What song do you wish you had penned?
What painting do you wish you had painted?
What book do you wish you had written?
I just finished a book I should have read thirty years ago. Now, having read it, I’m not sure if I’m glad I did or not. John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men in 1937 and some literary critics have said it was his best work. I’ve read, to the best of my account, thirteen of Steinbeck’s books and I have stated many times without hesitation that he is my favorite author. I wish I’d written Of Mice and Men.
Having now read this book, I feel it will take some time for the impact upon me to be fully appreciated. For those who have not read it, it is the account of George Milton and Lennie Small, two ranch workers who move from place to place working during the depression. I will say only this, George is a crude, but kindly man who has taken Lennie, a developmentally disabled man under his wing. They are friends in search of a dream of settling into a life in a place of their own. As Lennie often repeats, they are gonna “live off the fatta the lan.” It is the story of the deepest kind of friendship, trust, and loneliness. It is beautifully and tragically written as only Steinbeck could.
As someone who is striving to be a better writer, it is daunting to read something as simply and majestically written as this book. I played tennis for thirty years and repeated many times, “I want to hit just one backhand as well as Roger Federer hits seventy-five times a match.” Except now, I want to write one glorious, satisfying, kick you in the ass, make you gasp in wonder sentence before I croak. A simple sentence, without flourish, that captures the same emotion as Steinbeck did routinely. Mine a vain desire from an old man. I want to write one page that makes a reader somewhere out there in the universe cry as I did while reading the last page and a half in the book Of Mice and Men.
So I will keep writing.
I follow a writing group on Facebook whose members post dozens of entries daily. Most of the posts involve questions of how can I sell lots of books? Others say they’ve written a ‘can’t miss’ book and after two months of effort, they are frustrated that no publisher is beating down their door to get to publishing rights. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most (if not all) writers want to sell a ton of books. A confident writer who has put heart and soul into a manuscript can become enamored with his or her work. Perhaps most of us who hesitantly call ourselves writers long for notice and success.
I admit without shame that I’ve daydreamed about talking about my newest book on NPR. Still, I have no illusions that I have written the next War and Peace or Grapes of Wrath. I give myself a’ C- for my first novel and perhaps a C+ for my second. Some might say I’m being too critical; others would argue that I’m being too generous. I am critical of my own efforts, still I believe one never gets better at some task without a healthy dose of self-criticism and an unhealthy dose of self-doubt.
Often, I hear people say those who were among the most prominent writers: Dickens, Tolstoy, Austin, had an innate gift. That they had something the rest of us do not hold. This may be true to some extent, yet there is sufficient evidence to suggest that those literary giants also struggled in their craft. Every genius be they a musical, writing, art, or dance master have had to put in the same effort to reveal that gift. Ernest Hemingway is reported to have said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Nothing great comes without great effort. Nothing good comes without good effort. If I want to be better, if you want to be better, we must do the work. The writing craft is neutral. The pen, the keyboard, the paper does not care if we write rubbish or the next New York Times best seller. It is left up to us to care. It is left up to us to make the needed effort. We either will or we won’t.
This ends the sermon for today.
I hope to be a better writer, if for no other reason than to please myself. If you wish to be better at writing (or anything else) your personal reason is sufficient.
A while back I read a line in the Writer’s Digest that has stuck with me. “The goal of writing is not perfection, but progress.” I wish this progress for myself, for my writing friends and for all those unknown others.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it has not been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison
Go Well, David
Louie’s Book Bark!
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner. A beautiful and brutal book written about an event in our country’s history. The Dozier School, a Florida reform school that operated for 111 years. A brutal place to be sent, a place many never left while alive. This book was named one of TIME’S best books of the decade.
Louie gives it a four-woof endorsement.