One of the most frustrating things about writing books (this is true of stories too) is that the process of writing necessarily involves a certain degree of blindness to the work itself. I can’t see what I’m doing while I’m doing it. Like looking through a pinhole, I can see only the sentence in front of me, or perhaps the paragraph, or the chapter if I’m lucky. More often than not, everything else is occluded. This is why it’s very good practice to put fresh work aside. It’s always more possible to see it clearly later, with the cold eye of distance. It’s been said that Raymond Carver used to hold a red pencil with him when he gave readings from already-published work. He would edit the stories or poems as he went along. When I first heard this, as a graduate student, I didn’t really get it. I mean, the work was published, right? Wasn’t that the end? I now know that publication only means that the words are typeset–but not set in stone. To the writer, they continue to taunt and embarrass. To say: see? you could have done better. Doing better: isn’t that what we all want to do, all the time? John Irving once said that writers are lucky, because it’s possible — with a reasonable amount of clean living — to get better as we get older. To get better until the very end. I think of Saul Bellow, who wrote Ravelstein near the end of his life. Or Updike, who produced beautiful work until his sad and untimely (seventy-six was too young) death. But getting better also means looking back at earlier work and seeing its flaws.
I was very young when I published my first novel, and my second. Truly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was learning the craft as I went along, and my missteps, instead of ending up in a drawer, found their way into bookstores instead. Though it’s useless to regret anything, I do have a certain amount of regret about that. I feel like I didn’t start out a strongly as I would have wished–but I didn’t know any better. But what I can say about my writing life is this, and I am certain of it. I have gotten better with every book. That’s my demand of myself. To get better. To stretch myself each time. To not settle into any kind of complacency. Complacency, for an artist, is the end of something.