Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nothing Bad Ever Happens to a Writer

 A staple feature of the World War II action movie is the character of The Scrounger, a street-wise individual who has the gift for turning up whatever it is that happens to be missing from the immediate reaches of his company.  In various films, you have seen scroungers bringing forth bottles of cognac, chickens, eggs, and a host of things you'd expect to be available at Costco.

In a way, a writer is a scrounger who job it is to sift through the events and potentials of life as it is being lived out in whatever venue.  Writers find ways to get at things; they discover the stories behind the packaged glop passing for story; they insert meaning, purpose, and the bloody intensity of human beings who are arm wrestling with that massive engine we like to think of as Fate.

Nothing bad ever happens to a writer.

It is not as if in order to reach full strength as a writer one has to subscribe to some posse of martyrs or scape goats, rather that in order to achieve any kind of technique and familiarity with insight into the human condition, a writer needs to experience or have the wit, as, say, Stephen Crane did, to imagine the experience, then not merely describe it but evoke it.

Writers have their work rejected, or the work goes out of print.  An idea that seemed so promising last year seems destined for the bottom of a catch-all drawer, loaded onto a forgotten flash drive.  Writers get dumped by their romantic interests or their literary agents or by critics.  People die on them in ways that are often remarkably undramatic.  Writers age, get arthritis, sometimes require titanium hip replacements. Writers lose arguments, make terrible mates, have no idea what constitutes a good poker hand, cannot for the life of them distinguish between late Haydn and early Mozart.  Writers are passed over for promotion, their contracts not renewed, their bank cards cancelled.  Dogs bite them, cats cough up hair balls onto their lap, flying birds loosen their bowels over writers.

Computers crash on them, wireless printers refuse to recognize them.  Their cars are repossessed, they are given thirty days notice or sixty days or ninety, but the meaning is clear enough--outta here.  Friends betray them, they in turn betray friends.  Editors find them impossible, out of touch, no longer relevant.

None of these things are particularly reserved for writers, they happen to writers because they are a part of something larger; it is called humanity.

There was a time when you were called a boy wonder because so many of the things you wrote found their way into publication in one form or another.  Then there was a time when you were thought of as in mid-career and another time when you were considered a late bloomer.  You had at one time resented all these things because in your mind it meant that you had not fulfilled your potential.  People pestered you to write something serious and then when you did they pestered you to loosen up.

You start thinking about writers whom you can now access only through their books because in effect they have died but not to worry, their friendship still shines through.

A writer who is more or less your contemporary was the one who alerted you to the concept that nothing bad happens to a writer.  He'd come to realize it as he took care of his dying father.  When you began to see the simple beauty and wonder of it, bad things did stop happening to you.  People you knew and cared for died but they would have died anyway and at least you got to know them and in a sense have their fingerprints on your personality.  Promotions and positions you were all set for did not materialize and all about you the conviction persisted that these were events that would have happened whether you were a writer or not and so quite naturally you took comfort in being a writer.

Perhaps if you live long enough, you will be able to use the material that filters through the prism of creativity.  Perhaps not.  It will be a good thing if you can but not a bad thing if you cannot.

The only other adage or concept that has as much meaning for you as the one that holds nothing bad happening to a writer is a line from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna, disguised as a chariot writer, tells the mighty Lord Arjuna, a sort of General Mac Arthur of his day, "To the work you are entitled but not the fruits thereof."  This was told to you at a splendid picnic for you and Christopher Isherwood, the man who was responsible for translating that line from the Sanskrit.  The work, he said, reaching for another hamburger, is the reward.  Writers ought not write with thoughts of reward, the work in and of itself should be the joy.  You translated that to a short story where Krishna was a cab driver and Arjuna was the equivalent of George Clooney in the movie, Up in the Air.

The reward is the satisfaction for doing the work which then becomes not the work but an extension of you.

It may seem that nothing bad happens to you; on the other hand, if may seem that you are incredibly naive for thinking nothing bad happens to you.  This is not Candide, although at times you allow yourself into being lulled toward such a belief.

What happens to you is opportunity.  Somewhere, somehow, it is opportunity, waiting for you the way Sally sometimes does when she has refused to accompany you on some errand or chore, but waits for you in the driveway, up and alert at the sound of your car.  Opportunity is Sally, waiting for you, walking to the house with you.

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