When Charlie Rose interviewed playwright Edward Albee this week, he asked him if the first thing mentioned in his obituary would be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s my best work, Albee said. Rose asked, What’s your best, then? “I don’t know,” Albee said matter-of-factly. “I haven’t written it yet.” Wouldn’t it be awful, he elaborated, to think that you’ve already written your best work?
Sure, as a writer, you can have your favorite novel or poem that you’ve penned, but the idea that you haven’t yet written your best is the greatest motivator to keep at the craft. With constant focus and practice, your writing can only get better. Well, I suppose it could get worse, but you’d have to be trying hard to fail, which would be sad.
Later in the same show, Rose interviewed novelist Jhumpa Lahiri who, in her softspoken, careful way, described how her writing comes largely from her role as observer. She was thoughtful and deliberate in her answers, and the long pauses before she spoke reminded me of William Safire’s On Language column in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. In this age of prepped talking heads with their talking points, he said, you rarely see anyone on television think anymore. Rose interpreted her pauses as discomfort, though Lahiri assured him that she enjoyed talking with him. “She’s thinking!” I yelled.
As a writer who won’t be invited to Rose’s table anytime soon, I couldn’t help but think how long it would take me to articulate an answer to one of his questions, like the one along the lines of “If it’s true your life informs your writing, does your writing also inform your life?” I’d need 10 minutes and some paper. Writers, after all, care about words; we’re afforded the luxury of thinking and planning what we write; but as a lot, we’re not the best public speakers. If you can embrace the pauses and wait us out though, we just might string together a nice sentence or two.