There was a time when I wanted to be a writer. And I don’t mean one of the thousands anonymous names whose books gather dust all over the Libe. A great writer. I was going write the Next Great American Novel.
It had been all worked out at the end of high school. The first two years of college I’d take a bunch of English classes, learn the craft, and then spend one summer writing and my last editing. Then it’d be picked up by a publisher and just like F. Scott Fitzgerald by the time I reached my early twenties I’d be famous.
Of course, I knew almost nothing about writing. In high school I’d hardly read a lick besides best-sellers like Moneyball and Malcolm Gladwell. But senior year there was a girl named Hope I had wanted to impress so I mentioned casually that I wanted to be more “well-read.” I only remembered this throw-away comment a few weeks later when we met for lunch at Noodles & Co. and she reached into her bag and gave me a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The effect was tremendous. I finished the book in two days of amazement -- over the humor, the style, and the fact that a stranger could somehow know and express so well the secret corners of my own psyche. It was like staring into a mirror (albeit, at a shorter, curvier, Dominican version of yourself).
Pretty soon, Hope lost interest in me. But we sat next to each other in two classes, and so for the whole third quarter I’d show up to each day with an impressive new novel under my arm so she could see me reading and know there were interesting thoughts going on in my mind she was missing out on. This was the somewhat pathetic genesis of my interest in the liberal arts. A textbook case of sublimation. Rousseau would have been proud.
During the first week of class at Carleton the next fall I headed to the bookstore to buy one of those small black leather latched notebooks to fill with all my own brilliant sentences. How hard could it be, I thought, to write a book like Gatsby? It’s just a collection of assorted devices: repetitions, juxtapositions, symbols, and the like. And if you pay any attention to your own life you’ll notice similar signs all over the place. And sometimes, when you’re seventeen and have nothing to do but think about yourself a lot, you’ll notice enough of these connections and be convinced your life had been plucked out by fate for a story of some larger consequence. Mine was to cover all the predicable things about Youth, Growing Up and The American Dream in suburban Obamerica as seen by one pasty red-haired, blue-eyed boy in the midst of it all. The title, ripped from one of Gatsby’s drafts: “Under the Red, White, and Blue.”
In America, Tocqueville muses, “there is no writer so mediocre that it is enough for him to discover truths applicable to a great realm in his first attempt, and who does not remain discontented with himself if he has been unable to enclose the human race in the subject of his discourse.”
- § -
Winter break of freshman year, my grandma got ill and my parents drove to Michigan to take care of her. They didn’t tell me how things were going but I knew she didn’t have long. One day I got a note from my dad:
Sorry I haven’t called. 2 busy & tired. Grandma likes to read emails. Can u send her a story? Fic or nonfic. L dad.
In the back of my mind I thought that my dad had needed that story as as my grandma did. He had wistfully hoped I’d get into writing. On one of those Dad & Son walks before I went off to college he told me he’d mentioned that he wanted to be a writer once. “I still do” he muttered to himself. Later he told me how he decided not to apply for a slot at a publishing house in New York after graduating Carleton, and how his friend took this gig the following year and ended up in Hollywood writing for Desperate Housewives. Some people are Gatsbys, he said to me, others are Nick Carroways. “I didn’t do so badly myself though,” he added.
I sat alone in the cold house in front of my computer. Trying to write. Staring at the blank screen and out the window at the grey sky.
What could an 18-year-old say to someone in the shadow of death? What words or memories might organize hope and joy? Which would inadvertantly trigger pain or regret? Every difference between us – in place, age, mind, life experience – became an impossibly wide chasm which I knew no way of crossing.
Everything I had ever written or planned to write had one way or another been about myself and was something I chose freely. But now, when individuality really did matter (that is, my unique relationship with the recipient was absolutely essential), I was transfixed, powerless and understood perhaps for the first time those voiceless fibers that call out from them to you, demanding that you justify (though not relinquish) your freedom. And for the first time I knew that the other person’s suffering and longing are all that exist on earth.- § -
I’m 21 now and obviously never finished the project to which the adolescent me had dedicated so much time in secret thought. Rilke instructs: “find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart...But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.”
It’s pretty easy to give up on the idea of writing if you discover all it is is a misguided will to power or form of self-worship. As Rousseau says, many tenth-rate writers could have made first-rate craftsmen if they got over their own vanity.
But words, when they’re really good, really are capable of doing the most important things. And so whether you make it your life or not, learning to use words better can help us make manifest and traverse the void between us. So that when a time comes when you have to speak your voice perhaps won’t tremble so much. Or, if it does, it will tremble with love, not fear.