Perhaps the most endearing, interesting thing about seeing Jhumpa Lahiri read at Borders last night was the fact that she seemed so uncomfortable doing so. I'm heartened by writers who are just that: writers. And not performers. She struck me as someone far more at home lost in grappling with words at her computer than standing in front of a room full of fans. I like that. The author-as-rock-star phenomena is often so off-putting to me. Although, if I ever publish a book, I plan to only do readings in giant sports arenas. But that's just how I am. I was also moved, quite literally, to tears by her admission that some of her stories were two years in the making. I tend to be so hard on myself when my stories don't emerge fully formed or beaten into submission after a month of revision. I tend to be so impatient with the process because it is so very, very difficult, so very frustrating. And, along those lines, I also took great comfort in Lahiri's admission that winning literary prizes, in the end, makes no difference in the writing process because it is still hard and humbling and it doesn't make it any easier. She said:
"Every time I write something new from scratch, I am on all fours on the ground, trying to stand up...I am like a child, trying and trying and trying to stand up."
Which I think is so raw and beautiful and honest. I love her for not making it seem like writing is easy and, by extension, not giving me permission to give up just because it doesn't come quickly or easily.
And I loved her unabashed passion for the art of writing fiction. In response to one young reader's question, she said she thought that books and fiction are everything, that creating a good novel or a good story is one of the most important things anyone can contribute in a lifetime. Perhaps out of anyone else's mouth, those words would have seemed like hubris. But Lahiri has such humility about her that it was just obvious she was speaking of literature as a whole and not her own accomplishments, considerable though they may be. Of literature, of books and of writing, she said:
"They are my religion.... They give me faith and they give me hope and they guide me when I am lost."
Isn't it strange -- both wonderful and slightly uncomfortable -- to feel so deeply understood, to share such naked passion with someone you've never met, someone whose words and whose attitudes about writing give you faith, give you hope and guide you when you are lost?