The first pages of a writer aren’t written, they’re read. Good writers are good readers. We learn the craft and beauty of the written word by being spirited away in our imagination by storytellers and troubadours. They lie to us and beguile us, enchant us with the rhythm and cadence of phrasing and seduce us with the crisp crackle or mellifluous melt of words in our mouth or soft, dulcet, alliterative tones in our ear. Good writers are magicians who surprise us, acrobats who astound us, monsters who keep us awake at night, bullies who make us cry or infuriate us. My heroes have always been writers. I want to join their ranks.
I was a voracious reader as a child. My parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedia in 1960 or 1961 and I used to carry a volume with me everywhere. My mother talks about me perched on the toilet reading a World Book volume while other family members waited impatiently to use the bathroom. These beautifully illustrated books with their careful content, maps, photographs and plastic page overlays carried me from Aardvark to Zygote, away from the western Pennsylvania countryside to anywhere I wished to go. They opened up the world to me and were the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.
Mentors may inspire our early reading choices as may others who help us develop our writing skills. Mrs. Smoltees was a very unpopular 7th and 8th grade English teacher. She was a diminutive, pit bull of a woman with a short shock of white hair, whose indifferent application of makeup reflected her closer attention to an inner, rather than outer world. She was dry, ironic, sour-faced and cranky, but she loved literature and introduced her students to short story anthologies with as much outward enthusiasm as she could muster. Her respect for the written word was inviolate. She had high expectations for both her students and authors. To this day, more than forty years later, I can see her face as she concluded a class discussion of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Her scarlet lips, colored well outside the lines, were twisted into a tight sneer as she spat out author Richard Connell’s explanation to his protagonist’s unlikely escape from the evil General Zaroff.
She spoke those words with such disgust and revulsion, it was as if she had just discovered dog excrement on her shoes. “I swam.” In Mrs. Smoltees’ dismissal of so casual and careless a resolution to a storyline, I understood the value of writing and the obligation owed the discerning reader. I loved that lady.
My first serious writing began with my enthusiasm for Philosophy. The Jesuits at Loyola Academy in Wilmette taught me the values of a quality education and the elements of critical thought and skepticism. To them, I owe my renunciation of all things religious and the introduction to my favorite author, Albert Camus. In Camus, I found the pairing of deep thought and lyricism in essays like “The Myth of Sisyphus” or “The Wind at Djemila” from his book of lyrical essays, Nuptials. I saw that writing could be both an intellectual and emotional exercise, challenging both head and heart. He wrote, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned there lay in me an invincible summer.” My passion for philosophy has cooled over the years, but I read and reread Camus regularly, both his novels and essays for the beauty of his prose and the power of his content. Camus represents the contrast of life and death, and his work contains both physical sensuality and deep personal responsibility and accountability for one’s choices.
Camus from “The Myth of Sisyphus”: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
(Spoilers ahead.) Sisyphus was a figure in Greek mythology, punished for a transgression against the gods, and condemned for all eternity to roll a giant rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. Futile, hopeless labor, it seemed to the gods, would seem man’s greatest punishment. To such a stark beginning to his essay, Camus concludes his arguments with an affirmation of life which is the only human response reasonable in embracing our absurd, existential condition.
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Over the years many writers have inspired me, an eclectic mix of styles and voices, Jack Kerouac and William Faulkner, Robert Frost and John LeCarre, David Sideris and Hunter Thompson, John Irving and Stephen King, Umberto Eco and James Joyce (I wish), Agatha Christie and Henning Mankell, Hermann Hesse and Eugene Ionesco, Graham Greene and Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Seuss and Soren Kierkegaard, Cormac McCarthy and E. L. Doctorow on and on and on. Sometimes I’ll find an author I like and read a series of his books in succession, like finding a vein of gold and mining its ore all at once. Sometimes I might want to research a topic and read various writer’s perspectives on it. In truth, I have more books than friends. I don’t know if that’s bad or good. I’ll have to read up on that.
Why do I write and what do I write? My shortcomings as a writer do not preclude the attempts to continue my efforts to grow and develop. A career blog for a trade magazine is my only published work and that concluded some years ago. My political essays, written in support of Obama’s candidacy for President, became Toastmaster speeches or impassioned personal works passed around to friends and coworkers. One, which was among several I gave to a politically connected friend, found its way to Congressman Danny Davis at a party. “Who is this white guy?” he exclaimed, but it never led to an invitation to join Obama’s speechwriting team.
I work on essays of interest, long letters to influence friends and family, business proposals, Toastmaster speeches. I start short stories which never finish and begin books which fade away into dusty corners of my hard drive. I write in fits and starts, but never emerge triumphant from my office with The Next Great American Novel or a short story worthy of submission to a writing contest. So, I write for pleasure. I enjoy the catchy turn of phrase or the rewrite of something, which inserts just the right word or stretches to incorporate some obscure, sesquipedalian tidbit. Too often, I’m simply overwrought and overwritten. In a new management role, I penned enthusiastic emails to my superior, suggesting ideas for marketing or training or branding. She once critiqued a particularly inspired proposal with a note to her fellow V.P., who later shared her appraisal with me. “Did you read Jack’s email…. all of it?” Brevity was never a long suit of mine, but surely she should have recognized my thoroughness?
While we may write for ourselves and our own pleasure, we owe our reader careful attention to the details. We must tell stories which interest and appeal to the reader. They may inform or educate, entertain or elucidate, moralize or communicate but they must be mindful of the audience. The words we choose should be accurate, our voice consistent and we must speak to truth, even when we are lying through our teeth. We may take a reader to an unexpected place, but should return him safely to his reading chair. Maybe. I was jolted and startled reading an unexpected twist in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. I actually “jumped” in my seat. That doesn’t happen often. I was so stunned with the language written in the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, that I copied down the words and emailed them to friends. “Look at this!” I remain haunted by the images painted in Tony Earley’s short story, “The Prophet from Jupiter.”
We sometimes read work so compelling, we have to stop reading to catch our breath. Cormac McCarthy always leaves me breathless with his extraordinary vocabulary. McCarthy’s books are so dark and despairing, I never feel good about his character’s prospects, but the language they are created with make them emerge from the page whole and unforgettable. I was so saddened by the announcement of John Ciardi’s passing on NPR, a poet whose etymology histories, “Good Words to You” had become such a small but vital part of my life, I had to pull off the road for a few minutes to control my emotions. This is the power of the writer, the power to stir our souls.
In this group, as with like other writing groups, I seek an appreciative but critical ear. Writing is a talent which is only developed through writing. We may cringe when others comment on our work or bathe in the exalted praise of our greatest fans (for me, my mother) but without honest and accurate feedback we never grow. No one emerges from the womb pen in hand, poised to share the neonatal experience. We write, develop over time, hopefully get better and continue to exercise our written voice. Sometimes it is the fierce trill of freedom, other times we croak out an anguished burp. But there is magic in freeing the thought from the mind and pinning it to the page as a specimen in our collection. We do what we can in work that soars or dies stillborn on the tablet. Simply, it is my intention to shoulder my own rock, writing material of consequence, peppering readers with the mineral flakes of my own night filled mountains, works which will astound and amaze them.
Or, drive them to suicide. But then, isn’t that the only truly philosophical problem?