A Writer Like Cheever

Author John Cheever at home in Ossining, NY in 1979. Photo from nytimes.com.

I wanted to share how my thesis review went and then realized… in a way, I already did it five years ago. I mentioned here that the actual meeting went well, but only because when you’re sitting in front of the professors, it’s hard for them to say, as was implied in their written comments, “Well, it was just awful.” Some professors don’t have a hard time saying that sort of thing to your face, but the two that reviewed my thesis were not of that camp. And after, sure, I went out and had two glasses of wine with my classmates because it still felt good to be “done” in the programmatic sense. Though by the time I got off the subway and started towards home, a different burden, one not entirely new, had settled on my chest. I saw that as a writer – if I was to be one – I was the furthest thing from done.

To some people I seem somewhat writerly; to others – writers, probably, I am far from where I need to be in terms of professionalism and diligence. To myself – it doesn’t matter what it seems; I know that I am neither professional nor diligent. What I do all day is largely a mystery, even to myself. And so I went back on this blog because the bulk of my writing is here, and people say you learn from history to make better the future.

Well I found this post below, which I wrote five years and a month ago, on September 22, 2010. I could have swapped out some names, some programs, but I could have written it today. 

Are you ever “done” with a blog?

I suppose not, as the words, like memories, linger around. No matter how much you’ve changed for your new life, someone has proof of the old you – the person who loved the “X-Files” and devoted entire paragraphs to terrible movies. It’s what my old blogs represented: a verbal growth chart. Rereading some of the entries made me wistful and cringe at the same time: I was so happy! So cheerful! My voice so forceful and confident; when did things start to quiver and shake?

I like to think that the “force” is still with me but that I’m beginning to learn from Chekhov, who writes, as Nabokov said, in a “quiet, subdued voice.” Tempered. Even. What made me saddest however, was how eagerly and how often I wrote. In high school, there were stretches of months where I wrote everyday, even if just a jubilant paragraph about nothing. Then I reinvented myself in a new blog, or perhaps just moved the same persona to a new house, and apparently did away with diligence.

Oh diligence. Who needs it? I write little. One long, thirsty (thirsting to be read) essay once or twice a month, if at that, and nothing else. I traded diligence for a cleaner template. Enthusiasm for a blasé attitude about everything, including knowledge. Thank goodness for the anchor of a good library. And the books in it. Books. They bring me back down from where I don’t belong and set me to writing again.

I’m currently finishing up the biography of John Cheever. Of his short stories I’ve only read one (“The Country Husband”) and didn’t even like it much. It was assigned for an English class at my community college and I thought it the worst out of what was offered in our anthology, but now that I know the author better (or at least think I do), I might reread it and try a novel of his as well.

He was a closeted bisexual for much of his life, a raging alcoholic and supremely self-conscious. Yet through it all he remained a prolific writer. He was, whether drunk or sober, depressed or elated, always, always writing. He wrote what seem like hundreds of short stories, a handful of decorated novels, and journals, which he kept for nearly forty years.

What then, have I learned from reading this excellent biography? I don’t write nearly enough. Not on my blog, not in my journal, not letters or essays or anything… as of yet, I can’t call myself a writer because I don’t write. Occasionally, I jot something down only to throw it away because I don’t know how to “categorize” it. It’s an awful and unquenchable: wanting everything to belong somewhere. Instead, I’m left, in my own journals, with a gaping hole from the ages of five to sixteen. However sporadically, I’ve kept a journal from a young age.

One Christmas my aunt presented all the girls with a flower-covered journal and said we should start keeping a diary. Who knows – maybe it was a veiled attempt to keep us out of trees and dirt, but I took my aunt’s words to heart and that very evening, sat down to compose my first entry.

It was, most likely, very dull…but I do not have the hard evidence to verify this. I doubt I filled that diary, or the one after, or the one after that, but I do know I amassed four or five half-filled volumes of diaries from my VERY young years and, in a crazed bout of spring cleaning some sixteen years later (when my obsessive organizational tendencies conquered my desire for a juvenile writer’s legacy), I tossed them into the recycling bin. I regret this as much as I regret terrorizing a hamster I once kept and if God were kind enough to bring them both back and let me choose which to keep…well, it would be a hard decision. I would probably flip a coin.

Needless to say, my diaries are spotty. Entries are often unfinished or filled with blather, or, much to my dismay, dreadfully repetitive, almost predictable. A NYTimes book review of Cheever’s posthumously published journals observed, correctly, that the great writer’s journals were flush with grand themes: “Nature, God, home and sex.”

Good luck to who ever tries to find even a fourth of that in my journals.

It goes without saying that a man’s journal is about himself – but even through Cheever’s loneliness one can sense the others around him, his family, friends, the places he lived and visited, all rendered in vivid detail. He was self-absorbed, yes, but still wrote with a writer’s eye, seeing and wanting to believe in the world around him and most elusively, in himself.

Halfway through the biography I put it down and pored through my own journals, wondering what sort of person they revealed me to be. I was dismayed to find that it was far from my best but certainly some of my most personal writing. In fact, I would be quite embarrassed if they were ever read by anyone else, as they revealed a shallow, petty self, concerned mostly with what others thought of me.

I wrote most about a new type of materialism: the desire to travel, to be well-read, and to be accepted by men and women alike as something I haven’t really taken the pains to become: an intellectual, a cosmopolitan. What for? And why? This is what struck me most about Cheever’s journal, and his life story – that he was always studying himself, always looking for ways to improve, loving dearly the things he loved (men included) without really knowing why, but relentlessly asking himself, “Why, why, why?”

This is any writer’s ultimate question. Earlier today I interviewed with a professor regarding my application for a Fulbright Grant. And while the interview went well enough, I was surprised that the professor didn’t ask me so many questions as he did suggest books to read.

“Have you read “Family” by Ba Jin?”


“Have you read the short story collection “People of Taipei” by Bai Xian Yong?”


Rather than shake his head at my lack of knowledge regarding Chinese emigre literature, he rattled off a few more titles he thought would suit my research.

“How familiar are you with Chinese and Taiwanese history?”

Not very, I admitted, but I planned right then and there to become very knowledgeable about it.

“Okay, then…” and here, I expected him to say, “What do you know? What do you know about anything?”

I was prepared to say, “I know a little about very few things.”

But instead, he continued talking and I continued to steep in my own ignorance. Sitting there in his office, surrounded by his books about my country and my heritage, and listening to him – a middle-aged white man who was more fluent in Chinese language, politics, and history that I could ever dream to be – I realized I needed to play more than catch up. I needed to wake up. I needed to focus. I needed to be good at one thing.

I left his office with the feeling that I’d failed the interview but knowing that I hadn’t. It was a personal standards thing. I was lucky that he was too excited, too clouded by his own knowledge and passion for the origins of my project to write a negative evaluation, but the truth was, had he dug further or really listened to my answers, he would have found out I knew only the bare bones of my own project and my family. How important is history? Culture? Language? Very. And how much did I know of each of these? Very little.

Vague is how I would describe my grasp of these topics, and vaguer still, is what I hope to achieve with the grant, or with my life as a writer in general. Of course this is all nicely masked on my Fulbright application – but I learned in the interview that while I was certainly Chinese, I was far from understanding – or even wanting to understand – the foundations of Chinese history which I claimed the Fulbright would enable me to study. Worse yet, I learned I couldn’t be called a writer because I didn’t – I don’t – write enough.

The interview ended. I stood up and we shook hands.

“Good luck,” the Professor said, “It sounds like a great project and I hope you accomplish it.”

“I hope so too,” I said, and though my voice was laced with self doubt, I felt a resolve, familiar to me but now with age, more forceful. A sonnet by Milton wafted through my mind as I left the white man with a Chinese background richer than mine and headed down the hall to the elevator. “How soon hath time…”

The doors slid open and I stepped in. I pressed one. Back to Level 1, I thought. There, I would rekindle the desire to be good, truly good, at one thing. To writing. To writing.

2 thoughts on “A Writer Like Cheever

  1. I feel ya Betty. Committing to one thing that you know you’re meant for, but you also know has a lot of uncertainty for success is one of the hardest things to do. Some days feel great, some days feel doubtful, but in the end…at least you’ll have one hell-of-a-story to tell in Biography of a Very High, Wrinkly, Eyebrow lol.

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