Write As Though There’s No Tomorrow

I sent an email to Nelson Mandela a little while back, asking him for an interview. These are interesting times—if you poke around a bit, you can often find a listed email address for all kinds of folks. Of course, the address I found for Mr. Mandela is probably one handled by a phalanx of administrative types who send most requests down a tube into large cellar vats, to be boiled with the suet and other table scraps. (These are likely the same functionaries who dispatch my queries to the New Yorker into a similar large vat of innocuous fats.)

But DOA queries aren’t my point here; my point is that if you don’t take the initiative to further your writing career, who will? If you have been sitting on an essay about your cousin Doreen who drained the family bank accounts, joined a Mexican drug cartel and now owns a quarter of the blood diamond trade in Liberia because you were squeamish about the family reaction, when will you write it? Every writing thought that isn’t written is just evaporated water.

I am editing the memoirs of a woman who is in her mid-sixties, and it’s provocative stuff: the political tumult of the San Francisco Bay Area 1960s and 1970s, filtered through the view of a rebellious coming-of-age adolescent who experienced a dizzying amount of personal roller-coastering. Lots of torquing family entanglements, including affairs, alienation and death. Even though many of the principals are still alive, she knows that she’s got to put the truth on the page—this is her chance to tell the story, and she’s not sparing feelings, including her own.

Fate Is Indifferent to the Closing of Doors
Now that my once-dark locks are streaked with grey, it’s become more clear to me that I have to write as though there were no tomorrow. Because there isn’t—you just don’t know. I see among my own friends and family where fate has closed doors on people who presumed they’d be long open. My father, who at 93 is swathed deep in the fabric of his Alzheimer’s, was a decent storyteller. Though he can still shakily—and almost randomly—utter occasionally clear thoughts, he can no longer command language. I realize now how little I actually know of him—and didn’t have the sense or gumption to ask. I still see stories locked in my father’s eyes, but they are his stories, not mine—and now he can’t tell them.

I don’t want to be morbid, just realistic. One good car crash can make “what might have been” the saddest song, or you can just peter out your time, thinking there’s bushels of it to waste. I have been a big procrastinator in my writing life, loving literature, but rarely writing passionately. Some stories published here and there, a fair chunk of articles, but never driven to write. But I have more impetus now (and I’m finally working on that once-moribund second novel, by Jove!).

I found one of the strongest messages of Seth Godin’s rousing book, Linchpin, to be this: Don’t settle. Do your best work. If not now, when? Take some risks. If you fail, so be it. At least you acted, moved the pieces on the chessboard, ate the cake instead of agonizing over its calories, said “I’m for this!” instead of “someday, I might be for that.”

Oh yeah—if you happen to talk to Nelson Mandela, tell him I’m waiting for an answer.

Word Magic: Why I Write

Think of your favorite book. No, better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of your consciousness: Delight is the fruit of that collision.

When I was seven or eight years old, I’d walk to the nearby public library, and go into the section on dinosaurs. I would lie in the aisle for hours, surrounded by scattered stacks of books, driving through a landscape of imagination, fueled by words. At first, I was simply thrilled by the stories of the great beasts, but after a time, I began to realize that I was taken by the words themselves—Jurassic, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus—and would say them softly aloud.

Many, many books later, it began to dawn on me that books were the conscious, choice-making work of authors. I started to fathom that a writer employed tools, framed a composition, shaped its architecture. Deeper yet, that writing had a voice, that it was animated by a current.

When I was twelve years old, I was swimming in the ocean and was tugged out by a small rip current that took me, amidst slamming waves, against the supports of a public pier. I screamed for help at the people looking down at me; no one seemed to react. I was terrified that I would die, while enraged that no one cared. In my agitation, I didn’t know that someone had called a lifeguard, who quickly rescued me.

A Pin That Poked Deeply
Months later, for a class assignment, I wrote an essay in which I described in detail my fear, fury and despair. My teacher later read the story aloud, saying it was a vivid slice of life. At the end of the year, the school handed out student awards, and I was given a little cloisonné pin that said “Best Writer.” I knew before then that writing had an unusual power over me, but the commendation told me that language, even my language, could hold sway over others as well.

I read broadly, though wrote only sporadically.

When I was fifteen, my parents granted me the indulgence of letting a friend paint, in a nice cursive script, the final page of Hesse’s Siddhartha on the wall, floor to ceiling, facing my bed. I thought that constantly reading those mindful words would prompt some spiritual renaissance. My other teenage absorptions checked that vow, but my interest in the power of words increased all the more.

Hesse said in an essay: “…I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and trees…” To me, he’s talking about the force of imagination, the authority of an authentic voice.

More and more, I came to see that the world of imagination is the biggest world there is, and that a writer can write to see the unexpected, to know the hidden, to do as Asimov suggested and “think through his fingers.” And that words can be so sensual you want to lick them.

Once Upon A Time…
I saw evidence everywhere that people were storytellers. They have been storytellers for ages, whether the words were inscribed on resistant stone, delivered in a lilting voice or caught in an electronic dance. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller too. However, I was still striking the anvil of ideas with brute blows, yet to learn the deft stitchings and tight knots in narrative’s fabric. But I wasn’t discouraged enough not to write. I tried poems, short stories, personal essays….

Twenty years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted my article on my 15-year correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, publishing it in the beloved Sunday Punch section. I bought 10 copies, and sat on a bench in Golden Gate Park just staring at my byline, not even reading the article. Still not literature, not the stuff of Lear’s stormy fulminations, of Conrad’s lurid Congo, of Twain’s beckoning twang, but for me, word magic.

I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I got when I called. So, since then, a handful of published stories, a basketful of essays and articles, a finished novel that sleeps soundly, another in s-l-o-w progress.

I write because language is a bright bird, uncatchable, but worth every attempt.

[Note: the first paragraph of this piece is swiped from an essay I published a while back, and the rest is from an essay that won second place in an online contest (and destined to be published as one of an ebook collection), but the site was swallowed by evildoers. I wanted to give it some air…]