I am 99 percent convinced now that there is not a novel in me, or at least that I am not capable of producing one.
I’ve started enough of them to know that I quickly lose interest and, even if I could carry one through, know I probably would be embarrassed by the result.
This has been disturbing to someone who had a writer for a father, loved to read from childhood on and assumed throughout much of the prolonged adolescence of his life that he would be a writer when he grew up. Well, I’m near 72 now and starting to feel grown up.
More and more, I am not worried. I don’t think it’s only my laziness and lack of discipline holding me back. I respect friends who do write novels but confess that the same conditions that prevent me from writing one seem to stop me from reading theirs. I think I am too conditioned by newswriting and news reading, impatient. I still try to read Patrick O’Brien’s 19th Century sea novels but I have four glossaries to use with them and make it through only a few pages a sitting.
Maybe it’s just fiction I am stalled on. I still admire short stories and occasionally read them but even there truncation and allusion start to rub me the wrong way. My reading hours are almost completely taken up by essays, journalism and history, where I can find directness and sometimes good prose. Poetry seems to have been a once upon a time thing for me, though I sometimes still repeat to myself Theodore Roethke verses and study the plain-spoken elegance of Richard Hugo. I was rereading Larry McMurtry nonfiction — Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen — just before he died because I enjoy the rambling trails of his insight, erudition and honesty. I am rereading some John McPhee now because he is a non-fiction master.
The truth might be that I have nothing to say, which of course is the clearest of literary warning shots. Certain things in my life I am sure of, like the need to quit drinking 36 years ago or seeking conscientious objector status during the Vietnam-era draft. A lot of the rest, I am still figuring out. Sure there are some exceptions but having so far survived two cancers and still getting older, I’m not willing to cast judgment on anyone but myself. I am sometimes moved to write non-fiction tributes about the outstanding qualities of others but remain daunted by the task of trying to frame someone else’s thought in fiction. I feel I don’t have the time and am pretty sure I’m not that clever. Speaking as a run-of-the-mill flawed human, I wonder if mediocrity is such a low aspiration. I know I’m not all good. I just hope I’m not all bad.
I have realized the truth of my 40-year-long newspaper career is that I was more of a craftsman than a journalism ace. I was not the sort of reporter who sunk his or her teeth into a story and shook it until the truth fell out. Writing was the most important challenge for me, though I learned that in the newspaper business it is rightfully secondary to reporting. I liked being part of of getting the paper out and the reliability of the production chain, despite the many tensions every day.
I have been buying books to study paintings, lately more curious about how painters do things than novelists. The fiction writing that has caught my attention in the fast-paced 21st Century has mostly been television screenplays. I’m intrigued by the work of the Cohen brothers but notice my patience for movies also is waning. I’m impressed by the writing of MASH, Seinfeld, Longmire and some British detective shows, most recently “Pie in the Sky.” I’m about to move on to LA and “Bosch.”
I pay more attention to characters than plot. I am often oblivious to the mystery in many mysteries. In Westerns, I tend to focus on the locations and horses, although I remember the white hat-black hat lessons of the classics. I like actors near my own age. I have digital subscriptions to a dozen or so newspapers and magazines but mostly scan Twitter to pick and choose my news and the stories I read at length.
I’m not sure why I write on this blog but I keep saddling up and riding out many mornings, especially if I’ve had a decent sleep. It can keep me as happy as watching the sky and walking with my dog, Cowboy.
Now that I think of it, my greatest newspaper writing ambition always was to sit down and type an entire story without pause. Tight. Bright. Short. Clean. Fast. The best compliment I’ve ever gotten on my blog — at least I hope it was a compliment — was, “I like your blog because it’s short.” And I like to blog fast and move on. I wonder if it one of the side effects of cancer.
I am about to go over my word limit here but since I have backed into my point anyway, I will add that I woke this morning thinking that the writing I strive for is like light. I see it best in paintings and Ansel Adams photographs these days. Fleeting but bright, day or night.
I am always leaping up for my iPhone camera in my house without curtains in the northern New Mexico hills. The snapshots for me open doors to stories. I like trying to make blogging a moment of light.