One of the reasons I’ll never be a professional writer, that is, one who gets paid for his writing, beside the facts that I can’t type and I overuse the comma, is that I don’t care much for details. I’ve never been a fan of the exegesis. Biographies don’t interest me; I’d rather have mystery. In most cases, unless I’m really obsessed, I don’t want to go “behind the scenes.” I’d rather not see the “making of” specials, or know how most of Star Wars was really just Mark Hamill and Alec Guinness in front of a green screen. When I was an English major in college, people always assumed it was because I wanted to teach. No, I would say. I just like to read books. I knew then I could never teach because the experience of books and reading was and still is too personal for me. What could I tell any potential students that they couldn’t discover on their own? Most of the “great books” I’ve read, I’ve read on my own, for fun: Ulysses, Magic Mountain, Grapes of Wrath, American Tabloid, The Stranger. I think that literature, like all art, is a deeply personal experience that can be talked about superficially, and can even lead to some long, deep, sun-coming-up kinds of discussions, but for me will always remain a private affair. Even at rock concerts or films we are really all in our own private worlds, nodding along with our eyes closed. My favorite novel of all time is Moby Dick, but please don’t ask me what the white whale symbolizes. Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. But the thing is, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know if the whale symbolizes death, or heaven, or the white man’s burden, or any of that. I don’t want to hear about Melville’s childhood. Maybe in the next life, we can sit awhile and talk about it, maybe even go skinny-dipping, old Herman and me (with Walt Whitman too, because you know he’ll be there, peeking through the bushes). But in this life, I’ll take mystery over certainty. Mystery makes things more exciting.
I was thinking about a writer I really liked when I was younger, Madison Smartt Bell. When I still had dreams of being a novelist or short-story writer, he was one of the towering figures in my reading life. Now let’s stop right there. If I were a real writer, this would be the place I would start doing all kinds of internet research about MSB and dive into some long reminiscence, peppered with book reviews and clips from interviews, about how I would sit in one of those folding lawn chairs in my parent’s backyard in Syracuse on a hot summer’s day, under the shade of the pear tree, the pear tree that always produced sour pears that you had to wrap in wax paper, set on the kitchen windowsill, and wait two weeks to ripen before you could eat them, but that we never did and so just waited for them to all fall off the tree and then have rotten pear wars in the fall, whipping them at each other and watching them explode of the vinyl sleeves of our Sears-bought NFL football jackets and smelling the rotten pair guts that never fully washed out of our hair for weeks afterwards and that would leave these really gross, yellowish splotches on our jeans and baseball caps. I could tell you all this, or about how I devoured The Year of Silence, Zero db, Soldier’s Joy, or Waiting For the End of the World. These books, along with Rock Springs and Cathedral, gave me some small hope that I could follow in their literary footsteps. But Bell more than any of the others. It also helped that he wasn’t well known and had a funny name. He was a writer, an artist, I could claim as my own, like R.E.M. when Chronic Town first came out and Michael Stipe was still mumbling lyrics about gardening at night that only I could understand and people thought I was crazy for telling them that Murmur was way better than Synchronicity or Thriller.
There’s a passage in The Year of Silence that I still remember, although my memory might be wrong. Here again, I could look to the internet to correct me, but I’d rather have imperfect memories than perfect facts. The Year of Silence tells the story of a woman who commits suicide, through the reminiscences of all the people who knew her when she was alive. Her friends, her husband, her lover. One of the characters is a pianist, and he decides, as a way to mourn her, he will not play piano for one year (hence the title of the book). But what he does do, is practice on a piece of wood, alone in his apartment, that is painted with the ebony and ivory of piano keys. He practices, tapping this painted piece of wood, in silence, playing music only he can hear, until his yearlong vigil of mourning is over. At least that’s what I think happened.
Tanzan, who I have written about before and who’s postcard story is still one of my favorite Zen tales of all time, inspires me to consider what my own year of silence might be like. As a writer, I vacillate between my desire to put my full self out there for all the word to see and wanting to keep it all in and not expose myself to criticism. “If you got something good, keep it in your pocket,” Muddy Waters used to say. It’s no secret that I’m an over-sharer. Sometimes when I’m on Facebook, I can almost hear people hiding me from their news feeds. There is something about writing that invites disgust. The great Samuel Beckett remarked (and I am probably misremembering the exact words but hope to express the sentiment) that “no sooner than the ink is dry and I am sick of it.” It’s true that sometimes I feel like giving up, that no amount of words will ever express all that I want to say. That no matter how much we all try, “getting to know each other” in this lifetime is futile. People will only go so far, no further. Me included. And yet, I keep writing. I guess I’m not ready to stop telling my story after all. Or hear other people’s. Just please don’t write a biography of me after I’m gone. Embrace the mystery, the silence, instead.