“When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.
Does that sound like you? O.K., but that’s only half the story. You’re also the college sophomore standing in a corner of a keg party in the basement of some desperate dorm. You’re standing in the corner because the light is dim. Dim light is a plus. In the hour or so before leaving your room, while you were lying on your bed innocently reading Flaubert, a zit of incomparable size and ferocity erupted in the middle of your forehead. The size of this blemish, its fiery and painful swollenness, were almost enough to keep you from coming to this party in the first place. Better to just stay in bed and read “Sentimental Education.” But there’s this person of interest you’re hoping to see at the party and you thought that maybe with a little concealer or by combing down your bangs you might be able to appear in public, so this is what you do, only to end up, sometime later, standing in the corner, feeling the zit on your forehead actually pulse, like a second heartbeat. Your friends come up to say, “Hi,” pretending not to notice. You love them for this. You begin to think that your existence on earth isn’t a total mistake when suddenly you spy the person of interest across the room. Here’s your chance. With your head down, like someone using a Geiger counter, you make your way across the room. As you pass the person of interest, you gather courage and lift your face, despite everything, but the person of interest is talking to somebody else, and so you keep on going, all the way out of the party and the dorm. And then you’re outside, under the black, unfeeling sky. In that moment there is no one as lonely, lovelorn, and unlovable as you; and yet this feeling of hopelessness mixes, oddly, with a perverse kind of hope, of resistance to the regrettable physical facts, and you’re filled with the desire to write something, to go back to your room and be like Flaubert, solitary and misanthropic and a God-damned genius.