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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, May 07, 2007

leaving the trail

Another week launches, and our household has leapt up from our sickbeds. I speak metaphorically. The long, clinging cold that infected both Kimmie and me two weeks ago seemed to break on Friday sometime, so this week we are back to business as usual. The gray morning is wet with freshly fallen rain; I have discharged my weekly duty of unlocking the wooden garbage-box at the back of our property for today's pickup; Kimmie prepares herself for the 12-minute walk to work.

In all, I don't know whether I would recommend being a writer. I think I would say it's a bad choice, if you have real alternatives. That is, if you have other abilities or interests that might provide you with as much satisfaction, then you should pursue those, for the satisfactions of being a writer are quite intangible and, often, quite infrequent.

It is isolating to be a writer. For, in spite of a certain glamor and romanticism attaching to the writer's lifestyle, a writer's real value lies in an independent view of things, which means that the writer cannot simply mouth the words "me too" at whatever cliches are being uttered at the backyard barbecue. There's always something artificial about a writer "joining in" with a group, even a group of writers--it's not much different from a conclave of hermits. At least, speaking for myself, I usually find that what divides me from other writers is much greater than whatever might unite us, whatever we might have in common. To the extent that writing is an art form, the writer's value lies exactly in his honesty and integrity in expressing his solitary point of view. Solitude is not just an accident of the writer's lifestyle, it's of the essence of his vocation.

To the writer as an artist, this is the supreme value; all other issues--matters of technique, productivity, earnings, fame--fall in behind it somewhere.

The ideal of the writer is of someone who has freedom and integrity, one who uses these in the service of creative expression. The old idea of people wanting to write the great American novel was always a cry for a life that was less sold-out, less subordinated to others' wishes and demands (although the idea that one might toss aside one's life as a corporate lawyer to write the great American novel seems as unlikely as tossing it aside to design a great public building or to compose a great symphony). Yes: a life in service of beauty and truth. But how much do beauty and truth matter to you?

And how much confidence do you have in yourself and your vision? How steady is that confidence? What seemed like beauty and truth at first might stop looking that way after awhile. Then what?

Here on the North Shore an ongoing problem and debate is what, if anything, to do about the many people who like to hike or snowboard in the nearby mountains, and who, looking for adventure, insist on leaving the marked trails. Time and again our volunteer rescuers head into the bush to search for people woefully underexperienced and underequipped to face the wilderness. Thanks to the skill of the rescuers, most of them are saved. Some though die out in the woods, their thinly clad, ill-shod bodies discovered days or weeks later at the feet of cliffs or huddled in hollows where they died of exposure. They went looking for adventure, and they found it.

The life of a true writer is off the marked trail. For those who stay on the trail, the idea of heading into the bush is a seductive fantasy--but not one they usually want to risk their lives for. Some do decide to risk their lives, but mostly they are dilettantes who don't even know they are doing so; they are fools. I think the true writer has left the trail, accepted the risk, and has only his inner qualities to rely on for his survival in the wilderness. There may have been a thrill at the actual moment of leaving the trail, but after that it's all a matter of life and death, with no guarantee whatever that you won't die cold and alone in a forest that never asked you to come in.


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