Dear Mr. Roth

"Dear Mr. Roth" was originally published in the
Spring 2013 (Vol. II, No. 1) issue of TSR.

Dear Mr. Roth,

How long were you a writer? Were. Silly. You are a writer, aren’t you? Isn’t that what you are?

I acted, or wanted to—just say it, Dinah: I was an actor—for almost 30 years: not as long as you wrote, but then I’m not as old as you are. Nor (unlike you) was I especially successful, at least not on my terms, which is why I say was. I want to be honest: I’m not acting anymore. I was an actor. Except you know how it is for actors (or maybe you don’t) there’s NO EXIT. That’s what we say anyway. Odd to think one would call herself an actor even when she isn’t acting. And even if she’ll never act again. But I was an actor sounds all wrong to my friends, my family, my children—even to me—as if I doth protest too much, proud as I was, proud as I continue to be (at least some of the time) to have had a vocation at all. And yet I haven’t acted in over two years. And the last time, on television (I played a nun with a gun), it was hardly rewarding, Mr. Roth, the less so since by then I was writing. And yet I called myself an actor. I still do. So come on now, you’re a writer, aren’t you? A writer! (Not a retired writer—of all the ridiculous…) My understanding is that you never meant to announce your retirement at all. You let it slip: an idle remark about the writing life shows up in a paper in Paris, and suddenly you’re front page news—you and your retirement—as if that’s what you had in mind. I’m betting you find the whole business absurd. Or maybe you don’t.

But say, the point I’m wanting to make about writing vs. acting? My old job, hard as it was, awful as it was, was actually easier. Easier to shrug when out of work. To moan and bemoan and point the finger, as if it weren’t my own fault, which it wasn’t, in fact. Acting— talk about humiliation, talk about frustration (both of which you’ve cited as reasons for stopping). However, with acting, easy enough to blame the other guy for not letting us do what we’re called to do. And the arts are a calling, right? What I want you to know—what I’m willing to admit: eventually it got to the point, a young person would ask me about acting, would wax poetic about her vocation, and my eyes would roll in my head, shame on me. “Dream dasher,” said my daughter, 14, when my son was all of 11 years old and insisted he’d play for the NBA one day. Doubtful, I remarked. I reminded him he was unlikely to grow to be seven feet tall. And that’s when she said it, clearly disgusted with me: “Dream dasher.” And I wondered then, suddenly ashamed, when I’d become such a person. I, who didn’t abandon the idea of an Oscar speech until I was well into my 30s. The point is, Mr. Roth, you know what we actors say? What we tell talented young people who suppose they want to follow in our paths? Don’t do it, that’s what. If you can do anything else, don’t be an actor. Don’t. Its no life for a person.

“I’m not an actor,” I ruefully told a friend the other day. “I don’t do it anymore.”

“But you would if you could,” she said.

I agreed. “In a minute,” I said. Of course I would! Think of all the parts I’m only just now growing into, Mr. Roth! All those plays—Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen beckoning; Kushner, Baitz, Wasserstein, Churchill, Lucas. And Sondheim! Still time to play Mama Rose and Desiree and Mrs. Lovett, too.

But even as I said it, I realized: acting wouldn’t make me happy. Acting didn’t make me happy, not so I knew it, not most of the time. In truth I wasn’t concerned about being happy back then. I’d have plenty of time to be happy, wouldn’t I? I wanted to act. Acting, I supposed, allowed me to use all of myself. To be as passionate as I was. As reflective. As profound. As intense. As alive. I wanted to live fully, which is why I wanted to pretend. That’s why I was an actor.

And isn’t that partly why you were a writer, Mr. Roth? Why you’re a writer still? I shouldn’t presume—but didn’t you write with your best and fullest performance in mind? Wasn’t that it?

Dear Mr. Roth,

A few years ago, I heard a panel of writers discussing the ways in which they’d sacrificed for art. Baloney, I thought. What a crock. It only occurs to us that we’ve sacrificed after the fact, right? It’s when we look up and realize we got old doing whatever it is—that’s when we decide we gave up other things. And sacrifice, that brand of sacrifice, goes hand in hand with false notions of courage. As if we could characterize our supreme self-involvement as brave. We were not brave. We were single-minded. We were strong, that we were. But to be brave, first you have to be afraid, right? We weren’t afraid and we didn’t sacrifice. We were fearless, rather, weren’t we? At least for a while? Naively arrogant and selfish, too.

But somehow the sum effect is better if not bigger than its parts, am I right? Turns out it is noble —it seems so after the fact, anyway—to be that fearless and that selfish. Noble to care that much about anything: to want the daily to matter. Noble that we weren’t after nobility! It was the moment—grabbed, held close, pulsing in our hands—that’s what we were after.

Mr. Roth, do you know Natalia Ginzburg’s essay, written in third, titled “Portrait of a Writer”? Listen to this—slays me every time:

“Now she asks that truth bring her what invention never gave. She realizes she is asking the impossible. As soon as she tries to tell the truth, she gets lost contemplating its violence and immensity.

“She thinks she has done nothing but pile error upon error. How stupid she has been. She has also posed a great many stupid questions. She has asked whether writing, for her, was a duty or a pleasure. Stupid. It was neither. At the best of times it was, and is, her way of inhabiting the earth.”

Dear Mr. Roth,

About that young novelist/waiter. The one who works in the deli you like. Who wrote in The Paris Review about your response to his gifting you a copy of his first novel, served along with your dry bialy: well, it’s transparent, isn’t it? Just plain self-promotion? I wanted to spit when I read about that. I wanted to write you a letter! That young novelist had to know just what he was doing, didn’t he? How disingenuous, how opportunistic, honestly: audacious enough that he lay in wait (actually planned for the day, never mind workplace rules), intruded on your breakfast or lunch or whatever it was; but then this betrayal—when you’d only been kind, available, forthcoming—that’s how it seems to me anyway, assaulted as you were by an emerging writer at your favorite diner, deli, whatever, and nonetheless willing to engage, for chrissakes, and he has to go and make himself a hero in The Paris Review

Here, according to him, is how it went after he’d handed you a copy of his first novel, after you complimented and congratulated him:

“…I would quit while you’re ahead,” you said. And then: “Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.’”

Then his response:

“I managed, ‘It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.’”

(Managed. Sir. No turning back. Really…)

At which point, you “nodded slowly.” (Slowly—more drama.) You wished him luck. He “went back to work,” to bussing tables (or whatever), since, he explains in his essay, “the baby needs diapers.” My golly, who is this guy? Oliver? Pip? Tiny Tim? Sure enough, a social media uproar ensued, as if you were dream dasher, Mr. Roth. You, who’d been polite, willing to give that guy your attention, to confide in him as if he were a chum. And as if you meant him to quit…of course you didn’t. You knew he was in. You were commiserating, bolstering, initiating, patting him on the back, were you not? Or if you meant what you said, my golly, you’re 80 years old. You’re not entitled to play the curmudgeon? Of course you are. And yet everybody wants in on the act, right?

Dear Mr. Roth,

Can we talk about Exit Ghost, please? In which your alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, records, with disturbing honesty, how it is to be an aging writer? This book, as much as any of them it seems to me (though I haven’t read them all), is about the writing life, and writing itself, yes? Here you are on p. 5:

“When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week—otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all—isn’t the work all I need, the work and the working?”

And on p. 102, when asked wherein lies the pleasure of the work, the narrator says: “In the doing of it. The pleasure of having done it lasts a short time.”

And on 147:

“…isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.”

And listen to this, Mr. Roth, here you are (that is, here’s Nathan Zuckerman) six years ago:

“Nothing is certain any longer except that this will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book. Because permanent groping is what it is now, a groping that goes well beyond the anxious groping for fluency that writing is to begin with…”

Since then three more books, I know. Therefore, we should chalk this up to fiction, except—except here’s this, too—a stunning reveal: a fictional argument with a fictional young writer about the fictional fiction of Nathan’s own writerly hero:

“‘…This,’ (says the arrogant youth in the novel) ‘is a tormented confession disguised as a novel.’

‘Unless,’ (insists Nathan) ‘it’s a novel disguised as a tormented confession.’ 

‘Then why did it shatter him to write it?’

‘Because writers can be shattered by writing. The primacy of the imaginative life can do that, and more.’”

And when asked by a beautiful young woman, the inappropriate object of his desire (and he knows it), what he’d given up his life for, if not for art, Nathan answers:

“’I didn’t know I was giving it up. I did what I did, and I didn’t know.’”

So, on the one hand, fiction or not, we’re supposed to believe you can simply stop? Or, on the other, to be surprised by news of your retirement?

And, either way, to object to your thinking out loud when interrupted over lunch (or breakfast, if that’s what it was) by your novelist/waiter? We’re supposed to believe that you regret your way of being in the world? That you wouldn’t do it all over again in just the same way?

O dear Mr. Roth,

I stumbled on this other day…

“It's my conception that it would be a good thing if everybody wrote poetry, in the world, because it seems to me that it's a natural human activity. Just like singing is for the birds. Birds don't sing because they think they're Neil Young, you know; I mean, they sing because that's what birds do."

That’s what birds do.

I had to know more, so I went hunting and found the quote in a lecture by Ted Berrigan, anthologized in a book called On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living. Perfect, right?

Say, let me ask you: have you seen “A Late Quartet”? It starts with a quote from T. S. Eliot, with master teacher Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), spouting from Four Quartets to a classroom of string players before they set about practicing Beethoven’s Opus 131:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Later in the film, one of the students is advised by her father (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to play the opus as if it were the last music Beethoven would hear before he left the earth, which is all she needs to transform her performance: a sense of all time contained in the moment, the sustained moment, which is not to say the movie is about her—it’s about her parents, in fact. About the quartet in which her mother (Catherine Keener—a glorious cast, I know) plays viola and her father plays second violin. It’s about what’s at stake, personally, professionally, musically, when Walken-as-Mitchell, the senior member of the group, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and unable to continue as cellist. This is a movie about art, about what happens when people put art first, as if they had any choice.

(Thats what birds do.)

Oh Mr. Roth—how to get old. How to come to terms with the inevitable. With our own short-sightedness. How not to feel regret? And where to find solace? In the moment, right? In the playing of each moment as if it were our last. Except that’s no way to live—though it might be a way to make art: and if you’re an artist, how to separate one from the other?

Dear Mr. Roth, 

About the art of living. Every morning my stepfather walks to town—a mile and a half door to door—where he buys milk, juice, oranges, yogurt, a bunch of grapes, a head of butter lettuce, maybe: and he counts on that mile and a half, too, which takes him over an hour; relishes the jaunt as if it weren’t the compromise it is. This is the man who, less than two years ago, was up on a ladder, in the eaves, gutters, trees, patching, painting, hanging birdhouses, mouth full of nails; or else he was out in his barn, rummaging, lifting, hoisting, hammering, retrieving his bulbs—speaking of which, best of all in his view back then, to be on his knees in the garden, his magnificent garden, pruning and planting, eight to ten hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Understand, gardening was not something Dad did: it’s who he was—he was a gardener. He is a gardener. Except he can’t garden anymore. He has a new pelvis—he’s consequently had to learn to walk all over again at age 85. So now—now it takes him an hour to do a mile—now he stands over the beds, leans on a cane, or, where the ground is level, perches on the back of his walker, and directs his grown children—my sister and brother—to pull, weed, dig, hoe. Back in the house at the end of the day, he makes his way to the fridge—pours a glass of milk and drinks it standing at the sink where he can watch the sky pale to pink before the sun drops behind the fields he used to mow.

Dear Mr. Roth,

According to a friend, I’m lucky to have come round to writing relatively late in life—my best material, she says, is still ahead of me.  She supposes that I still have much to say—but is it that true, do you think?

How to find the language? How to imbue my own sentences with the urgency and conviction I was able, once upon a time, to bring to another writer’s words?

What I sometimes wish is that I’d done all this the other way around: that I’d written and written and written—gotten tired of writing and stumbled into acting.

Because look at Christopher Walken, will you? The aging actor in the role of aging cellist would appear to be at the height of his powers—his performance is beautifully nuanced, restrained, honest: “I think this part is a chance to be myself,” he apparently told his director. And that was a relief to him. To be himself.

When did acting become less compelling to me, Mr. Roth? Can I pinpoint for you—for myself—the moment that real life took over? Of course I can’t. Nor, as earlier noted, can I promise that a part (the right part) wouldn’t tempt me. But what I have discovered quite by accident? My own inner life compels me as much if not more than Mrs. Warren’s, or Arkadina’s, or Lady Macbeth’s. Seems to me the truth has brought me what invention never gave. Although when I try to tell it, I feel lost and overwhelmed.

Dear Mr. Roth,

Years ago now, William Maxwell wrote an essay for the Times. Do you remember? For Writers on Writing? He began:

“Out of the corner of my eye I see my 90th birthday approaching. It is one year and six months away. How long after that will I be the person I am now?”

And he ended it this way:

“'Are you writing?' people ask—out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, 'Nothing very much.’ The truth but not the whole truth—which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why. I still like making sentences.

“Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything.”

Young as I was at the time—younger, anyway (smack in the middle of middle age)—and still holding onto the idea that my life was about to happen (had I been paying attention?)—I mistook his meaning. I supposed he was trying to memorize the world, as if for later. Which moved but also troubled me, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. It was when I did—when I realized I didn’t believe in later and neither did Maxwell (or he wouldn’t have been looking so hard), that I understood I’d gotten it wrong. He wasn’t proselytizing, not about an afterlife at any rate. Rather, he was determined to love the world—to be in and of it for as long as possible.

Which brings me back to that young novelist/waiter, the one who wondered (vis à vis your retirement, announced two weeks after you tried to dash his dreams) —in The Paris Review—what you’re going to do, you old crank, “when boredom sets in.” According to him, a writer, at least, “can always lose himself in the act of writing and make time vanish.” Determined to school you, isn’t he? In the ways of writing and the ways of time. As if that’s what you were doing with the one or the other: losing yourself; making time vanish. As if that’s what you’d want to do now. I don’t believe it, not for an irredeemable minute—nor are you likely to get bored, Mr. Roth.

Dear, dear, dear Mr. Roth.

DINAH LENNEY has played on television in series too many to mention, most recently as Franny-the-building-inspector on Showtime’s Shameless. She co-edited Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction with the late Judith Kitchen, and she’s the author of two books of nonfiction: The Object Parade, and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir. Other work has appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, and The Paris Review Daily. Dinah serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars and as an editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Find more of her writing at or follow @dinahlenney on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.