Yorker included a series of letters Bellow wrote to his fellow authors, critics, and other publishing figures – everyone from Philip Roth to William Faulkner to John Cheever. As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t get enough behind-the-scenes glimpses at the writing lives of authors I admire, so naturally I found the letters fascinating. One in particular, though, caught my attention. It’s a 1948 note to David Bazelon, about a recent work of Bellow’s. Here goes:
It took hold of my mind and imagination very deeply but I know that somehow I failed to write it freely, with all the stops out from beginning to end. They were out in a few places. I could name them. And I must admit that in spite of the great amount of energy I brought to the book at certain times, I was at others, for some reason, content to fall back on lesser resources… [T]here is a certain diffidence about me, not very obvious socially, to my own mind, that prevents me from going all out, as you call it. I assemble the dynamite but I am not ready to touch off the fuse. Why? Because I am working toward something and have not yet arrived. I once mentioned to you, I think, that one of the things that made life difficult for me was that I wanted to write before I had sufficient maturity to write as “high” as I wished and so I had a very arduous and painful apprenticeship and still am undergoing it. This journeyman idea has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. It makes me a craftsman – and few writers now are that – but it gives me a refuge from the peril of final accomplishment. “Lord, pardon me, I’m still preparing, not fully a man as yet.” I’m like the young man in the Gospels, or have been till lately. “Give all thou hast and follow me,” says Christ. The young man goes away to think it over and so is lost. There’s a limit to thinking it over…
This idea of holding something back, of having these aspirations for your writing and wanting to wait until you’re really “ready,” until your apprenticeship is over, to tackle them in full, really resonated with me. It’s the sort of thing that crosses my mind every time I dream up another book idea – “I’m still preparing.” At a certain point, I suppose you just have to light the fuse.
Oh, and in case I owe you a World Hum-related email, here’s another relevant line from Bellow: “Forgive my having the manuscript so long. I should have read it at once. But I don’t live right.”