A guy visited the shack recently and asked me a great question.
“What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? Why are you doing it?”
When you don’t have a quick answer don’t you sometimes just wish people would keep their mouth shut? I’ve been thinking of this question for weeks now and I think I have an answer. I’m not a quick thinker. That’s why writing appeals to me. I have to think before I respond and writing matches that speed. I’ve always admired people with witty and snappy answers who engage readily in verbal repartee. But I’ve never been one of those people.
I hope to connect with people through my writing as others have connected with me. I’ve been enriched beyond measure by writers. When I have felt most alone, most isolated, most stranded I have read the words of others and realized I indeed had a tie with the rest of the human race. That can be infinitely important. Is infinitely the right adjective? Let’s go on.
I quit my teaching job, an occupation I had both prepared and been educated for, and struck out on my own. I left everyone I knew and loved for a hazy set of reasons unclear even to me and found myself terribly alone. By chance I picked up a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and read these opening lines:
“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased, although I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.”
I don’t even know now what so struck me, pulled me in, captivated me by these words. Maybe it was the directness of the first person narrative. Maybe it was his honesty. But I know I was touched, there in a cheap hostel in Aberdeen Scotland, engrossed in the thoughts and the written words of a nineteenth century Russian whose work miraculously found its way into print for me to read and appreciate there by the North Sea. Dostoevsky helped me understand life. I read that book in a matter of days, and his longer novel Crime and Punishment which I stole, ironically, from the Aberdeen Public library, going without sleep to finish it, and by doing so made my way, mostly by myself, through the confusing Scottish winter of 1974. What did Dostoevsky hope to accomplish with his writing? Did he imagine helping me?
I am nourished by writers all the time. As much as I yearn to write, I also live to read. There is so much to take in. I can only choose from among an embarrassment of riches. There’s a guy named Thomas McGuane who talks to me through his writing. I’m sure he doesn’t know it. The musings of his characters, like Berl Pickett the Montana doctor practicing in his hometown, speak of what happens inside my own head. I feel as if he and I are friends, thinking and understanding life the same way. Here the middle aged doctor tends his own dying father.
I laced my fingers over the top of one of the bedposts and just kind of hung there watching him sleep, unable to tell why my heart ached. I’d gotten into the habit sailing through moments like this and I thought if I could get it right, I wouldn’t do that anymore. I’d stay right there with it until it was clear.
- from Driving the Rim, Knopf 2010
We can talk , we can talk , we can talk all we want. We can yadda yada yadda; we can blah, blah, blah; we can say what first pops into our head but if we slow down and think, and then write, looking closely at what we’ve written, we improve both our thoughts and our message. By slowly saying and listening to what we’ve written, choosing our words carefully to mean what we think, we communicate so much better, don’t you agree? Don’t you appreciate when people measure what they think in written words, making sure they mean what they write without qualification? Without hedging? Do you appreciate those who take the time to read their words and think them through before they give them to you? I do. I value that greatly. That’s why I read. That’s what I try to do when I when I write.
I think we all need stores that contain truth. I think we need truth just like we need vegetables, and bread, and fruit, and all that sustains us. I write in the hope I can connect with someone who can learn from the life I’ve lived. We are so much alike and yet we are so separate. So divided. We lose people who are lost one to another. We lose people to despair, to sadness, and to loneliness. Writing, and taking the time to read, can remind us we are alike. By sharing our thoughts, our fears, our lives with one another we can help each other. Silence does nothing but keep us apart. We need to share our lives with one another. Sharing life does not have to be tragic and heavy, just as it may not always be happy and bright. But I think we have an obligation to talk to one another about what we’re experiencing. I picture our accumulated body of literature, from the Bible to the last Face Book post on your smart phone, as just that. A record of lives outside our own. It gives us a common basis for living. It lets us know we’re not alone.
Let me share a basic truth. It’s a small one, comic, and not altogether pleasant. Here’s how it developed.
I got dressed for work. My wife asked me to walk the dog before I left. Because I wanted to avoid the unpleasant tasks I knew lay before me at work for as long as possible, I walked the dog gladly. It took a while. I put the dog in the house, yelled good bye to my wife, and walked to my car, parked in our garage. The smell of shit became apparent to me as I opened my car door. Could some animal have shit in my garage? I looked around. I had not the time to search.
I sat in the driver’s seat, put my Buick into reverse, and continued to smell shit as my car went backwards out of the garage. Could something have shit in my car? I’d left the windows open. Maybe the neighbor’s cat snuck in my garage, jumped into my car, and shit in it. At that moment I hated that cat. As I made my way in my car down the hill to my office, a short trip, I searched around and under me in the driver’s side for the source of the smell, looked carefully at the carpet on the passenger side, and craned my neck to look into the back seat. No turds, cat or other, were evident yet the smell of shit persisted.
I parked near the office, walked to the back door, and entered my office building. My own office, with a single desk and a door that closed and made it private, was near the back door. I went immediately to my chair and sat down. Damned if my own office didn’t smell like shit. This is incredible, I thought.
And then it dawned on me. I’ve been in my garage, my car, and my office all the while smelling shit. I came to an unshakeable conclusion, a life lesson. It was as if a bright light had been turned on in a dark room. I sighed, an older guy alone in an ordinary office, and smiled. I’d learned this as a kid on the farm. How could I have forgotten?
If the smell of shit follows you, it’s probably on your shoes.
I put my ankle on my knee, looked closely at my upturned shoe, and found there, as I knew I would, caked behind the heel, the source of the smell. To add insult to injury I realized it was most likely my own dog’s shit from a previous walk. Everything became clear. It was a moment when truth, albeit an old one once learned but forgotten, was rediscovered. Life is like that. It confuses you and then everything became clear. We’re never too old to learn, just as we’re never too young to discover truth on our own. I know it’s a stinking story, but I felt absolutely obligated to share it with you.
There you have it. I admit it’s not yet Dostoevsky, but I’m working at it. I write to bring you things that are true. I think you’ll know if and when it hits home. Good writing brings us together. It seems worth doing. That’s what I’m about out here in the shack. Wish me luck.