My recent absence from this site has a really good excuse: I was in the VA hospital for a month following open heart surgery (valve job) and ensuing complications. It’s nice to be back. Really nice, believe me. And I hope you won’t mind me sharing some writing insights occasioned by the perspective of a twelve hour trip into the Valley of the Shadow. There are lots of good ways and bad ways to wake up, but I’d suggest that it’s hard to beat cresting the surface of consciousness and coming to realize that you are in an ICU bed and sighing to yourself, “Made it!” Because it wasn’t a sure thing, and that statistical reality speaks to the only thing that really, truly, puts a life into perspective: that whole matter of ceasing to be alive. There will be some changes made.
And I don’t mean the kind of changes like my shiny new Unobtanium alloy aorta valve (with it’s requirement to take dangerous blood-thinning pills the rest of my life) or the snazzy $25,000 pacemaker setting my pulse at a nice even 70 bpm as long as the batteries last. Or even the MAZE procedure in which (SF writers will just love this) they used frozen gas and taser technology to create a maze of scars on the surface of my heart, thus raising a series of levies to channel the wildassed electrical fields into rhythmic channels, like the Corps of Engineers’ eternal struggle to tame the Mississippi. I’m not making that up. Maybe they were. But what I’m talking about here isn’t medical wildness, but a cold-eyed Horseman’s assessment of my so-called writing career.
But first a little diversion and slide-show of my scars. Seriously, I think writers will like this. I spent lot of time “hooked up”. After they took out the pumps that had been circulating blood and oxygen for me (and leading to a loopy stupidity they called “pump head”) I still had two wires from my chest into my heart tissue, two tubes coming out of my stomach from the sac around my heart, a tube from my groin up the femoral into my ventricle and another into my carotid ending up in the aorta, plus a urinary catheter and three IV’s inserted including one into an artery, meaning that if it broke it would have painted the ceiling red. Finally made the “wired generation”. It took two people a half hour to get me onto my feet, trailing hoses, glory and baggies of blood and pee.
Part of that tubing was to feed me some of the most powerful anesthetics known to man, including the one Michael Jackson OD’d on. Followed by drips of satanic industrial wasteland antibiotics. But the most fun was later when they tapered off to Percoset. Mostly oxycodin (commonly known as “hillbilly heroin”) and one of the most fun, goofy hallucination-inducers I’ve ever ingested. I mean like windows opening up in my visual field to display pages of cutesy Japanese animated web design. Faces of high-ticket designer fashion hair-arrangement dolls. But best of all was when I was reading a John Grisham novel. I would be following the plot with great interest–fascinating story line with interesting new characters and hints of sidelines–then blink and see the page collapse back in front of me and realize that I had just hallucinated a chapter. Start reading again and off I’d go. I generally liked my plot lines better than Grisham’s, by the way. I also hallucinated a new cover for “The Firm”–same type, but a photo of a beach highway–and liked it better, also. So, if you can’t find anything interesting to read, try dropping a few Perkies. (Consumer warning: you might end up just seeing bugs.) But I mention this because I think the very idea that a writer can hallucinate plots on short notice says a lot about the nature of reality and whatever writing has to do with it.
But back to the ideas about my own work that came to me while I was preparing lists of all my accounts and passwords and people to notify “in case I don’t make it”. I think it must have been that cold preparation for the eventuality that brought me to an awareness of the role of dying in my writing. I almost turned myself into crab chow three or four times free-diving down in Mexico, but there is something cold-blooded about planning for it. So am I making too much of this whole “what if I’d died on the table” aspect of writing? I don’t think so. I subscribe to the Biblical adjuration that we’re ever in the midst, and it helps to glimpse that now and then. One of the more famous and pithy answers to the question of why literature matters, why we even do it, is a line delivered by Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poets Society”. He says, “Because we are food for worms.” And that’s about as bottom as a line can get. Our brief season of living is measured against the everlasting expanse of death, our extent and penetration merely a two-digit number chalked on an infinite wall. Anything it means beyond actuarial statistics is a matter of how we celebrate it, commemorate it, adorn it with furniture and framing that will last longer and involve more lives than just the central event we regard as “self”.
So does this mean anything to any given person reading it? You, for instance? Do you suspect that if you stopped writing Regency romances or detective noir and pitched into a Great Book, you could nail immortality? Probability suggests not. But the perspective is still meaningful. One concrete meaning it bears is simple but imperative: publish your work. A manuscript in a drawer is just a hassle at the estate sale. A book on amazon will outlive you. In fact, a work on Kindle is as good a Modern Eternal as I can think of. Not quite an Eternal Flame, but should outlast us all. (And nothing lasts forever: how many Great Works Of Human History ceased to exist when they burned the library at Alexandria?) Visual artists are obsessed with permanence: seeking archival papers and incorruptible pigments even for total junk drawings. Writers don’t seem to think about that much. Maybe you should. And maybe it will make you think about the whole “I’ll publish my own book after I’ve exhausted all avenues of getting somebody else to do it for me,” thing: an unpublished book doesn’t really exist, has never lived at all, is an unborn fetus, doesn’t rate in you obituary.
At a deeper level, there are intimations of immortality in the way you approach your writing, and just considering those elements might make a change. Quality might not be a sure road to fame and fortune, but it does have something to do with the degree to which your work takes root in the minds of others. My guess is that most people reading this tend to have a book or two, probably genre fiction, and are trying to see how far they can push it. I certainly hope I don’t sound snotty here, but I have always seen myself as an important writer who would make a mark, be remembered, and pick up glamorous women on the strength of my reputation. I just kind of always knew that.
But what have I done about it? I piddled away most of my life writing for periodicals and mail order catalogs and underground whizzbangs. Once I remembered that I was supposed to be an author, I started doing a shotgun of different styles—and probably sell less of them than you do of your books. And continued my propensity for sucking myself into projects that are really neat, and would be cool to do, and that I am uniquely positioned to do. So they get done while my backlog list of vastly significant, but unwritten, novels grows longer and deeper and more redolent of mold. At some point I realized that every year that goes by without publishing one of them means there is one that won’t every get published ever because I’m running out of years to piss away. Even if I never have another idea for a book, I won’t be able to get them all done—and I get new ideas all the time. I’m presiding over an abortion mill for my own literary babies.
So what gets cut out? A lot of cool little projects and internet groups. And, for one thing, I currently own three publishing imprints. At least one of them will be out of my hands by summer. Maybe all three. Many of you originally knew me as the guy with the humor anthologies. That’s over. It’s not, I guess I have to say, impressive enough to get chiseled on my tombstone. What is? Nothing you’ve seen yet. And I’m not sure where to start. I have several likely projects, but I am flabby from doing minor quickie projects that run off cleverness and scutwork, rather than the pure Pierian springs of creativity and BigDealism. Right now, I’m further handicapped by post-op brain fog and partial paralysis of my two left little fingers. But I’m working on it.
So, once I plant my feet and take my full swing, I’ll be up there in the Athenaeum Hall of Fame pretty quick, right? Naturally not. I have no idea if anything I really, truly, deeply need to say is anything anybody really, truly, deeply gives a damn about hearing. If I can even rate as an acquired taste on the international writing smorgasbord. Worse yet, I really desperately need money and writing is the only way I have left to make any. (I was getting too old for smuggling and the like, even before blowing a valve.) So there’s a strong pull between creating a colorful detective series rather than a sardonic but brilliantly figured examination of intellectual crosswinds interacting with contemporary society. But the events of the past month have pretty definitively delivered me to one of those bothersome hotspots where a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Keep watching for jerky, time-lapse results.
But this isn’t just about me, or it wouldn’t be worth hanging up here for you to read, would it? I wouldn’t have taken up your time unless I thought there was something here you could relate to, even if you don’t also suffer the benefits of a swollen literary ego. Maybe you just finished a nice suburban romance and are figuring out how to market it, or the third book in a detective series, or an inspirational disease memoir that might spin off a second book from reader responses. Should you start re-assessing based on your tombstone resume, ditch it all to start a remake of “Ulysses”? I think we both know that’s probably nuts. And that it’s probable you aren’t bugged by posterity getting up your posterior. You’d be delighted with a slab saying, “Devoted wife and mother…and author of two novels.” But I also think there’s a chance that you also guard an impulse to move toward the light. You don’t have to write books to pass your allotted time: you could be playing golf or bridge. And whatever seeds the light has sown in you want to flower into the sort of written events—scene to scene, word to word—that make what you write “good”. Which you experience in terms of people liking your book, responding to that ineffable thing that makes one book a “better” read than the next one on the shelf. Maybe all this will ever mean is that fifty people, instead of five, mention your work to friends: “I just read the nicest book.” Those fifty people mean as much to the Muses as fifty million readers of fifty million shades of grey. They are your epitaph and “Who’s Who”, being written across your life…and the longer life of your written work. A short story by Solzhenitsyn suggests that the date on which his character is buried is not the true day of his death: that comes years later, after all trace of him has been lost and erased, on the occasion when his name is last mentioned by another human being. And that’s doubly true of the life of your written work. It’s not a life of ink on paper, but a dance on the eyes and lips and minds of those who read. The degree to which you are Literature is the degree to which that dance comes alive and stays alive.
So, another of my damned “Zen tips”. I don’t suggest that anybody step to death’s door in order to spot the trajectory of their writing, but I do think it’s a vantage point that can make a difference in what we write. In my novel “Sky Seeds”, the young protagonist’s mother tells him that his family is not behind in the past, but waiting for him in the future. Just as quantum physics suggests that time is not piled up out of past events like a brick wall, but pulled into existence by the future. But of course that young man has to create those future generations, has to make it happen. And there we are, all of us. In the midst of death, we are still up to our eyeballs in life.