This week alone has been laced with the immense public fallout and regret of bad career moves. Lance Armstrong finally came clean to the nation about his snowballing history of doping, while it also came to light that not only did Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend not die of leukemia, she never existed in the first place.
The literary scene is not exempt from similar mistakes in judgment, to put it forgivingly. Indeed, artists know all too well the stages of attachment and skepticism they experience when it comes to their own work. Last week, culture sites were all over the story of the aftermath of Alisa Valdes’s memoir The Feminist and the Cowboy, detailing how the life of romantic submission to a macho, cowboy-figure described in the book was merely a precursor to a horrific, abuse-fueled unraveling. It was Valdes herself who opted to speak out against the moral of her own book, bringing forth the truth about the abuse despite her publisher’s wishes and while admittedly putting herself in real, physical danger.
This “spoke-too-soon” phenomenon may especially plague writers who start writing when they’re young and generally less experienced—they are less aware of the world and more self-centered. Arguably the same could be said of Valdes, who, while no spring chicken when she penned her memoir, may have been brainwashed into a cult-like entanglement (at least according to Hanna Rosin at Slate), which is not to entirely forgive her wild delusions in The Feminist and the Cowboy. Regret is acceptable so long as we maintain some accountability for our actions.
This phenomenon is also undeniably more prevalent at a time when self-publishing, and the Internet, make it easier to solidify your words in print-form and searchable cyberspace for all eternity. Where writers of generations past may have published juvenilia they later renounced, we have reached a point at which we can publicly witness young writers develop, evolve and, of course, founder.
What is happening—what will happen to these generations? Will they ever learn the same discipline as their writerly ancestors, who often had to work indescribably hard to get seen by anyone? Will they shy away from a painfully unforgiving career path when they face enough scrutiny and shame and the bitter relentlessness of anonymous Internet commenters?
What will it be like when they grow up and publish respectable novels only to have their Tumblrs still exist in cache, or an ebook they wish they could erase? Will it matter?
In many fields, career-related regret and undoing have been a public experience for a long time. For writers, and artists in general, they are more on board than ever before—now the “undoing” has the potential to come before the “career.” Writers nowadays must either think twice about what they put out there or accept they’ll inevitably have to move past some degree of regret. Because we develop artistically as we age, and remorse is a necessary, healthy part of that process, it would likely serve everyone better to simply accept the latter.
It should also be stated that writing something you’re not so proud of later is a far cry from killing off a fake girlfriend or lying about performance-enhancing drugs for a decade.
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