Toward the end of his writing career, Philip Roth said in an interview, “I did the best I could with what I had.”
I’ve glommed onto that saying, hoping to make it my own.
Roth has won almost every major literary award. He’s written thirty books including some of my favorite novels, each one rich with the conundrum of human experience and packed with personal revelations for me: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, Goodbye Columbus, Nemesis. Every time I read one of his novels I start trying to write like him. Maybe because I’m in awe of quotes like these:
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense.”American Pastoral
“You have a conscience, and a conscience is a valuable attribute, but not if it begins to make you think you were to blame for what is far beyond the scope of your responsibility.”Indignation
But my biggest takeaway from Roth, beyond the writing itself, might be that phrase—I did the best I could with what I had.
It’s such an affirming and humble statement. It gives you permission to judge yourself in a positive light. You accept that you have a certain amount of skill, talent, motivation, luck, passion—everything it takes to be a writer, and you use what you have to produce the best work you can.
Who could ask for more of themselves other than to place yourself right where you belong, at the best place you can possibly reach?
“There’s no remaking reality . . . Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.”Everyman
“I am marked like a road map from head to toe with my repressions. You can travel the length and breadth of my body over superhighways of shame and inhibition and fear.”Portnoy’s Complaint
Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle award, PEN/Faulkner award, the Franz Kafka prize—Roth won them all. But not the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was shut out for the writer’s highest honor. He had too many detractors, too many who resented him.
“The danger with hatred is, once you start in on it, you get a hundred times more than you bargained for. Once you start, you can’t stop.”The Human Stain
There was the great writer, Philip Roth. And there was the stain: accusations of misogyny and narcissism in his work that critics say have diluted his reputation and importance.
I’m not a prize winner and likely never will be, but I hope I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Even Roth had his doubts. While writing a book, he’d torture himself endlessly over getting it right. After finishing a book, he would despair thinking he’d never come up with another idea.
Did Roth have doubts about being able to do the best he could with what he had?
But this is where you can get in trouble, when the voice says: Maybe you haven’t done all you could, maybe you could have worked harder. You’re not demanding enough of yourself. You’re letting yourself off the hook too easily. You should be more accomplished. You’re not good enough.
Where do these crushing thoughts come from? From ourselves. What can we do about them? Chase them away. Keep going. Do your best while you still can. That’s all you can do, because one thing is true for sure:
Life is just a short period of time in which you’re alive.American Pastoral