04/05/2013 04:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

Feeding the Lake

"All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake." --Jean Rhys


When students ask me what's the most important advice I can give them about writing, I usually say two things: (1) Write your next book as if it's the only one (or the last one) you'll ever write; and (2) Write the book only you can write -- something no one else who has ever lived could ever write.

Then they stare back at me, blinking, as if to say: Well, how the hell am I supposed to do that? I'm not Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Proust or Woolf or Faulkner or Joyce. I'm just me.

And to that I would answer: Exactly!

By which I mean: All you need to be is you. Because you are the only you who will ever be. There will never be another human being, nor has there ever been, with your exact you-ness. There will never be another human being, nor has there ever been, with your biological and experiential DNA, with your unique way of seeing, taking in, processing, and expressing this incredibly challenging, wondrous, mysterious world.

But here's the catch: If you do this, if you write from your you-ness, if you find that authentic sweet spot and allow your work to filter through it, you may end up writing books that will change the literary world and become "great rivers" (see: Jesus' Son, The Things They Carried, Infinite Jest), or you may end up writing books that become "mere trickles" (except I would delete the word "mere"). The "trickles" are just as important because they also feed the lake.

For example, the short story writer Lee K. Abbott (bet most of you haven't read his stories) has produced a singular body of work that no one else in the history of humankind ever could have produced, but he is nowhere near as widely read as Junot Diaz or George Saunders (two living writers who are deservedly becoming rivers). Even so, Abbott's work is necessary and important because he has contributed something no one else could contribute to the lake: stories written in prose so exuberant and maximalist that when I first read his work on the subway in New York when I was twenty, I was so frustrated that I abandoned the book, his collection Dreams of Distant Lives, leaving it on the seat where I had been sitting.

But I kept thinking about his writing, and a few days later I found myself in the Strand buying another copy of Dreams of Distant Lives, and when I finished that I bought Love is the Crooked Thing, and when I finished that I bought Strangers in Paradise. I worked my way through every collection he had ever written, all published by small presses like White Pine Press and The North American Review Press and Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. No one I knew had ever heard of him, but for me his "trickle" was a "great river." He became an important early inspiration for me. My writing sounds nothing like his, but the boldness of his work gave me permission to take risks with my own.

My shelves are filled with books most people I know have not read -- trickles that feed the lake with something singular and necessary. Here is Love and Death on Long Island by Gilbert Adair, a comic yet devastating short novel about a cerebral, reclusive British author who becomes romantically obsessed with a teen idol who acts in B movies. Here is the only book (so far) by Emily Carter, Glory Goes and Gets Some, an intense collection of stories about a young woman who is HIV-positive. Here is Rebecca Brown's The Gifts of the Body, a beautiful collection of linked stories narrated by a home-care worker who assists people dying from AIDS. Here is The Summer Book, a lovely, quiet novel about mortality, by the Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson. All these books have fed the lake. There are no other books quite like them.

My first novel, A Fine Place, has been out of print much longer than it was in print. It was published by Context Books, an independent press that eventually folded, and probably sold a few thousand copies. You can find it in used bookstores or in boxes in my basement. It's about the murder of a black teenager in Brooklyn by a gang of young white men and the aftermath for one Italian-American family. Setting aside the subjective merits of the novel, which I will leave to readers, there is one thing I can say: If I did not write this novel, there's a good chance that no other human being ever would have, certainly not in the exact way I wrote it. In other words, despite this book's quiet life, it fed the lake, and that is my first goal as a writer.

No matter how much you write, no matter how "famous" your work becomes, your charge is to feed the lake with something only you can feed it with.

Revise that: your charge is to try to do that. The attempt itself is what matters.

This doesn't mean that you simply set out to write autobiography. Because you are a unique you in the history of the universe doesn't mean that you get stuck in your you-ness. Your unique you-ness isn't just about your story; it's also about how you uniquely see the world and how you express it. Feeding the lake usually requires, at some point, getting over yourself as the story, the main event, and embracing yourself as a filter.

When we dive into the lake of everything that has ever been written, it's about being thrilled and transported and inspired by stories, but it's also about empathy -- feeling what others have felt, coming as close as possible to being them. That, more than anything, is why the lake exists -- so that we may all swim in the same human water.