I persist here almost every day, frequently encouraged by the previously adversarial voice of my dead father’s skeleton. I write these pieces in spite of many sensible reasons not to spend so much of my time this way. I’m often cheered by my appetite to set the words down, get my thoughts out clearly, express sometimes difficult feelings, in spite of the almost universal silence that greets this unpaid work. Still, it is an untenable life.
I console myself: I write because I’m compelled to write, because it helps me, and may help someone else. I assure myself that I’ll eventually sell some of this writing to support myself, however slightly, going forward. I am better about not being pissed sitting in the middle of the almost universal silence that hisses around even my best efforts here, I remind myself. Some days, like today, for example, it feels like an untenable life I am living. A random page ripped senselessly out of Ecclesiastes.
My idiopathic life-threatening disease is as vague and slow-unfolding as my life itself. Norton Juster had a character in The Phantom Tollbooth who reminds me of myself in regard to my writing life. “Worlds tallest midget” said the sign, and a man of average height opened the door. Around the corner was the “World’s smallest giant”, same guy. If I wrote half as well as I do, but had twice the ambition, twice the marketing and branding skills, I’d probably be able to make a living. If I wrote a third as well, and had ten times the marketing and branding smarts, and the unquenchable drive, I’d be a wealthy man by now. But who am I fucking kidding? My life is untenable.
Look, all of our lives are untenable in the end. Fuck– look at this guy, his lungs just went kaput. She could have lived to be a hundred, if not for that drunk driver. Nobody knows how this one died, put “WTF?” for cause of death. In those last moments, given the chance to take stock of one’s life, how many take consolation in the many good business deals they made? I have no idea, having almost never made a good business deal.
It seems to me that, except in the case of monsters, those last moments are probably spent thinking about love, shining forth from the world we are about to lose. The thought of being loved could be a comfort, or it could be unbearable, smothering, I suppose. That was one reason my father sent his family away right before he died. How do you die with a small audience of people desperate not to lose you looking on? The nurses told me afterwards that many men do this, send wives and children away before they breathe their last.
It’s not the thought of my eventual death that bothers me now, it’s thoughts of my untenable life, a life I must continue to live today. You can be a moral person, strive to be kind, and mild, to listen, to be responsive, use a gentle phrase to turn aside wrath. With that orientation to the world, if you have a metrocard with a ride left on it, you can get on a bus, and probably you will be one of the nicest kids on the bus.
Years ago, as I was caring for my dying mother long distance with long daily phone calls, a literary agent was blown away by a long, convoluted story that spilled out when I arrived, soaked and dehydrated, at a party. “If you can write that down just the way you told it, I can sell it!” she assured me with great confidence. It was an exciting assurance. At the time I had no clue how to write it down just the way I’d told it. I sent her what I thought was my best effort and she responded that I was a very nice guy and that she’d like to take me to lunch at the Harvard Club, where she took her professional clients. I never called her to arrange that lunch, nice fucking guy that I am.
These days, having the time, patience and solitude to concentrate, I have a pretty good idea how to go about writing it all down. Little idea how to organize it, or even review, say, the 1,200 pages of a first draft, but a much better sense that I am hitting the target pretty consistently when I sit down to write. Nonetheless, the life I am currently waking up to is untenable. Today it is about 2,000 pounds of untenable.
Wrestling with my themes every day, I’ve developed muscles that most people I know, people much more muscled and capable than I am in most other ways, are not aware they even have. Today this rippling musculature mocks me, feels like an even shittier consolation prize than it does most other days. I turn the goddamn thing I am looking at five different ways before setting it in final form. There are subtle details that must be lit just so. Impossible to show these things, unless you take pains to set them at the right angle, against the right backdrop, light them correctly. Leave out a step and you might as well piss in the ocean from a high cliff.
“Schmuck,” I can hear the voice, “instead of writing about what a good writer you are, why don’t you write a great letter to a top literary agent and see what you can get them to do for you and your untenable life? Nobody gives a rat’s toned and sculpted cuisse for your self-regarding opinions about your fucking untenable life. Live a tenable life or die — your choice, bitch.”
Leonardo, looking for a patron, once wrote a remarkable letter to some rich guy, maybe the King of France (see letter to the Duke of Milan). He boldly set out a highly improbable list of many things, in a dozen disparate fields, he could do for this rich guy. The rich guy was impressed, gave the prototypical Renaissance man a lifetime stipend to live in a villa and conduct his life of contemplation, exploration and the pursuit of knowledge and excellence. It may have been some other rich guy who eventually gave him the lifetime stipend, his letter may have had no greater effect than being a wonderful example of self-confidence and seeming hyperbole that is actually, possibly, understatement.
“Yes, that’s what you do, write that understated, hyperbolic letter and send it to everyone you can find who might be an advocate in getting you some rich people’s money. The people you know can’t help you, and, more to the point, cannot stand to hear about your untenable, if also highly fortunate, life. You want silence? You’ve got it now.”
I’m all ears.