May 21, 2012

Advice to a Young Writer from J.D. Salinger.

“The real drug, I came to believe, was love.” ~Joyce Maynard, Labor Day

After reading a recent NYT article entitled, “Paradise Lost, in Guatemala,” by Joyce Maynard about her home at Lake Atitlán (the house that a bunch of my friends happened to rent last Thanksgiving weekend), I was inspired to read her memoir, At Home in the World. It consumed me for five days, compelling me to start and finish the whole thing rather than offhandedly dabbling in several books at once as has been my tendency of late.

Joyce wrote an essay in 1972 for The New York Times Magazine called “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,” which compelled J.D. Salinger to correspond — and fall in love — with her. She moved to his house in Cornish, New Hampshire for the duration of their nine-month relationship. He was 53 at the time, 35 years her senior, and already a recluse, having fled notoriety in NYC after his only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, catapulted him to fame.

Joyce received harsh criticism from the literary community when the memoir was published in 1998 for “exploiting” Salinger and going against his wishes for total privacy and silence. I applaud her! Salinger is a big part of the story she tells, but it is her story to tell, and she does so with honesty, love and openness.

He comes across as a passionate, quirky, intelligent but ultimately hateful, bitter, complicated man. In any case, he gave the 18-year-old Joyce some sage advice that all writers must heed:

“What I want for you, kid, is to write about what you truly love, and nothing, but nothing, less than that. Not beauty pageants and high school proms, or television personalities or movie stars, or interviews with daughters of Republican presidents or Democratic presidents or even the presidents themselves. Or, if you do those things, what I want is for you to find a way to do them with nothing less than originality and tenderness and love.”

and, later:

“Some day, Joyce, there will be a story you will want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You’ll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true. Honest writing always makes people nervous, and they’ll think of all kinds of ways to make your life hell. One day a long time from now you’ll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.”

Bonus quotes from Mr. Salinger’s small but well-loved body of work:

“I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” ~Franny and Zooey

“This is God’s universe, buddy, not yours, and he has the final say about what’s ego and what isn’t.” ~Franny and Zooey

“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” ~Nine Stories

“If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good any more.” ~The Catcher in the Rye

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” ~The Catcher in the Rye

“I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down.” ~The Catcher in the Rye

“I don’t really deeply feel that anyone needs an airtight reason for quoting from the works of the writers he loves, but it’s always nice, I’ll grant you, if he has one.” ~Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction


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