What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
– Langston Hughes
Maybe those individuals who’ve been tapped for Nobels, and some few comparable others, are actually able to feel—without fooling themselves—that their work has received the kind of attention they hoped it would, during own their lifetimes.
The rest of us face the deferred dream. Or perhaps we can call it, the downsized dream.
Whatever you care to call it, it means arriving to the place, and moment, when we writers are forced to face realities to hand. There are a billion analogies. Slings and arrows. Sun upon dew. We know, or eventually learn, the score.
Each of us has an ideal trajectory for our work’s development and for its reception, and each of us has the trajectory we live with. It has struck me that, early in the game, we absolutely believe that if we work our rears off, we can will the ideal to take over the real.
Unsurprisingly, steely will and Herculean work aren’t generally enough. Other factors, beyond our control, cut in and reroute what we’d hoped would be a fairly linear progress.
How we choose to live with that understanding, and how we choose to proceed in the face of it, remains the ultimate challenge for every writer—bearing in mind that these choices are among the few sets of responses we can control.
A generous writing friend, a teacher and organizer whose first novel has just appeared to excellent reviews and a significant prize, listened (warmly and sympathetically) to me detail my frustration in failing to secure a venue for my most recent book of fiction. Later, she e-mailed me this:
My whole adult life has been dedicated to educating through literature: teaching, founding a literary center, writing. The fact that the job is getting more difficult is upsetting, even at times debilitating, but it simply means the work has become more important.
And there you have it. Pretty much smacks down all other noise, doesn’t it?
Albert Camus noted: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I thanked my friend full-heartedly.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.