Bittersweet

The discovery of a new joy is sometimes accompanied by a sense of regret for what I’ve lost by not having discovered it sooner. When I began studying with Mr. Mudrick, I knew that I had missed a lot of what had come before.


As little as I knew of anything — my ignorance was spectacular even for a college sophomore — even I could see his greatness, his remarkable brilliance, his sheer goodness, his wit (he was such an entertainer!). His genius wasn’t just literary; he understood being human more than anyone I’ve ever known. To see what I mean, read Mudrick Transcribed: Classes and Talks, a book of his lectures carefully recorded by fellow student Lance Kaplan, or Well, Mr. Mudrick Said, a memoir by friend and fellow student Bob Blaisdell.


I knew that I would be the fool of all fools if I didn’t take every class he taught until I graduated. But there was always that regret that I missed a year and a half, that five university quarters had passed during which I could have been listened to Mr. Mudrick. It was time I had lost and would never get back.

My first memory of this kind of regret is when I read David Copperfield. I was eight. Seeking refuge from the din and chaos of what passed for daycare in those days, I’d wandered into the den and shut the door behind me. The den was furnished with black vinyl recliners and dark bookcases twice my height. The bookcases were filled with Reader’s Digest editions and Book-of-the-Month hardbacks still in glossy book jackets. All were pristine. I doubt whether any of the books had ever been opened.

I liked the name David Copperfield and I liked how it looked in the gold lettering on the spine. I read all day, sitting on the shiny blue shag carpet. When I began reading, I was sitting in a square of bright sunlight. When the babysitter (herself a Dickensian character, being as wide as she was tall, with her topping of curly orange hair, her pale freckled skin, her face slightly smashed in, as if it had been formed of clay and then the top and bottom ends squished together to push the center inward, and her relentless grimness) opened to door to call me, she scolded me for reading in the dark. 

That night, lying in bed, David Copperfield was all I could think about. Both how much I loved it, and how angry I was that this amazing and wonderful world had existed all this time without my knowledge. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?

This must be the greatest aspiration for a writer: to inspire this feeling in a reader.

(I’d been planning to write about craftsmanship. I’m reading another writing manual, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, which had come recommended and is well worth the read, and which in its devotion to and insistence upon writerly craftsmanship made me think of that master craftsman, Anthony Trollope, who began writing every morning at 5:30 at a pace of 250 words per quarter hour. I was introduced to Trollope’s novels in college, and it was love at the first turn of the page. And yes, that turn of the page was accompanied by a twinge of regret that I hadn’t known of and read Trollope sooner. I made up for it as best I could — and keep making up for it. He wrote a lot.)


UPDATE: More on regret from the NYT here.







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Comments

  1. Those feelings are lovely and specific. But I’ve made a hard rule for myself: No regrets. I mean, at least for official purposes. Many of the aches you can have in life are delicious, something you can savor like the bitterness of whiskey, and some are also instructive; maybe that’s what you get from regret. But for me regret is just another snare to catch my leg and trip me up. I don’t find anything to delectate in it. It’s in the same trick-bag with envy and hate.

    Now, if you can get a reader to feel it, that’s awesome. But it’s awesome to make them feel anything.

  2. Maybe regret is not even the right word. What you’re describing is more what I mean. Poignancy? Whatever would be the contrast of complete satisfaction, which always seems like a trapdoor to complacency.

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