I’ve been reading Charles Foran’s biography of Mordecai Richler. It’s a fat book and I’m not even halfway through, but already lines are jumping off the page. I’m deeply intrigued by the portrait of the formative writer–the kid, no more than twenty, who set off to Europe cadging money from any willing family member or friend, working as if possessed, carousing, ambitious. That’s what strikes me most about his formative years, when he was writing frantically and receiving nothing but rejection letters–the sheer volume of his ambition. Of course, in part what he displays is youth. And he had talent even if it was awfully raw at that point in his life. He had luck too. Just before he left Europe to return to Montreal, broke, just twenty-one, he found an agent who admired his potential, and helped him see his way into this life he was demanding for himself.
Charles Foran writes about what might have happened, had Richler not been found and professionally validated; he had a lead on a job at the CBC and in fact worked there briefly writing news copy; but not for long. “By 1952, CBC radio and the new television network were already the destination of choice for those with talent and culture who dared not risk seeing if they could really make a go of it as artists…” [my emphasis]
Guess what Mordecai Richler dared to do?
What elements make up the personality of someone willing, as Foran writes, “to hustle, do what was required. … Henceforth, he would be freelance, his own master and servant. Without security. Without nets.” Brash? Egocentric? Bold? Calculating? Intensely focused? In many ways, it’s not the nicest personality, is it? It can’t really be. You can’t worry about pleasing others, or meeting conventional expectations. It helps not to be apologetic in your approach. Why apologize for being who you are?
(Side question: Does this apply mainly to male artists? Personally, I don’t think so, though traditionally it’s been less acceptable for women to be unapologetic in their ambitions. Now where the heck does motherhood fit into the bold/brash/intensely focused rubric?).
One more thing. Around this same time, Richler wrote to his editor Diana Athill: “Often I think I don’t like or dislike writing, it’s just something I’ve got to do.”
I read those words and felt like something in me had been struck. Yes.
This week has been a flurry. There’s a lot of hustling going on. At various moments during any given day it feels like I’m keeping up; not keeping up; almost keeping up; hanging on by sheer will; taking a tumble; staying with it; losing track; back in the game; organized; overwhelmed. But mostly, okay.
I’m okay because I keep landing on this thought that completely amazes me: I’m doing what I want to do. No, you know, it’s even more amazing than that: I’m doing what I’ve got to do.