"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Writer in Winter

I was saddened this morning to read of John Updike's death. He wrote with eloquence and wit. He talked to America, of our foibles and imperfections. He talked of what we were afraid to talk about. I'm sad because I had just read an article in a magazine by him where he lamented the critical comparisons of his current writing to that of his prose when he was a cocky young man with untold stories. His own worse enemy was his younger self. "An aging writer, he said, "wonders if he has lost the ability to visualize a completed work in all its vast spatial relations. He should have in mind a provocative beginning and an ending which feels inevitable. Instead, he fears to discovers upon arrival that the threads have failed to knit. The leap of faith with which every narrative begins has landed him not on a far safe shore but in the middle of the drink.”

When he was young, the words would jump from his fingertips and string themselves together in an uplifting cadence, words that under anybody else's direction wouldn't belong together. For instance, when he wrote that "the pleasure of masturbation was as dense as an ingot of gold" you felt that and saw that more clearly than you ever would in a movie. And maybe this serves as a good example of why a book is always better than a movie. He wrote that in his later years the words didn't come as easily, and by the time he'd looked up the "right" word the rhythm and syntax of the thought he was shaping up was lost.

This article made me wish I'd started writing when I was twenty instead of discovering my passion when I was forty. What if I run out of words before I publish my first book? Thumbing through my thesaurus shamefaced and outmoded?

Farewell John Updyke. You will live forever on the bookshelves of the world. And I don’t know if your last book is your best, as you'd hoped, but I can guarantee you that it is better than what most of us could compose in our youth.


I'm on page 259 of my current novel and still haven't run out of words. Alas, my characters are headstrong and locked in their prejudices as they attempt to navigate the cultural disparity that surrounds them. I'm trying to make them behave and resolve their separation issues, and their conflict with a chemical farmer (the polite word is "conventional" but I like to call it what it is), while climate change hovers over their heads like an albatross. Will I land in the drink along with them? Will my protagonist's obsession with the daughter of a migrant worker reach fruition before she realizes that the place for her is Canada with her Indian mother and outlaw brother? Time is running out and now he's off to the Upper Peninsula to rescue a friend who is but a hair's breadth away from enlisting in the United States Army for bonus money and a new uniform with a backwards flag sewn on the sleeve and the promise of state-of-the-art weaponry and a license to kill. Young men are always drawn to combat and in tough economic times the Army is a recruiting juggernaut.

I don't have a strict writing regimen as some do. I don't make myself write ten pages a day. Some days I do nothing but rewrite and commiserate. Some days I write one paragraph, but when I turn my computer off and dial the heat down, it is a keeper. Some days I can write six pages of meaningful dialogue and beautiful sentences, and I take them to bed with me. But most days everything I write is shit. And we empty the garbage every night.

But today is Sunday and I don't have to go to work so I have high hopes. Oh, right, it's Super Bowl Sunday and we have a party to go to and people to visit and social obligations. Oh, how I long for a cabin in the woods where no one can find me.

No comments: