gall and gumption

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Letter to Max

A friend writes:

Remember (I know you do) how Marvin, with Boswell before him, liked the word "entertainment"?

I feel that you have an obligation to entertain me, and that I, and not just I, have a right, a sort of squatter's right, or a right of way, like the public has a right to keep using an established path; that is, we have a right to continue to be entertained by you--so please get with it. Or is something wrong with the machinery?



Dear Max,

Nothing's wrong with the machinery about the first week or two of camping in the new house I had no tubes. But I got that running, and then I didn’t really have a place to use the machinery (other than the bed, and without the frame it’s not really a bed I can work in), and then I had a space but almost no time, because my father and I were in this endless grind of clearing junk out of the Germantown apartment. Now that we’re clear of Germantown I’ve got time but no space, at least till I figure out where everything is to go. I have all those books, and he has the tsunami of paper that follows him wherever he goes. Also there was work to do at this house – weatherproofing, stacking logs, fixing the fence, etc. And getting used to the new job and to living where it’s three miles to the nearest grocery store and hardware store and everything else is five to seven miles away. And where everything is mostly nothing, and I don't know anybody. Where you stay off the streets during rush hours. And getting lost in new neighborhoods.

And worrying that all of this, plus dealing with my father and the dogs, was going to leave my brain totally nonfunctioning. I even had a recurrence of the old vampire and zombie fears that I used to have, though not quite in that form. I mean, when I was a teenager I had insomnia because at night I’d start thinking about vampires and then get so scared I couldn’t sleep. At the back of the insomnia was the fear that I would inwardly be completely alienated from myself, a shell, and no one would know or care what I really was, except me who wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. It was the fear of losing my inner life. And the suspicion (not entirely unfounded at the time) that if I did, no one around me would care. I wasn't sure some of them wouldn't prefer it, actually. This is the spooky thing that has haunted me since I was about 14.

Moving to the place that my father calls "The Little House on the Prairie" (behind my back) all by myself with only Sweetie for company, and starting a new, private-sector job that was demanding of time and energy, and living 20 miles away from DC, well, you can understand that that would be an invitation to the zombies. When I get home from work I turn down the dirt road to my place and it's like falling off the edge of the world. Suddenly, you have departed from SubdivisionLand and you're in a different kind of space altogether, old, wild, sort of worn-out. (You might think that this road can't possibly go anywhere, but actually it goes to the battlefields of Manassas and Bull Runm passing more subdivisions on the way.) Anyway with all of this it was impossible not to ask the question, "What the hell have I done?"

So there was that, and then there were the familiar writing worries. One of the first people I met starting this job was the critic John Sutherland, who used to write for the Guardian and now writes for the Financial Times. He was giving a talk and he quoted a line from Yeats' Easter 1916: "Too much sorrow makes a stone of the heart," and for the next three weeks I couldn't get that line out of my head. It was stating that same fear again, that I would become zombiefied by aggravation, worry, being in the wrong place, my father and the dogs and the job would eat up all my time and attention and leave me nothing for myself. And pretty much all I want for myself at this point is work and to be try to get it out into the world. And if I couldn't do that well, what would be the point of making any money, really?

So when I started thinking about what I write then I thought, well, I'm not sure there is a market for this. It's pretty peculiar. I'm probably not going to get rich off of selling it, if I do sell it, and I'm not a hot young exotic marketable quantity, etc. etc. HAS MY BRAIN MELTED? That one recurs regularly. But then I find that the only answer to these doubts is to keep writing. If there is a solution to these doubts and worries, it probably involves writing -- writing more, writing better. At a certain point, too, I realize that I'm not writing to a market. I'm writing to entertain myself in the activity of writing, I'm writing to make entertainment.

This brings me to the word "entertain." It means something more than "amuse," doesn't it, Max? I mean, it's perfectly all right to be amused. But I would like to suggest that to entertain means to make the image of life tolerable, beautiful, interesting.

What more can I realistically expect this activity to do for me? Except then it hit me what it had already done for me. It had given me friends, friends of going, now, on 30 years, almost starting with you, Max. I met you because of writing. I was 19 when I started showing up in your office to chat and try to make you laugh. And here we still are. Not bad, eh?

And you write me now and tell me you have the right to be entertained! Indeed you do, Max, indeed you do. It keeps the zombies away from you and me both.

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