Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Egg and I

You have written any number of things--essays, for instance, or news stories, or features, or short stories, novels, poems, critiques, and all those hundreds of reader's reports editors have to write in reference to submitted manuscripts--over a considerable span of time, enough so that you understand intellectually as well as through the viscera that some form of stimulus is necessary to come up with the words, then propel them forth in an attempt at coherence.  True enough, deadlines and job descriptions are somewhat to the rear of the line.  At the moment, your own favorite is enthusiasm, closely followed by curiosity.

There are times in the past (and now for that matter) when such cholers as revenge, anger, impatience, and setting the record straight rush to the head of the line, bullying their way in front of enthusiasm.  Another momentary favorite is deadline because the only deadline you have is for a weekly column for a newspaper with a circulation of about fifty thousand, and that deadline, although certainly an obligation, is quickly addressed by calling up the impressions of the book recently read, which brings forth a resident emotion (including enthusiasm) to propel the words and thoughts.

It is, in fact, the reading of such a book for review, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, by Aldous Huxley, that you are made aware of this concept of emotion or idea or both as catalytic agents for writing.  A man of unquestionable intelligence, wit, and enormous range of interests, he seems to you unable to write more than a paragraph without giving the impression that he cannot help himself from making connections, comparisons, explanations.  Even while telling a story, Huxley is explaining, educating, conjuring up associations that are like running footnotes to a scholarly text.  Somewhere in the last day or so, you recalled a contemporary, Christopher Isherwood, telling you how he, Isherwood, loved his characters while "Aldous loved the ideas his characters represent."

Barbara Kingsolver is of this sort, not only producing story but explaining to you some of the less obvious elements of them.  So, too, is Jane Smiley, and to a large extent, Francine Prose, although when writing fiction, Prose is more content to rely on the energetic effects of her own dramatic force. And not to forget Antonia S. Byatt, who practically kidnaps her readers, removes them to some remote encampment until she completes her narrative, then allows them to find their own way home.  At times in your long association with writing, you have in a real sense wanted to be as these writers were:  they are funny, insightful, stunningly able to connect seemingly disparate things and people.  What writer could ask for more?  Well, you, for instance could and do ask to entertain but not overwhelm, to transport but not to abandon on the outskirts of some remote concept.

It was never easy, being a writer.  Family, friends, associates seem always to be wondering when you are going to get a job or get serious or come to your senses.  Nor did it appear to satisfy them when the jobs you got, editor and teacher, focused on helping others become writers.  One individual likened you to the victim of a shipwreck, sitting on a small raft, helping other ship-wrecked individuals onto the same small raft, even pointing out that at the time you were swimming two miles a day.

Your response, which is different than a defense, is that it was never easy being a person.  There are those whose response to that existential conundrum is that they didn't ask to be born in the first place and were thus absolved from any of the responsibilities, obligations, and moral imperatives of being a person in a social setting.  You so much wanted to be a person that you swam faster than all those other cells, your metaphoric eye on that egg.  You in fact tried from time to time to become something else than a writer, let us say a responsible person who kept a budget, lived within his means, thought constructively, had long-range plans as well as short-range goals.  But these things largely seemed to baffle you when you stopped to think about their implications.

You still have the metaphoric eye on an egg that is also metaphoric, it is the meeting place of the idea, the feeling, the insight, and the connection, a convention center where delegates arrive in hope of sustenance, comfort, and continued enthusiasm for being that most difficult thing to be, a person--it is the egg of story.

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