Can a Serious Writer Deign to Set Career Goals?

When I was in my early twenties, one of my mentors, Sylvia Berkman — a personal protegé of Nabokov, a New Yorker writer, and author of a famed, early feminist book of short stories, Blackberry Wilderness — encouraged me to write a “shelf full of books.”  She said that this idea of creating a library of serious works was lost to the current generation of writers; she saw few setting out to create an oeuvre, like a Nabokov, or a Frost (who crafted a footstool she used in her sitting room), or the Russians, or Hawthorne, or even our own Philip Roth.

During this same period, Pablo Picasso died. In his obituary, I read that he created over 3.000 artworks of considerable scope and variety.

I wondered if this was an outdated — if not to say totally unrealistic — idea for a postmodern writer. Not to mention completely uncool: what serious writer would set such a goal?

My answer:  those who believe they have something to say and feel a moral obligation to say it.

Taking Sylvia’s words to heart, I assigned myself the shelf-full career goal. I now have about 1600 creative works:  metafiction, short-short stories, poetry, experimental fiction, epigrams, collages, meta-llages, wordless stories, novels, and biographies, and the like.

I have always felt that I have kept my side of the writer : reader commitment. If others choose to read my work — and if my work is judged worthwhile by future readers, all the better.

Question: Should contemporary writers and poets deign to assign themselves the Shelf-Full Career Goal?


2 thoughts on “Can a Serious Writer Deign to Set Career Goals?

  1. Personally I think that most writers would like to have a “Shelf-Full” career, and that most writers understand that to write well, one must write a lot. It takes practice to do something well and there are many drafts, rewrites and papers thrown in the bin before good work is produced.

    However, quantity does not always equals quality. And for all the authors like Frost and Nabokov, there are also famous authors who only produced one novel, but are well known for that work. Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Anne Sewell, Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, for example. Looking at this list, I notice that a lot of them are women, which leads into the second thing I thought when I read this post–which is that no matter how much a person wants to publish a multitude of works, there are a lot of factors (in this case gender) which may influence why someone publishes/writes a lot.

    I realize that you may not be directly speaking about publishing– re-reading it seems that you are considering work that counts on the “shelf”as being any work that one has produced. However, if we think about published work, then we also have to think about how the nature of publishing, the process of writing, and the flow of life itself, all influence who will become popular, who will be read, who will be remembered or paid attention to, or even considered “good.”

    I am someone who writes a lot, even though recently I have not been writing much of what I consider to make me a writer–which is my poetry. However, I have almost 15 journals that I have kept over the past ten years, countless notebooks and notepads, essays for grad school, emails to friends, blogs, scribbles here and there. I don’t know that I would consider that all part of my “shelf” (maybe my journals) but if it is, it is a part of a very private shelf. It is something that I am proud of, but not something that I would necessarily call part of a public ‘oeuvre’.

    So I guess my question is what counts as one’s shelf? What are we counting as writing?
    For whom are we writing? And why? And is a “Full-Shelf” important because we want to be like the masters? Or because writing is part of who we are, what we do, and like you said, it matters not who reads it, only that we have written it? I think that it is probably a bit of both. Wanting to be published, read, taken seriously, while also writing for the joy of it.

    Finally–this post reminded me of Jake Meyer’s post about “writers” versus writers. Found here:

  2. Well said, Jessica.

    I would just like to add that I am highly suspect of anyone who tells anyone else what writers should/should not be doing in order to create art. I think this action in itself deactivates creative thought, especially when it excludes a particular group (in this case, “the younger generation”) for not being in the “know.”

    Equally, I think it’s important to point out the difference between creating a serious work and being taken seriously, as they are different things. I think all writers — regardless of their genre, their aesthetic, and how they choose to practice their craft — should be taken seriously. This idea of a serious work, however, is merely a social construction. What does it even mean, for a work to be serious?! Does this mean that there is a quota to be met in order to be serious?! Does this mean I am morally obligated to include a bird in every poem I write?! BECAUSE I WON’T DO IT!

    To be quite honest, I think the flarf and alt-lit kids on the internet are writing some of the most exciting poetry because they’re disengaging from this grand narrative of what is thought of (i.e. constructed to be) “good poetry” and are instead doing their own thing. To which I say, hell yes, do your own thing, not what’s expected of you.

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