Edith Pearlman

edith pearlman

Anybody see this article in The New York Times about the writer Edith Pearlman? I had heard of her before only because a friend of mine is related to her, but as you will read in the article, Pearlman has been a working short story writer for 50 years and is just now at the age of 78 being “discovered.”

As Americans we love the success story–the wunderkinds, the late bloomers, the underdogs, and the self-made especially.  Nowadays stories of success and lessons in success(especially in the arts) seem to have taken on a sort of fanatical interest.  We welcome and eat up failure stories–but only by the successful (those valued by a large audience or an important one).  I can’t help but think continually that even these stories feed our cultural mythology around the arts–that all of us toiling away at our work will someday matter when we reach that golden pot of fame and notoriety.

I love Pearlman’s example, not because she is at last getting the acclaim she deserves.  I love it because hers is a powerful example of a real and successful life in the arts–a life of dedicated work and perseverance.  She was serious and good and didn’t quit when it was only noticed by a small number.  A lot of people would have quit after the first ten years–heck, the first five!

I think about any number of literary magazines that I pick up a few times a year and I have never heard of any of the people published within them.  Yet aren’t those people serious and some even truly good?  They were serious enough to work on their stories, essays, and poems and they were serious enough to research literary magazines, and submit to those magazines.  Pearlman did this for 50 years without much notoriety.  The truth is she is still incredibly fortunate to be be getting the rewards and the attention that she deserves.  There are hundreds (maybe thousands?!) of people doing valuable work, who may never be valued by a large or important audience.  We may never know their stories.  Perhaps I am one of them–and will I be a failure? Will you? Is it a waste to work and care and try if it doesn’t go the places we think it should?

Of course I have big dreams of being cool and celebrated and all that jazz–but I also feel completely committed to doing the work that I love without that outcome. It’s how I want to live out my life. I also want to live out my life reading beautiful books so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to order one of Pearlman’s books.


8 thoughts on “Edith Pearlman

  1. Summer,

    Your piece is straight from my heart. Your thoughts (& dreams) are mine exactly, about those legions of artists continuing to create & not give, and silently (or not so silently) hope of “making it” & “getting there” one day.

    Is that what it’s about? Or is it about just writing & continuing to do so, because that’s how we want to spend our lives?

    I think it’s the latter. Thank you for floating into my life again with joy & wisdom, and I, too, I will go and check out Ms Perlman.

    Happy creative new year, Summer! You rock!


  2. Once again, you slice straight to the heart of the matter. Artists are in a new world of publicity, marketing, and false and real “fame” through the internet and its vast possibilities. In fact, a sort of fake adulation is virtually for sale in the numbers of likes, friends, comments and so on. It is sad that this can derail us from our work, and I speak for myself. I’ve always loved the most obscure arts the best, the ones hardest for to get credit for: poetry and abstract painting.

    The snake of temptation and the golden apple of fame are so compelling. But they bring little satisfaction.

    I think I’ll take a leap of faith with you… that the quality of our art will speak for us at the time it’s most appropriate. Down the other path of ceaseless attempts for attention lies constant hunger and sadness, often even if you acheive the success. Perhaps what we admire most about her is not her late “success,”, but her graceful, powerful and prolonged success in creation. As you said!

  3. Cecile and Suzanne- yes to all!

    The point of the article (I think) and a lot of the twitter messages around it have been: “Here’s to to all the late bloomers!” “Never give up!” Or “get started now!”

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with this message, but it seems to me to continue this idea that effort ends in a certain reward we all want and it leaves out the reality of the real story of an artistic life: ongoing effort no matter the public outcome. The older I get, the more this is a dawning realization and it’s a powerful and freeing one.

    Here’s to the effort-

  4. I appreciate this, her, and the comments which are spot on. I read something this morning [somewhere] that there is one thing we all want–to be understood-if we felt understood, a lot of the pithy things in our day to day encounters would subside. I kind of liken working as a full time artist-for, gulp, 19 years now- that maybe that is what I feel if I get an article published, or a book contract-I feel somehow more understood and appreciated. But I work all the time without that feeling too, and I just keep doing it, just as I keep riding my horse without showing and ribbons, because I have the calling to do it, with joy. What Suzane said resonates for me- the false adulation one can begin to embrace from social media [or the revers, tearing ourselves down when we someone we can’t stand getting that adulation in a bigger, more commercial way] -spot on. That is my goal now, to not compare, but to jump up and clap for people like Perlman.

  5. Oh yes. It changes the work itself too; when we can be there in the process, and in whatever ‘it’ is itself—not with that small wiry, wanting pull that is constantly singing the success song.

    But then, it makes such a difference to be seen (or read, or heard…)—we need that too, right? Not in terms of what our picture of success is, but because being an artist doesn’t happen alone in a studio, I don’t think. Summer, I’d love to read what you’re thinking about that conundrum—the need for an audience, without falling into the abyss of needing to be known.

    Have you read the poet Jane Cooper, by the way? She has a beautiful essay called “Nothing has been used in the manufacture of this poetry that could be used in the manufacture of bread,” which reminds me of this piece of yours, somehow.

    Thank you, again.

  6. Thanks for the link to this article, Summer. My old self needed to read that. As a zine writer I am all too aware that my circle of readership and influence is extremely small, but that doesn’t matter to me. It’s all about telling my story and letting it go so I can move forward. And I have.

    My voice is necessary. And so is yours.

    Wishing you continued success in this new year and many happy times with your family.

  7. I have been running away from my own creativity for a long time. I am afraid that I won’t be ‘successful’ but what is success compared to personal fulfilment? After many years of running I am starting to realise that it’s ‘do or die’. I can be true to myself and genuinely fulfilled (regardless of the level of success) or I can carry on doing things which not only mean nothing to me but worse still don’t make me feel any sense of achievement.

    This post was so many things – timely, fortifying but mainly the final kick up the ass I needed and as such I have written your important words in my 2015 moleskine diary.

    “I love it because hers is a powerful example of a real and successful life in the arts–a life of dedicated work and perseverance.”

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