Jeffrey Eugenides’s Killer Advice

January 9, 2013 | 16 6 min read

A good friend of mine recently sent me an email with the subject line, “so so great.” The body of the email was just a link to a speech Jeffrey Eugenides gave to the 2012 Whiting Award winners. I immediately read the speech and felt the kind of pristine calm one experiences in the face of lucid wisdom. I wrote my friend back, “Wow. That is fucking excellent.” A few minutes later I tweeted it, because somehow I’ve become a person who tweets (it’s not a source of pride). My tweet: “Absurdly good advice for a writer, however difficult to follow,” and then the link. A friend of sorts, a fellow writer, a woman I only know via Twitter, begged to differ. Indulging in almost 280 characters, she wrote, “Eh. This is worthy of coffee discussion. If it was just ‘art’ & not a commodity, writers wouldn’t try to get published. It is a business & J.E. can plant his flag wherever he wants, Oprah’s book club made him so…you have to straddle the line.” We went back and forth, until, rather quickly, the restrictions of Twitter once more proved unbearable. Which eventually led to this.

But okay, what exactly is Eugenides’s “absurdly good advice,” and is it, upon further reflection, in fact “fucking excellent”? Here’s the main bit, which isn’t even his, coming as it does from Nadine Gordimer via Christopher Hitchens: “A serious person should try to write posthumously…one should compose as if the usual constraints — of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion — did not operate.” As Eugenides explains, writing as if you’re dead, or as if your writing will only appear after you’re dead, will prevent you from following literary fashion, writing for money, censoring your true feelings, etc., because all these things will “suppress the very promptings that got” the writer “writing in the first place.”

Eugenides argues that the writer’s work initially emerges in the form of a marvelously and necessarily singular “response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.” This act of responding, I believe, is one of translating as well, of taking experience, feeling, and emotion and transposing them into words. To do this remotely well, to find not just any words, but beautiful, meaningful, original words, isn’t so much difficult as it is monumentally improbable. As Eugenides comments, you don’t “know exactly how you did it,” but “miraculously, it worked out.”

I suspect Eugenides uses that last adverb knowingly. Our language forces us to categorize writing as a direct object, “Mary wrote the wonderful story,” no different than we’d say, “Mary threw the red ball.” But Mary and the rest of us writers know it’s hardly ever so simple. Mary may have prepared for this act in all sorts of ways and then summoned up enough determination to sit on her butt for hours, days, weeks or more at her laptop or journal, but ultimately, if we’re talking about something we might justly call “literature” or “art,” then some other agent, some other thing, is involved, too.

Mary wrote the story, but she transcribed it as well. She managed, against all odds, to hear this not-yet verbal thing inside her, and she managed, against all odds once more, to give it the kind of sustained, careful attention that let it expand and solidify so that she might name it and in this way make it available to the world beyond her. We have a number of names for this other thing — a gift, talent, the muse, inspiration — each of which points to a slightly different feature from a slightly different perspective. But however we think about it, I’d claim that it’s both Mary and not Mary at the same time. It belongs to her, but only sort of. The miracle of becoming a writer is finding a way to receive this other thing inside you, to be an object of some internal thing seeking to give.

Needless to say, it’s awfully easy to destroy this magical conduit. Eugenides uses the language of disease — viruses, immune system, pathogens — to describe what these foreign bodies — praise, money, fame — can do to this delicate, internal pathway. A writer so infected quickly mutates into a version of herself deaf to that internal communication, and thus someone who now creates unrecognizable and, quite likely, bad writing. And so his advice: write like you’re dead, like there’s only you and the writing, as if you cannot possibly receive those other things that sometimes come to a writer and interrupt the main, crucial pathway. Eugenides’s advice, in and of itself, makes profound sense.

But there’s a powerful counterargument that challenges Eugenides’s advice as both simplistic and naïve. And perhaps stemming from a bit of bad faith as well. If the writer has any goals whatsoever beyond just creating a story and storing it in the relative privacy of his hard drive, then other factors necessarily come into play. In other words, if someone aims not just to write, but to get published as well, and not just published, but widely read too (not to mention make enough money to justify spending even more time writing in the future), then the situation — process actually — turns into something a good bit more complicated. And, just to be clear, the honorees in Eugenides’s audience that night (as well as Eugenides himself) are already pursuing these goals, and it’s quite clear that he’s not instructing them (or himself) to hide their work or simply gift it out into the world.

Their work may have first emerged as an instance of pure artistic transcription, but Eugenides is not warning these award winners against allowing it to be transformed into a commodity. Because that’s what happens when you’re reviewed in the Times and interviewed by Terry Gross and endorsing your royalty check. For these other things to happen, especially more than once, for a writer to have what we, perhaps preposterously, call a writing career, the writer has no choice but to open himself to all manner of potentially pathogenic foreign bodies: deadlines, an agent’s recommendation, an editor’s requests, the faceless and inexplicable demands of the folks from marketing and sales — all of which are intertwined with the latest intellectual, cultural, and industry trends. Writing might initially happen in a vacuum, but books emerge and live somewhere very different. To ignore all this is at best wishful thinking and at worse self-sabotage.

Eugenides’s decision to ignore this vast reality is less troubling than another feature of his advice: that it comes from the Pulitzer Prize winner himself. After all, Eugenides can write inside his make-believe casket and enjoy the spectacle of his well-attended funeral, too. Moreover, there are publishers willing to give him — I’m guessing with supreme confidence here — a six or seven figure advance for the results of his pseudo-posthumous efforts. Eugenides’s enormous success surrounds his advice with a seductive aura, as it’s virtually impossible to agree with him without mistaking his advice for a roadmap leading to all those things he tells us not to write toward in the first place: money, fame, relevance, etc.

If you think I’ve got this wrong, ask yourself: would this advice sound equally compelling were it to come (with equal eloquence, of course) from, say, me? I’ve done okay, but you can be sure my publisher hasn’t invested in a billboard plastered with my likeness to promote my new book. Might it be possible that we are most attracted to the implicit counterclaim in Eugenides’s advice? Resist worrying about the results of your actions, take it from me, someone whose results are the stuff of your wildest dreams. Eugenides has made it to the far, coveted side of every pitfall he tells these writers to avoid: he’s wealthy, he’s popular, and he’s taken quite seriously, too. He’s not bemoaning his success, nor even instructing these young writers not to want the same, he’s merely telling them not to write with their coveting in mind. Which, again, makes it more than possible for us to conclude that the best way to get all that stuff is to write as if you don’t care about it.

Still, this doesn’t mean that his advice is bad. But perhaps he should have reminded his audience not to mistake a necessary condition with a sufficient one. Writing like you’re dead may safeguard your work against deformation and plain, old-fashioned suckiness, but diligently writing from the subterranean cooler of your own private morgue hardly ensures you of finding an agent, a publisher, a sizable advance, or a spot on any Best of The Year lists. Because here’s a longer (but likely still incomplete) list of the other necessary conditions: oversized talent, industrial-strength persistence, endless patience, unwavering discipline, and, perhaps most of all, at least a few healthy doses of luck and good fortune. Those 2012 Whiting award winners? Gifted and promising, every last one. But we all know that the chances of even one of them having a career rivaling Eugenides’s are not great. After all, it’s a rough business, and, yes, it is a business.

So maybe this is what Eugenides is ultimately telling us (or should have told us): true, it’s a business, and true, we have writing careers, but it’s deadly to think about any of that while you’re actually writing. This strikes me as absolutely sage advice, especially in regards to the writing of that first draft. We all call it different things (the muse, inspiration, the gift), but by any name it’s fragile and fleeting and not exactly ours. You must write like you’re dead, because otherwise that essentially mystical thing will simply hide, rendering you a lost, helpless hack.

Here’s what Eugenides should have added by way of closing: the so-called writer has to wear all sorts of hats: writer, reader, editor, negotiator, businessman, self-promoter, etc. And only the first of these hats should never be worn outside one’s private necropolis. The next two have the odd responsibility of communing — patiently, cautiously, and courageously — with the dead self. The rest must find of way of coming to terms with life among the living. In the end, the task of the writer with any ambitions in that world (i.e. our world) is to first write like you’re dead and then do whatever you can to bring this writing to as many readers as possible without, paradoxically, draining it of its miraculous life.

Image: Pexels/Anna Tarazevich.

is the author of a short story collection (The Task of This Translator), a novel (Captives), and a recently-published novel for children (33 Minutes). He lives in Evanston, IL, with his wife and two daughters.