Four years ago my mother died. She’d had a stroke a month earlier. The doctors asked about an autopsy. They were curious, I suppose, about the overall picture and unanswered questions regarding Mom’s health during those final years. Perhaps I should have been grateful. But honestly, I sure would have appreciated little more of that medical curiosity while she was alive. Maybe an autopsy would have been informative, but I declined the offer. The questions I had (and still have) about Mom wouldn’t even have been asked, let alone answered.
A parent’s death reminds us that our days our numbered. It also highlights our own pieces of unfinished business, which plague us in the form of The List. The List is a catalogue of things that we just haven’t gotten around to doing. But that we will do, really, once we have a little more time. The items on The List may include (but are not limited to): going to the gym, losing weight, gaining weight, skydiving, travelling abroad, going to Disneyland, cleaning out the basement, cleaning out the garage, reading Moby Dick, spending more time with the kids, spending more time with the parents, quitting coffee, quitting drinking, taking up running, eliminating cholesterol, volunteering during the holidays, or getting up in the morning and writing that pain in the ass goddamn stupid novel.
My mom had her own List, and if writing wasn’t on top, it was very, very close. Her relationship with the craft was complicated and sometimes tortured. As a professor of English at a highly respected liberal arts college, she was a sensationally avid and astute reader. She alone introduced me to critical thought; I’ve never had a better teacher. And you could not ask for a more enjoyable reading or movie companion than my mom. Her ability to contextual details and show how they illuminated a complete work of art was exhilarating, and one of the things that made her a brilliant and wonderful teacher.
As for writing? I wish I could tell you. While rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was always more important than cleaning up her study, the same could not be said for writing. The prospect seemed to frighten her, and my childhood memories of Mom composing her doctoral thesis are neither warm nor fuzzy. She certainly talked about ideas for articles and books, and to be sure, her job required writing and publishing. But it didn’t seem fun. I never remember hearing, “Jesus, would you kids be quiet? Don’t bother me while I’m writing!” Indeed, interruptions seemed welcome, and as any procrastinator knows, a welcomed interruption will always oblige the invitation.
It’s easy to pick apart someone’s unfinished business. But now, Mom’s final List is the mirror image of my own work in progress. Parts of my List seem permanent, like going to the dentist or cleaning up my own messy office. Not so with writing, a figure far more elusive and complicated, leaving and rejoining The List like a smoker at a party: present yet absent, engaged yet aloof, a charismatic and absorbing celebrity who might vanish or reappear at any random moment.
I did not wake up the day after my mother’s funeral and begin my life as a writer. But reminded of my own mortality, I looked at The List. I started to panic. And I began to work things out.
Three and a half years later, I have two full-length plays, a few comedy sketches, and at least two solid one acts to show for my efforts. Good for me! Right? Demon conquered! Correct? Isn’t that awesome that I snatched a victory out of the jaws of tragedy? Well? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Maybe. But not really. Truth be told, I haven’t completed anything major for over a year and a half. That’s right: largely unproduced, and completely unpublished, I appear to be resting on my rather slender laurels. And so, procrastination proves to be the eternal Hydra: forever sprouting two heads in the place where one has just been cut off.
Google ‘books on writing fiction’, and you’ll get over 412 million results. A search for ‘creative writing programs’ yields hits of a mere 14 million. Amazon appears to sell over 30,000 books on writing fiction (although some of the listings may be duplicates). I could go on, but you get the point. For a society that’s supposed to be post literate, there sure are a lot of people who desperately want to write.
So what’s the problem? Don DeLillo tells us that, “A writer’s role is to sit in a room and write,” so why don’t we get over ourselves and do it?
As is so often the case, the answer comes from fiction: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet knew all to well that the human psyche is a terrifying place. Natural disasters and pandemics are plenty scary. But they pale against the likes of the Holocaust or Spanish Inquisition. What makes these atrocities so terrifying is that they are human nightmares, products of the hominine imagination. Someone has to imagine an act of torture before putting it into practice. Now, as all parents and teachers know, “imagination” and “creativity” are almost always described as unconditionally positive. But how often do we overlook (or simply deny) the darker power of our own thoughts? Herein lies one of the many transformative aspects of Shakespeare’s art. While earlier tragedies show us the sins of hubris and denial, Shakespeare (especially in Hamlet and Macbeth) dramatizes the awesomely tragic potential of the power of imagination.
I am in no way suggesting that writing is a gateway activity towards unspeakable (or unwritable) acts of depravity. But Americans who bask in First Amendment liberties forget the incendiary potential of the written word. A figure no less horrifying than Stalin stated it with brutal simplicity: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”
Forrest Gump compares life to a box of chocolates because, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” That is especially true of writing. How often do we hear authors and readers speak of fictional characters as real people (as I just did), with the capacity to act beyond (and perhaps against) the wills of their creators? It’s as if every author is a potential Frankenstein: creating life from nothing, and committing the ultimate act of sacrilege by playing the role of God.
Do I overstate my case? Probably. But here’s what Truman Capote had to say about the matter in his 1966 interview with Barbara Walters:
I happen to think that art is a form of religion and a way of reaching God. Occasionally and very rarely, in sudden moments, one feels in art a state of grace. It is as though a voice from a cloud is speaking to you and dictating to you what is transmitted through your hands to art. It is a religious experience.
Such grace proved too much for Capote: In Cold Blood was his last major work. He would spend the rest of his life in a terrible cycle of self parody and destruction. How telling is it that a decade before the Walters conversation, Capote conducted his own interview with Marlon Brando in the infamous New Yorker piece “The Duke and His Domain”? Capote and Brando were made for each other: two 20th century giants of genius, of taken and missed opportunity, whose lives now serve as cautionary parables of tragically wasted talent.
But the lure of the blank page is irresistible. Can anyone who’s ever experienced the thrill of writing ever completely leave it behind? I’ve heard lots of people (including me) make excuses for not writing, but I’ve never heard anyone claim to be done with it. For every Caliban housed in the human imagination, there is an Ariel to balance him out: joyful, effervescent, vulnerable, resilient, eternally optimistic, and forever longing to be free. The cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux prove beyond all doubt that our need to process experience through art is human, ancient, and primal. The Hydra is menacing, but not invincible. Sometimes we jut need to ask for a little bit of help from the gods.
Earlier this month I went into my parents’ attic in my annual search for Christmas ornaments. I had a hard time locating them, as the top floor had been professionally reorganized during the summer. In the midst of my search, I found a manuscript housed in an old manila envelope. It is a murder mystery written over thirty years ago. The novel’s author is my mother.
Culturally important as the Lascaux cave paintings? Of course not. But no less thrilling for me. Mom carved out time for this novel, and writing it gave her tremendous joy. And she finished it! I don’t recall whether or not she tried to publish, but I certainly remember the teenage version of me reading that mystery with tremendous pride and pleasure. The discovery of this manuscript serves as its own cautionary tale: don’t oversimplify your parents’ vices; there’s always an Ariel waiting to be liberated.
The supreme irony of the piece that you are reading is that it’s just another form of procrastination. I have my own neglected novel, waiting ever so patiently for me in my eternally messy study. I have the story mapped out. I’ve written over 200 pages. But most mornings, I cannot call myself the king of infinite space. The bad dreams are just too frightening.
But ask, and ye shall receive. The discovered manuscript is my golden sword from Athena; I am ready, once again, to face the dreaded Hydra. And of course, Mom’s work is now at the top of my own growing reading list. Now that I know where it is, I am going pour myself a drink, settle down in a chair, and reread my mother’s novel. But not before I spend a little more time with my own.