Portrait of the Artist as Risk-Taker

September 1, 2000
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Rebecca Goldstein

To take risks means to subject yourself to forces that are not entirely in your control. After all, if you could control them, there would be no risk. A risky action then introduces into your life a certain element of pure passivity. You open yourself up to being affected – how significantly is part of the measure of the risk – by events outside your sphere of influence.

There are actions I’ve undertaken precisely because they were risky, grasping that live wire of passivity that zaps me into full wakefulness. And then there are things that I do despite their riskiness. My career belongs entirely to the latter category.

The amount of risk that goes into putting my soul onto the page and then sending it out into the world is staggering. I simply have to blot out all thoughts of this if I am to do the work at all. I would not permit myself to think of it now if I could help it – but I can’t, because my sixth book, Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics, is just being released. My editor has warned me that this book is one of the riskiest books of her long and distinguished career. So now is the moment to confront the question: Why do I do it?

Unlike almost all other writers I’ve ever met, I did not originally set out to be a writer. I’ve always loved to read fiction, but I considered it a somewhat illicit passion. Trained as an analytic philosopher, I was proceeding satisfactorily along the academic track. By the age of 26 I had a doctorate from Princeton, a job at Barnard College, and I was writing academic journal articles, composed in that highly precise, highly impersonal voice required by the field. And then, the year that I turned 28, I risked it all by writing a novel. The few with whom I shared the secret of how I was spending my summer vacation (including my husband) warned me that, given the odds, I’d probably never get the book published, and that, even if I succeeded, the publication would toll the death of my academic career. I did it anyway.

I’m still not sure what gave me the confidence to risk the teaching position I’d worked toward so steadily. In the course of an extraordinarily emotional two years – grieving for my father and glorying in my firstborn daughter – I found that the very formal questions I had been trained to analyze weren’t gripping me the way they once had. Suddenly, I was asking myself the most “unprofessional” sorts of questions. (I would have snickered at them as a graduate student.) Questions like: How does all this philosophy I’ve studied help me deal with the brute contingencies of life? How does it relate to life as it is really lived? I wanted to confront such questions in my writing, and I wanted to confront them in a way that would intimately insert “real life” into the intellectual struggle. In short, I wanted to write a philosophically motivated novel. Mysteriously, a first line of a novel simply came to me early one morning as I was dressing for work: “I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius.” I immediately knew that this was the first line of a book – one whose content I was going to have to discover for myself. So I risked it. My career as a philosopher was left smashed on the rocks at the moment that The Mind-Body Problem was published and my career as a novelist was launched.

After my last book, Mazel, was published, I decided that this business of putting your soul onto the page – which is what fiction involves, even if, like me, you don’t strictly draw from an autobiographical vein – had become an intolerable risk. I no longer had the confidence to open myself up to forces that would affect me, because I had learned, with each successive book, that they would affect me far too significantly. But the very day I told an interviewer that Mazel was my last novel, I received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation telling me that I’d been awarded their so-called genius prize. How, after others had taken such a risk with me, could I not reciprocate – and reciprocate on the grandest scale of which I’m capable?

And so I did.

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Rebecca Goldstein is the author of five novels and one book of short stories. Her work has won numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award for Mazel. She resides in Cambridge, MA, and Highland Park, NJ.

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