And why do people like Roth live way out in the country, anyway? Because living in the sticks is like being dead—it’s a way of forgetting that anybody’s watching. It’s a way of writing posthumously. Better, of course, if you can do it in Brooklyn, where you can get a decent meal, but do whatever you have to do.
Equally insidious is to adopt a bien pensant manner, to make sure that everything you say is earnest and well meaning, the kind of thing Bono might put in a lyric. Piety can be another form of censorship.
You get what I’m saying. The same goes for spouting popular ideas, intellectual or otherwise, that aren’t your own. You have to watch yourself closely because it’s easy for some trendy notion to filter in. You put it in a sentence and it sounds reasonably intelligent. Then your book comes out and, out of all the thousands of words in it, that one little word gets noticed by some wag in Cobble Hill, who traces it back to the source you borrowed it from, and in that moment you feel very, very small. You feel undeserving of the privilege of being a writer, in the company of all the writers whose stringent examples you set out, long ago, to emulate.
I’m winding down now. They tell me there’s going to be a party after this. I don’t want to keep you from your rightful fun. In closing, let me say one more thing about Mr. Kafka. When Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, in Berlin, he reacted at first with a serenity amounting almost to relief. As his health deteriorated, he became more fearful: “What I have playacted is really going to happen,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life and now I will really die.”
To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. This retreat has to be accomplished without severing the vital connection to the world, and to people, that feeds the imagination. It’s a difficult balance. And here is where these ruminations about writing touch on morality. The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life? Anyway, it’s the one you’ve chosen, the first fruits of which we’re here to honor tonight. It’s an honor for me to preside over this ceremony. I’m happy to do it in gratitude for the help the Whiting Foundation has given so many writers, including myself. I don’t remember who made the speech and read the citations my year, as you probably won’t remember me. That’s O.K. Just remember what Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers said: “Stay within yourself.” And, most of all, don’t forget Nadine Gordimer’s advice. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap. Young as you are, play dead—so that your eyes will stay open.