Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Am Not Michael Chabon

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. Still live there, in fact. And when I was in my early twenties--around the time I started to think of myself as being an author--the biggest thing in Pittsburgh was Michael Chabon.

Chabon's debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, hit the stands in 1988 and made him a household name. Chabon, though not originally from Pittsburgh, had attended school in my hometown, and his rendering of certain familiar places--the University of Pittsburgh campus, Schenley Park, the Strip District--was close enough to the real to satisfy a native. More importantly for Chabon's career, his imagined Pittsburgh was raved about by book critics nationwide, and his coming-of-age novel shot to the top of the bestseller list.

And was I envious?

What do you think?

I certainly was. Here was a guy about my age (he's a couple years older) living the dream I desired for myself. Here was "the boy with the golden pen" (as one swoony review dubbed him). Here was the fame and fortune that should have been mine.

I wanted to be Michael Chabon.

That was in 1988. I was twenty-three. Now I'm forty-eight, and my first novel has finally been accepted for publication. It's a good novel, I believe, and I hope it's the first of many. I like to think I'm a pretty good writer.

But I'm not Michael Chabon.

I'm just not. He's an incredible talent, a brilliant writer, a once-in-a-generation kind of guy. His The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer and just about every other award you can name, and it deserved to. His most recent book, Telegraph Avenue, contains a sentence that's twelve pages long. And he barely seems to be breaking a sweat when he writes it.

The funny thing, though, is that I'm okay with not being him. Call it the wisdom of my years, but I've accepted my place in things. When it comes to writing, there are people like Michael Chabon--a very few people--and then there's everyone else.

I'm everyone else. And that's okay.

I met Chabon a month or so ago at a reading. He was smart, funny, self-mocking (if not exactly self-effacing), eloquent, genuine. At the end of the event I asked him to sign my copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and he did. I didn't have time to tell him I'd written a short story, "Mishap" (which you might be able to track down online), in which a group of failed writers who hang out at a coffee-shop are unexpectedly visited by the boy who used to frequent their gatherings, but who's now become a best-selling author. I called that character Michael. I modeled him after Chabon. Maybe that was my way of exorcising the demons.

The woman who would become my wife gave me my copy of Mysteries back in 1989, half a lifetime ago. On its inside cover, she wrote: "May you be the next twenty-some-year-old author from Pittsburgh." Turns out I had to wait another twenty-four years.

But that's okay too. I've got my own book now.

And I've got Chabon's signature to boot.


  1. Congrats on your book! You don't have to be Chabon to be a good writer. He might have that special je ne sais quoi, but you've got what makes your writing, well, yours. Best of luck!

    1. Thanks! I agree that we all need to find what makes our writing our own and let go of the desire to be some big-name author. That desire is crippling, not stimulating.