This week I finished reading a complex, important, heavy novel called A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra. The subject is Chechnya during the war (1994-2004) and the web of characters affected by this war. It was a deeply moving novel, and an inspiring work in terms of its construction and prose style, how the plot lines build and intersect, how everything every character does is weighted in purpose and for most of them the purpose is survival. When I finished the book I was elated, loved it too much to lend, but when I sat down to work on my own novel a day later I became depressed, which is unusual for me. I kept thinking how paltry were the stakes of my own discovery draft compared with Chechnya and war! I swung toward weightiness, even had the Blind Inc. workshop become a prostitution ring in my mind. I slogged along in my own work unenthusiastically until yesterday, when I had one of those urban encounters I so cherish.
I was packing up my laptop and relatively low stakes scenes (compared to war) and about to leave my regular café when one of the baristas, a drama major who writes plays, asked me how my work was going. I told him not well, that I couldn’t shake the Chechnya syndrome and explained what I meant. He said two things to me: 1) you are probably more Chekhovian, like me, seeing the world in a teacup not in a situation of civil war, and 2) remember what Kierkegaard said, “do not wish to be Caesar and not the person you were meant to be.” This from the guy who makes me my half-caf soy lattes every morning. I think I’d better look at Kierkegaard in my spare time.
I’ve been thinking all day today, as I’m gradually getting back to my old writing self, how true, how true. I’ve never felt jealousy for other writers, don’t really belittle someone else for getting published (no “my work is better than hers, etc.”), and am shocked at my reaction to Marra’s work, that I could so easily lose faith in my own novel just by reading someone else’s stellar work and comparing.
Leslie Rodd is a retired public librarian who spent over three decades promoting books and reading to blind people, prison inmates, and adult literacy students in San Francisco and Oakland, California. She graduated from the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University, where she received the Wilner Award for Excellence in Fiction. Her novel, Good Mother Lizard, was a quarter finalist for the 2009 Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award, and an excerpt from an early draft won a Hackney Award for Short Fiction and was published in Cyanosis. Three current short stories, “Fiery Night” (published in Bosque in October, 2011), “The Philosophers Club” (2010 first place winner, Literal Latte Short Story Award) and “Las Manos Grandes” (finalist in The New Guard fiction contest 2012) plus “Audition,” are chapters in The First Blind Man on the Moon, a novel-in-progress. “Audition” most recently was short-listed for the Fish short story prize, and the novel-in-progress was a finalist for the 2013 Dana Award for the Novel. She has also been published in Transfer Magazine and The Sun and has been a member of Bookwriting World since January 2011.