Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Secrets of Failure (Part Two)

It’s hard to rationally defend your choice of profession when all you’ve really got to show for it are snapshots and mangoes. But writers struggle to keep warm by the thin heat of such small fires. Ultimately, they’re all we’ve got to stave off the stupidity and the fear, the avarice and arrogance and the whole range of behavior you find in this business…behavior you wouldn’t tolerate from a child, but which seems to be the prerequisite for power in this town.

I’d like to share a couple of my pale fires with you.

I was in London one November and I went to Westminster Abbey which is crowded with tributes. Statues, plaques, and the bones of kings and queens. Everything grand and sacred. As you wonder through all this chock-a-block marble, you come across something that at first glance looks like a simple table shoe-horned between a couple of dead kings. The tabletop is a large tilted mirror. It’s set there so you can look into the mirror which reflects the detail of the abbey’s ceiling. At first I thought this was just a convenience, something they put in to make it easier to enjoy the incredible detail above you. Then I saw a very small metal plate at one end of the table. When you read it, you realize this particular piece of wood and glass is another memorial, this one dedicated to the mason who built the ceiling. His memorial is a reflection of the work he did.

I saw that table and I thought, “That’s it. Right there, that explains everything.”

Do the work you love, the best you can. Everything flows from that, including how you’re remembered.

One final fire: Very early one morning, alone in a New York hotel room, I peeked out from under the covers and watched winter light collecting in the corners. And something came to me like a ghost. For a moment I thought it was a ghost because I’d never felt such a palpable yet invisible presence. It was frightening and fascinating and I waited for this sensation to become a recognizable person, something addressable that could answer a question I’d been working on.

I mentioned the Mobius twist when your older work gets produced. There’s an even more remarkable phenomenon that happens sometimes when you look back at the things you’ve done and conclude you weren’t really wise enough to have written them. Yet there they are. The best work a writer does is that for which he or she feels the least conscious responsibility. It simply flows from somewhere. You don’t write it down so much as the paper is there to catch it. Sort of like spirit writing. Maybe this feeling in the room was a Dickensian manifestation sent to explain where it all does come from. But it took no shape, rattled no chains, spoke no explanation.

Instead, something turned in my heart like a teacup on a saucer or a planet on its axis. I said before one of the things a writer is supposed to do is sit in hospital rooms holding the hand of the dying. For reasons I can’t explain, I realized alone in my bed that morning that ultimately the hand we are holding is our own and that it’s our passage we are meant to make less painful, less fearful.

And, really, that’s not our job as writers, but our task as humans. In this gentle caretaking there is a path to grace that will prevent any misstep, any false note, any diminishing of purpose so that we can not only write, but live so no one commits suicide, no one despairs and people feel strengthened if not encourage to live on.

A writer spends his life alone on a beach, standing at the edge of the ocean, whispering. The words carry. Farther than you can imagine. You never know who hears them, or how they feel when the words reach them, or if they understood what you thought you meant. But you don’t have to worry about that. Because you know you said what you wanted to say, and the rest takes care of itself.

And you’ll never know how much the rest can be.


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