Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

In recent days you have been toying with historical times in which it might have been better for you to flourish as a writer, the only boundary being that whatever the time you chose, it must have been at least a year before you were born, and could extend as far back in time as you wished.

Although a fun game in terms of causing an immediate and painful awareness of the gaps in your historical perspective, the exercises also demonstrated a kind of ethical lapse in that you could then be guilty of changing the rules of the game while the game was in progress or, to use a metaphor you've come to dislike, tilting the playing field to afford you some advantage.

Given the opportunities you've had to hang out with a wide spectrum of writers, you'd probably have fallen in with a similar sampling, men and women who know the difference between a Shirley Temple and a double whatever, one cube only, please; as well with men and women who knew how to take a swipe at things they detested and in perhaps the same breath extend a helping hand.

It comes down to:  There is never a bad time to be a writer, never was.  It has always been a precarious form of living, filled with other jobs (Samuel Richardson, for example, was a printer, Geoffrey Chaucer was a kind of Rahm Emanuel for John of Gaunt) or responsibilities, sometimes coming as an accident.  Sarah Orne Jewett, on the other hand, was at it in her teens, although it didn't hurt that her father was a doctor and that she, as one of the sayings goes, came from good people.

It can get you tortured, killed, disappeared, divorced, reviled, laughed at.  In some ways it is like that most painful aspect of herpes known as herpes zoster or shingles, resident within you and dormant until it has a mind to come forth in full fury, inflicting itself upon you.  Some individuals drink to bring it on, others to shut off the sense it gives of someone having rented out your entire being to another tenant while you were at work somewhere, innocently making a fortune and a life for yourself.

You remember John Sanford, limping down the stairs to the Von's Pharmacy in Montecito in quest of Advil to ease the pain in his hip.  When you suggested hip replacement surgery, which you knew from first hand experience was an outstanding success, he complained that he was too old for such frippery, but not long after taunted you with the fact that he, at age ninety-three, had just signed a three-book contract and wondered when you had ever had a three-book contract, this old buddy of Nathaniel West who was so pleased with himself at having become a lawyer and passing the New York Bar Exam first shot through before he ran into West, who told him he was working on a novel.  Imagine having to get all the way through law school before discovering that you were not a lawyer but rather a writer instead.

Imagine Henry Roth, sixty years between novels, Call It Sleep, then sixty years of futzing around, teaching Latin, raising ducks before Mercy of a Rude Stream came forth.  Imagine him living in a delapidated apartment building on Fourth Street in Albuquerque before your old pal, Digby Wolfe, who taught drama at the University there,found him and arranged for an award.  When Digby tried to help him up on the stage, he said, What, you don't think I can walk?

Never a bad time to be one, but the price is that you can't imitate or copy or merely reproduce what you see, you've got to put some music and some imp of the perverse and, to completely muck up the metaphor, let the genie out of the bottle and spill over the pages, otherwise you might as well teach Latin or deliver newspapers if there are any left to deliver, or raise ducks.  Ishiguro has gotten you thinking about this last aspect of it in his short story, "Cellists," where someone is waiting for the right circumstances to manifest, already a bit nervous because age 42 is up and in place and this particular cellist has not played all that many notes because of not wanting to give the inner cellist bad habits.

It is all around you, this time, this place.  The hills may be alive with the sound of music but they are also alive with the sound of publishers cutting back, of agents letting clients go, of magazines dropping off the radar, and always of someone either in your family or writing group or some dumb writing magazine reminding you of Samuel Johnson's apothegem that only a fool writes for no money.  Little late, but go tell G.M. Hopkins that.


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