I am a mostly unpublished writer so please feel free to ignore my opinions on the matter of writing. I have acquaintances who’ve written for a living, and are much more qualified to opine about the profession of writing, even though I predictably dismiss their mercantile views. They tend to be skittish about going near the deeper truth that is at the heart of the writing I love most. Their primary interest is in being good craftsmen and getting paid to write what the market demands.
We have different ambitions when we write, different approaches to the truth, where it is, how we feel it, express it.
That’s probably just the bitterness talking, of course. Here’s the point. Pat Conroy, days after he died, told me in a sound bite the reason that I write: to explain my life to myself.
If one is lucky enough to do this in a way others are interested in enough to read, buy, publish and sell, you are truly blessed. If all you get is some peace and understanding for yourself from digging and writing this way, that’s better than being poked in the eye with a sharp stick too, as my father used to say.
From Conroy’s marvelous A Reading Life. He describes a brilliant, demanding lover of books, a man who made his life about good writing and great books. Conroy was a young writer when he first came into contact with publisher’s sales rep Norman Berg, a hard man who would become a lifelong friend, and he listened carefully to this older genius:
“You claim to be writing your first novel,” Norm said it in a voice that let me know he didn’t believe me.
“I have,” I said, having written the first pages to the book that would become The Great Santini.
“Does it tell me everything I need to know about leading a good life?” he asked. “and I mean everything?”
“Then throw it away. It’s not worth writing.”
“I’m twenty-six years old, Norman. I don’t know everything in the world yet.”
“That is good,” he said, softening. “At least you know that much. Keep writing. If you’re lucky you’ll have one or two important things to say before you die.”
“Here is one of them,” I said. “Fuck you, Norman.”
(then, after describing the uncompromising older man’s eternal certainty, and fondness for Conroy’s spirited resistance to his implacable pronouncements, he comes to the beating heart of the matter)
“Always know which phase the moon is in,” he would say. “Keep up with the transit of planets. Know everything. Feel everything. That’s your job as a writer.”
“What’s your job, Norman?”
“To suffer. To feel everything in the world. But it dies inside me. I have no gift. I can’t write. That’s why I’m driving you crazy.”
Which makes such sense, it stopped me in my tracks, literally, there on Sixth Avenue where I paused in my listening to Conroy’s incantatory reading of his book on writing and reading. I went to the library, to have the written words in front of me, to ponder and copy out for others to read. This moment explained so much about the ungenerous side of the life of a supremely critical thinker, it almost made me laugh.
It happens that even gifted writers can also sometimes have this ungenerous gift for other writers, surprising as that may also sound.