Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Horseman" by Richard Russo

by Richard Russo
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2006
Reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2007

Cross posted here

“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself…

... However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”
– Joan Didion, On Self-Respect

The above excerpt is from one of my favorite essays. I refer to it whenever faced with my inner demons. You know the ones: doubt, insecurity, fear of failure – as well as success.

I found that after reading Richard Russo's short story "Horseman", there are other demons I must learn deal with, such as:

How much person do I put into this ‘person’ality?

How much of me am I willing to share, in my life, in my career, and with myself?

If I hold back the truer part of me; who am I hurting – who am I cheating out of the happiness that is due me as a creative, caring, individual?

When describing this story, and its inception, Russo wondered, “How is it, then, that so many smart people use the study of literature to erect sturdy barriers between themselves and their lives, to become strangers to their truest desires, their best selves?” He also noted that he’d “never quite figured out exactly how such self-deception worked”.

In order to find an answer, he had his protagonist Janet Moore begin her journey of self-revelation by having to deal with a student who was caught plagiarizing. It not only triggers a deep rooted anger toward those who cheat, but a memory which begins to haunt her, ‘driving’ her 'back upon herself', forcing her to discover her own self-deception, one that has brought her to the unhappy reality of her life.

She learns that plagiarism is not simply “taking someone's words or ideas as if they were your own,” it is using them to create a barrier between you and the fear of revelation and rejection. Janet herself thinks, “Then again, what if he was saying was true? Hadn’t she sometimes worried, in the aftermath of extravagant praise, that something was missing? Hadn’t she sometimes had the distinct feeling that what she’d really succeeded in doing was fooling them again?”

This is an excellent story in the lessons it can teach; the most important being to never hold back, not from others, but especially not from yourself. Russo’s story beautifully illustrates how one should “find that…elusive thing, a self worth being, worth becoming, and, finally, worth revealing” and one should never have to “wake up some day to the terrible realization that you’ve somehow managed to ignore the simple thing you wanted most in life and know it’s now too late.”

After reading this story, as well as re-reading Didion’s essay, I am beginning to realize that self-deception is directly related to self-respect. And if I am to gain the latter, I must never succumb to the former, for it really is true; the only person you hurt by cheating is your ‘self’.

This is a story that will have you thinking, and hopefully - discovering.

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