Guilty Pleasures

I’m talking about literary guilty pleasures of course, although I have discussed my addiction (seldom indulged except on airplane flights) to chocolate-covered pretzels on various occasions.

One of my guilty pleasures is Agatha Christie murder mysteries. In a strange way, it’s like my pleasure in poetry. It’s the pleasure of pure form. I want to see the form of the murder mystery play out, I want to see her variations on it (because she would rewrite the exact same mystery as a novel and a short story, altering the motive and victim). I don’t care whether I’ve read that particular mystery ten times and know who the murderer is. I don’t care that her protagonists are all going to behave as they should, the countess being a true countess, the butler a true butler. I just like reading them.

Another guilty pleasure, and the one I really wanted to talk about, is the occasional Oprah Magazine. There’s something fascinating about its combination of uplifting articles, fairly aggressive financial and relationship advice, and expensive advertising. I’m supposed to accept myself as I am, save a financial cushion equal to six months of my salary, and buy $200 dresses. It’s enough to make me dizzy with the contradictions of late capitalism.

But what I sometimes get out of the magazine are valuable bits and pieces of – what shall I call them? Magical thinking? Like the following, in the “What I Know for Sure” section of the January 2011 issue:

“Fear comes from uncertainty. Once you clarify your purpose for doing something, the way to do it becomes clear.”

That is magical thinking, isn’t it? Once you know why you want to do something, you can still flounder in the morass of figuring out how. But for the most part I think it’s actually true, and magical thinking is like that. It usually has an underlying veracity and effectiveness to it. (I didn’t say I don’t believe in magic.)

I do think that fear comes from uncertainty. If you’re not sure what you want to do, or why, you’re going to be fearful, you’re going to hesitate. You’re going to make the wrong decisions, and then try to figure out why you made them. And once you clarify your purpose for doing something, it’s not necessarily that the way to do it becomes clear to you, consciously. But things start getting out of the way. It’s as though you suddenly think, but that’s not going to help me get where I want to go. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s not my opportunity. It doesn’t contribute to the ultimate goal I’ve set for myself. And that does help. That does make the process easier.

These particular sentences struck me because they made me ask myself, do I know why I want a writing career? I don’t just want to write. Anyone with a pen and paper can write. Nowadays, anyone with a computer can publish. I want a writing career, which means that I want to write, and be asked to write, and teach writing. I want to be part of the dialog about writing in my time, and perhaps if I’m very lucky after my time. I want to be part of the world of literature.


I think the answer is that I look at the world around me, and it’s not the world I want to see. It’s filled with things I don’t think it should be filled with: ignorance, cruelty, sordidness. And I believe, on a deep and fundamental level, that we can only change material conditions by changing ideas. That’s why we need to tell stories, that’s why art exists in the first place. It allows us to see things that we can’t see in any other way. So I want to – not make people see things differently, because you can’t make readers do anything, but offer them another way of looking.

That sounds awfully ambitious, doesn’t it? But another thing I’ve learned from Oprah Magazine is that you need to admit to your ambitions. If you don’t, if you pretend that all you want to do is – it doesn’t really matter what I’m going to write, the operative word is “all” – “all” you want to do is whatever, then it’s as though you’re starting by tying one hand (probably your writing hand) behind your back. If you start off admitting that what you really want to do is change the world, because it doesn’t seem to you at all satisfactory in its current state – that does at least give you a sort of freedom. (And a sort of permission to fail, because you’re going to fail, of course. You’re never going to change the world. But you might change a perspective or two or three.)

I’m trying to work all this out as I write, why those particular sentences spoke to me, what I’m getting out of them. I think they gave me a sense of freedom. Once I clarify my purpose, and I think I’m starting to get a clearer sense of my purpose already, then the way to do what I want will become clearer as well. It will still be an enormous amount of work. But I will at least know the way to go, which is something I haven’t been certain about for a long time.

(Shall I tell you the bit of wisdom I’ve always remembered from Agatha Christie murder mysteries? At one point, Hercule Poirot guesses that a suspect is concealing her identity based on her shoes. He tells Hastings something like this: A lady is always careful about her shoes. However cheaply she may be dressed, she will choose her shoes for their quality. I’ve always remembered that, and tried to choose shoes that are of good quality, that will last and can be repaired. Seriously, that’s where I got it, from Agatha Christie. I have no words of wisdom to pass on from chocolate-covered pretzels.)

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