Just Deserts

Getting what's coming to me.


July 2, 2014

The older I get the more it seems “I want everything coming to me” might be one of those notions best left to the young. Picture seven billion little hurricanes wreaking havoc on the coast of good intentions.

Of course it’s nice to be rewarded, whatever that means in your field. For writers it’s to have the capacity, freedom, and support to do your best work; to publish well in hopes of critical and popular notice; and to have staying power. Many would add not working at anything but the writing. These things come together so rarely, let alone at an age where one can fully enjoy them, that they’re probably a statistical impossibility.

And so we gather our rosebuds as we may along the litter-strewn county roads of academe. I plucked one recently by applying for a fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Lithuania, without expecting anything to come of it, but I’m kissing my children goodbye and headed off in a little more than a week. What’s more, my old friend Frenchy, with whom I’ve shared so many adventures, is flying in and out of Russia with me, where we’ve never had the chance to go.

The Russian writers, especially Chekhov, have been important to me, and I did present at a Chekhov conference once at Ohio State with my friend Mike, a Slavic scholar, and that led to a piece in an MLA anthology. Three weeks ago I was set to present at another Chekhov conference with Mike, at Melikhovo, Chekhov’s estate south of Moscow, but I had to decline in favor of Lithuania, without knowing I’d need to route through Moscow for economy’s sake.

What’s astonishing to me is that some strange confluence of focused interest on a professional sidebar, hard work, and dumb luck will soon put me in the archives at Chekhov’s Moscow house, at his grave in Novodevichy Cemetery, and, yes, at Melikhovo, where museum administrators have graciously invited me to stay the night on the estate. (Yalta, where he had another home, is a little contraindicated right now.) Frenchy and I will likely head down to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, after that. I'm hoping an essay will come of it all.

They call this the age of university patronage for writers, which makes sense if you discount the demands of teaching, grading, reading, prep, program and thesis advising, admin duties, reading for admissions, lit journal editing, committees, meetings, and so on during the year. Summers are off to write the next book, after all, except for the continuing admin duties, class planning, lit journal maintenance and conference planning, visiting writer planning, inbound cohort, as well as increased childcare, pet care, house repair, etc. The great gift of time to write often feels like a dash out to get something from the yard between tropical downpours.

Somewhere, maybe back as a young soldier bobbing around on a landing craft off the coast of Panama, I imagined a life given to introspection and study, punctuated by adventures in the world. This trip—and all the structural conditions needed to make it happen—finally feels like something I might have intended.


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