“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”-– William Faulkner
It’s been quite a spate of birthdays for famous writers this latter part of September, the beginning of autumn when we slowly let go of whatever is left of our ties with summer. The daily Writer’s Almanac column always provides for interesting bits and pieces of the lives of writers, but this week seems to have been special. From the somber words of Faulkner (born in late September, 1897) to the giddy fun of Shel Silverstein (1932), the column’s spotlight showed me new ways to appreciate the work of gifted scribblers who came before me. Their themes ranged over the whole rich and colorful tapestry of life, from love to loss to death and rebirth. I have enjoyed some of them more than others, but all have shown me an appreciation of their efforts and a new way to see the world around me as I trip along the path to growing up.
One lesson I’ve learned in trying to write is that the writer puts more into his efforts than can ever be repaid in praise from others. Any final judgment is ultimately up to us who know what we’ve tried to do. Of course, we all want to hear nice comments about our phrasing and our special descriptive voice, but the appreciation comes and goes quickly. I think I would be happy anticipating a couple of words on my tombstone that proclaimed that I could cut a board fairly straight and construct a sentence that wasn’t full of too many stumbling blocks.
My wife Jody tells me my essays are too dark, while my friend Trevor says I’m so full of optimism that I sound like a male Pollyanna. One thing for sure is that I’m not especially good at humor. If only I could craft a ditty the way Shel Silverstein does in this verse:
“Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.”
I can close my eyes and see my good friend Jack, who has been blessed with a gaggle of lovely grandchildren, reciting this bit of fun to his young ’uns as they try to repeat it after him.
Along with Silverstein, another great guy who brought all of us out of our seats laughing was Jim Henson (1936) who gave us all those characters from The Muppets and Sesame Street. Who could not be happy knowing they’d written the dialog between Kermit and Miss Piggy or the irascible old coots, Statler and Waldorf, sitting in their balcony box making wisecracks about Fozzie Bear. As Henson tells us,
“Follow your enthusiasm. It’s something I’ve always believed in. Find those parts of your life you enjoy the most. Do what you enjoy doing.”
I strongly believe that writing allows you to follow your bliss every time you sit at the keyboard.
Going back a bit in time, we can also celebrate the birthday of Horace Walpole (1717) this month, the eighteenth-century bon vivant and Fourth Earl of Oxford, who once mused, “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” As the Writer’s Almanac tells us, he was “a prolific man of letters and the premier chronicler of the political, social, and cultural history of the eighteenth century. ‘The whole secret of life,’ he wrote, ‘is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well,’ and so, unhampered by the need to work, he devoted his time to social gatherings, correspondence, and writing. He wrote more than three thousand letters to friends, family, and colleagues and, combined, his letters and memoirs fill more than nineteen volumes, a tremendous historical legacy.” He boggles my mind, but also serves as an inspiration. For sure, I have a lot of catching up to do.
The end of September also reminds us of the birth of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896) whose life was a roller coaster of success and despair. Who would not embrace The Great Gatsby if they had written such a story. But in the midst of such triumph and promise lurked the demons which took him all too soon. Sadly, we are reminded that in his brilliance also rested his darkness. Presaging his early death, he once said, “I talk with the authority of failure.” Despite such gloom, we are told he died eating chocolate and listening to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Not an altogether bad exit.
So each morning I get up to read my mail and putter about the keyboard trying to find a way to express how I feel about the events around me. I want to write about my friend Lizabeth with the beautifully throaty voice, a talented pianist who loves to play songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. She’s also a skilled portraitist in the world of stained glass. Just last night at dinner we talked about her latest creation of a long and leggy lady standing by a porch railing overlooking the sea. This form is glancing our way as though to beckon us back to our seat so she can again brush up against the back of our neck. Lizabeth is the picture of creativity, a singer, jazz pianist, maker of stained glass portraits, chef extraordinaire, and bon vivant, right up there with the Eroica and far superior to mere chocolate.
Right now, I’m about one-third into a Harvard-based on-line class about Greek Heroes. We’ve just finished an in-depth reading of The Iliad and are about to begin The Odyssey and join Odysseus en route home from Troy. What particularly struck me in our discussions was the idea expressed in the Greek word “telos,” which connotes the concept that we take up things where someone else has left off. I particularly like the conceit that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants who have come before us. In our own odyssey through this life, our attempts to write about the journey have their beginnings with others who pointed the way. Although they have finished their trek, their work can be seen as the starting point of continuation for the rest of us.
As the days move on and more birthdays of writers come and go, I will be nodding my head in appreciation of what they accomplished and how they shone a light for me. Since I started with a quote from a man whose words have filled my head since adolescence, let me finish with what I consider a model for beginning a tale:
“From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”–William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom