My second cousin once removed, Sheila, recently asked me to send her what I’ve written about my father. Sheila was always treated to the best of this likable man, his irreverent wit, his intelligence on every subject of consequence, his charm, his idealism. I told her I’d send her a link to the 1,200 pages I’ve written in my two and a third year wrestling match with this gigantic subject.
Then I thought better of it, picturing her struggling helplessly in that dense jungle of unorganized prose, and began going through the unwieldy manuscript, making some selections, almost at random, to give her a picture of the whole project. I saved a 53 page chunk as “Selections for Sheila”– served with the personal touch, don’t you know?
She wrote back to tell me she liked what she’s read so far, though much of it was painful to her. She’d had only the most generalized idea of the darkness in his early life and no inkling of the dark side he often retreated to in the company of his wife and children, the overarching tragedy of his life.
I’ll refer you back to that post a few days ago for my thoughts on writing, why, and how and what for. Bukowski wrote a great poem about real writing that is hard to argue with. It is not the praise of another reader that makes a piece of writing worth reading, it is the writing itself. Writing with passion and care is its own reward, sickening as that also is to say in a world where so many empty, ill-considered words are churned out by people well-paid to churn the vomit out, often with the help of ghosts who do the real work of making popular, bankable idiots sound relatively intelligent. That said, having a reader or two who gets what you’re trying to do, appreciates the work involved– priceless.
After I sent it off I looked over the Selections for Sheila and immediately wondered where a few important stories were. At one point the manuscript had a table of contents and an index, to help me locate things. That was hundreds of pages ago, I couldn’t keep up with the administrative tasks associated with the writing– the pages piled up too fast. OK, I am… how to say?… I don’t like certain kinds of hard work. I can work for two hours or more taking rough edges off a few paragraphs, increasing the clarity of what I am saying, adding an illustration where it will help the reader see something I haven’t been able to make clear enough. To some people this kind of work is unthinkable. To me, most other kinds of work are unthinkable.
I am not anti-social, I like people, for the most part, enjoy interacting with people (animals too, for that matter). I am open to people, let me say that. I spend most of my time alone. No single thing is as important to me, or makes me feel more like myself, than the time I spend by myself, focused, concentrating on making something as clear, or elegant, smooth or rough, as I can make it. Craft has become one of those quaint notions in our fractured tabloid culture, but hold a beautifully finished wooden spoon in your hand once in a while, run your fingers over it, and you will feel what I am talking about.
I’ve always loved that Chekhov story “The Bet.” Chekhov wrote it when he was 28 or 29, a young man already two thirds of the way through what would turn out to be a short life (he died at 44). Read it yourself, (click here) if you haven’t, it’s quite short. The bones of the story: a wealthy banker bets an idealistic guy who claims to love life and the pursuit of knowledge above all else two million dollars that he can’t stay locked in a room for fifteen years without any human contact. The idealist takes the bet, on the condition that he can have musical instruments, books and writing materials brought to him whenever he asks. He suffers terribly at first, constantly playing the piano, then learns several classical languages, reads the classics in their original languages, he studies a wide range of subjects, including the collected wisdom of the world’s religions.
I’ll save you the spoiler alert, in case you haven’t read that story, but I have always related to that character Chekhov created. The banker is just the crass way of the material world, the pondering reader is the soul of the human world. It doesn’t embarrass me to make this simplistic statement. I am already too far gone.
I am now collecting pieces for Selections for Sheila Two. Hopefully one day a literary agent will be moved by an unsolicited packet of pages culled from those selections. The agent will skillfully introduce my pages to some corporate person I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. I won’t have to piss on them– they’ll give me money instead.
Now, back to collecting pages for Selections for Sheila part two.