When I was sixteen years old, I fell madly in love—as only sixteen year olds can—with a young woman who was madly in love with someone else. As an adult, fortified by countless loves lost and multiple readings of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, I recognize that the best way to avoid heartbreak would have been to seek romance elsewhere. At the time, naïve and pathetically hopeful, I took my female friend to upscale restaurants, bought her a dozen roses, and ultimately wrote her a heartfelt and fruitless letter brimming with superlatives. I even enlisted a favorite high school teacher as an intermediary. Needless to say, my crush did not abandon her own romantic aspirations to satisfy mine. Yet her rejection, and my subsequent effort to distract myself from my wounds, transformed me into a writer: At sixteen, I convinced myself—however irrational this belief seems in hindsight—that if I wrote a novel worthy of my affections, the object of those affections would find herself overwhelmed with a desire to reciprocate them. It is amazing what bargains the mind of a lonely, love-starved teenager can strike.
The reason I concluded writing a novel might lead to romance was that I attributed my rejection to my own inadequacy. In my egocentric adolescent universe, where my beloved and I were the only moving bodies, the notion that this young woman loved somebody else seemed merely an incidental obstacle. Similarly, it never crossed my mind that her rejection might reflect something about her, or about our dynamic—poor timing, or a lack of chemistry, or a cause as simple as a preference for a partner of a different gender or age or ethnicity. Rather, I assured myself, if I had been worthy, she would have found it in her heart to carve out a section for me. So I strove to be worthy. And writing, the talent I cultivated while my love object’s love object mastered athletics—seemed my path to adequacy. In this regard, I am convinced that I am far from alone. My suspicion is that the driving force behind many great works of literature, second only to a desire to eat or feed one’s family, is the author’s quest to prove him- or herself worthy of another’s love.
Twenty-five years have elapsed since my bout of unrequited teenage devotion. On paper, at least, I am now sufficiently adequate. I hold nine advanced degrees, including graduate degrees in medicine, law, history, ethics and writing; I have published two novels. I am a physician at a major teaching hospital, where I coordinate the ethics curriculum for the medical students and psychiatric residents, and when I wander through the corridors, exchanging greetings with fellow medical professionals, I feel welcome and worthy. In my small corner of the universe, people now—as the expression goes—“know my name.” And yet, if I keep writing, it is because I feel no more adequate today than I did as an awkward sixteen year old kid greeting his heartthrob with a bouquet of flowers. When I admitted this sense of inadequacy recently to the same high school teacher who had once tried to facilitate my failed youthful romance, she confessed that she too knew the feeling: She had returned to her fiftieth high school reunion as a happily-married retiree with grandchildren, yet talking to the “popular boys” (who had evolved into potbellied and balding pensioners pushing seventy) made her stomach flutter with anxiety. Like Gatsby, no matter how old or “wise” we become, it seems that at our cores we are still boats beating against the ceaseless current of past self doubts.
I make a point of sending copies of my literary publications to the young woman who shattered my heart at sixteen. She is now middle-aged, divorced, raising a child on her own. To this day she remains, I have no shame in acknowledging, as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. (I also take a perverse satisfaction in reporting that I am still in touch with her, while the man she adored at sixteen is no longer anywhere near the picture.) Today, my one-time crush seems impressed with my accomplishments. Once, she even wrote to me that she had boasted to a friend about my successes. Most important, after her divorce, she invited me to visit her in the small New England town where she lives and we struck up a renewed friendship, one that briefly teetered on the brink of mutual romance. The pendulum had swung in my direction….yet now I was in the wrong place. The timing was off; maybe our moment had been lost by several decades. And yet, I keep on writing.
I wrote an essay on the morning my grandfather died, running late for the funeral because I was engrossed in line-editing. I started writing my third novel on the same day that my former girlfriend married a man I detested. My most recent ex-paramour is the subject of a revelatory essay in my forthcoming collection. And yet, if I am writing to prove my adequacy and I am already adequate, even in the eyes of the young woman I once adored and towards whom I now feel sincere and seemingly reciprocated warmth, my drive to keep producing prose makes no sense. How can I be writing to impress a woman whom I no longer care to impress?
The answer, of course, is that I am not writing to impress the lovely, middle-aged divorcee who sends me pictures of her adorable son. I am writing to impress the spritely adolescent girl in a denim skirt who left me breathless during the Reagan Administration. I want to hold that young woman in my arms, to press my lips to hers, to ride off with her into the 1980s sunset. Yet that teenage beauty no longer exists, at least nowhere except in my memories—and possibly those of the other high school boys who treasured the ground beneath her feet. So I write to change the past, not the future. I am engaged in a struggle to impress a classmate who disappeared a quarter century ago, striving to win the affections of a girl who is indelibly perfect and forever beyond my reach.