9/05/2013

My Life of Words

For most of my unpromising journey through life (from my earliest days, actually, as I remember it), I have desperately sought to be "something." The particular "something" that I earnestly (and, it would appear, fruitlessly) have tried to be is a writer. I have been steadily writing, and also steadily failing in my activities as a writer, since the beginning of the 1970s. The extremely distressing result is that now, in 2013, at the age of sixty, and without any useful reward to show for my decades of dedicated toil, I find that I am no further along (in terms of money, reputation, etc.) than I was when I started out, over forty years ago. I therefore appear, in my own weary eyes and quite probably in the eyes of everyone else, to be "nothing," rather than "something." As can readily be imagined, it is not an entirely pleasant state of affairs in which to be, and it certainly is not one that offers any likelihood of happiness or satisfaction.

I do not remember the particular moment when I first knew, for certain, that I wanted to be a writer. My mother, an Englishwoman who was raising an English-born child in California, frequently was annoyed by the primitive manner in which many Americans expressed themselves, and she therefore taught me to speak correctly from a young age. I displayed a facility with language from the start of my childhood, and I was always making up stories in my head. I also enjoyed drawing and painting, which tilted me in the direction of being an artist, and I briefly aspired to be a musician, but writing soon gained precedence. Whenever I experienced either happiness or sadness, I was driven to put my thoughts and feelings into words. It was the same as looking at my reflection in a mirror. Writing was a means of confirming and examining my own being.

During my teen years, the ambition of being a writer began to form itself within me. It seemed presumptuous that I should want to write, but it also seemed the most fitting thing for me to do with my life. I knew that I loved to work with words. I also knew that I was strongly inclined toward solitude, and that I had the ability to pursue and sustain a difficult undertaking for an extended period, qualities that were advantageous for a writer. The craft of writing, the act of putting words together to express what I was thinking and feeling, was greatly appealing to me. In common with most people who are driven to write, I was an eager bookworm. Even as a child, I read everything that came within my reach, being especially fond of fables, fairy tales, and comic books. From the age of twelve onward, I spent much of my time reading one book after another, mostly fiction and poetry. In addition, I was a keen reader of daily newspapers and weekly magazines, and I always enjoyed looking through dictionaries and encyclopedias, allowing myself to roam, for hours at a time, through their definitions and explanations.

I became interested in the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare after seeing a production of Hamlet on television. I was strongly attracted by the truth and beauty that Shakespeare expressed, and I was utterly enthralled by the graceful sound of his words. It seemed that every strength and every weakness of humanity could be found in his characters. Whenever I heard a soliloquy from one of Shakespeare's plays, or read one of his sonnets, it helped me to understand what could be accomplished through the deliberate use of the English language. Beyond the works of Shakespeare, other plays that particularly impressed me were Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, The Winslow Boy by Terrence Rattigan, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, and A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt.

As I continued to devour book after book, I discovered other writers. I enjoyed the horror tales of Edgar Allen Poe, the science fiction of H. G. Wells, and the detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. I read nearly every book by Charles Dickens, having a special fondness for David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. I was greatly affected by Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, The Crock of Gold by James Stephens, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, The Moon and Sixpence and The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote. I also was drawn to the work of humorists, particularly Stephen Leacock, P. G. Wodehouse, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, and Robert Benchley.

I first encountered the poems of Dylan Thomas in a secondhand anthology of English literature that my mother had purchased for me. I was stunned by the depth and the richness of their imagery. I studied his poems for hours at a time, steeping myself in the dense texture of his style. Later I delved into the poetry of John Donne, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, A. E. Houseman, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Stevie Smith, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg, but I always returned to Dylan Thomas. Taken as a whole, his vigorous poems constituted a glorious world in themselves, and they never failed to engage my mind and my heart.

During my twenties I chose writing as my vocation, without fully comprehending the effect that it would have on my life. I truly believed that I was meant to pursue a life of words. My dedication was deep and complete, but I understood that being skilled in the use of words did not necessarily mean that I had any talent as a writer, and my weak confidence was further diminished by my bent toward ruthless perfectionism. Most of my early attempts at writing were hastily crumpled and thrown into a wastebasket. At times I wondered whether I would ever be able to write something that did not instantly plunge me into a mood of displeasure. I had no intention of seeking fame for its own sake, and I was aware that writing was not an effective means of achieving day-to-day stability. I quickly discerned that, as a general rule, the goal of being a writer and the goal of being well-off were in perpetual opposition to each other. I could see how things would be if I kept writing, but I was not thinking of money or security. I was thinking only of how much I wanted to write.

I constantly thought of what it would mean for something that I had written to achieve publication. I imagined being in a bookstore or a library, scanning the shelves and finding a book that I had written. I could not conceive of a greater thrill than seeing my own book on a shelf. The first manuscripts that I submitted to a publisher, when I still was in my twenties, were stories for children, with line drawings that I had done myself. They all were rejected and returned to me, but at that stage of my ambition, even receiving a rejection slip made me feel that I had accomplished something. It helped me to believe that I actually was getting closer to being a writer. I was particularly encouraged by those responses in which an editor offered helpful comments and asked me to submit other examples of my work.

Even when I was unhappy with the outcome of my mental labor, I always tried to stick with the process of composition. It was my conviction that writing something always was better than writing nothing. Sometimes it was slow and unrewarding, straining my nerves and challenging my ability to persevere, but at other times, the words poured out of me faster than I could write them. I was happiest when I could lose myself in a burst of inspiration. In those moments, my ambition to be a writer was deepened, and I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do. Whenever I was writing, I became intense and single-minded. In truth, my craving to write was extreme and unreasoning, causing me to exclude all other considerations from my outlook, but I was certain that it had to be that way. I regularly chose to spend long hours alone, away from the usual distractions of everyday life. I wanted to live completely as a writer, to the fullest extent that I could, and not merely think about it or talk about it. If I failed as a writer, I did not want it to result from a lack of application on my part. I would not allow myself to be sidetracked.

I could have greatly increased the likelihood of my work being accepted by a publisher, and also enhanced my standing as a person, by dutifully attending a university and earning a degree in English, with the final aim of becoming a teacher, which was the common path for someone with my interests. I hated being in school, however, and I was quite determined to follow my own path. In my view, the best way to learn how to write was by applying oneself to the task at hand: to sit down and start writing. I wanted to be an active writer, not a passive intellectual. As the years passed, and I gathered more rejection slips, I began to fear that I was heading nowhere. I was plagued by a burden of troublesome questions. What value could be given to my writing, if everything that I submitted was rejected? Who was I to have ever dared to think that I could be a writer?

Leaving my late thirties and drifting into my forties, my inability to get any of my work published finally caused me to lose my incentive. I went for nearly two years without doing any writing at all. During most of that dormant period I was employed full time, Monday through Friday, as a file clerk. It seemed that I had lost my purpose in life. When that situation ended with a layoff, I began to work in a bookstore. I also started to think of trying to be a writer again, having finally admitted to myself that I truly needed to write, to the same degree that I needed to eat, to sleep, and to breathe. I accepted that however difficult, and even hopeless, it might seem for an unknown writer to gain a foothold in the world, my lifelong ambition to be a writer could not be denied or suppressed. Whether I liked it or not, I had to keep writing.

In my late forties I departed from California, moving north to Oregon, and got married after many years of steadfast bachelorhood. My time currently is divided between being a part-time worker at a bookstore in Portland and being a struggling (or, in other words, pitiably unknown) writer. When I started out, several decades ago, I used a manual typewriter. Since then I have moved onward to an electric typewriter, a word processor, and now, a computer. I have written a number of articles, essays, and short stories, as well as a short novel, which has yet to find an agent or a publisher. My stubborn devotion to the goal of being a writer has forced me to endure many slights and a few hardships. In particular, my desire to have plenty of free time in which to write has tended to keep my income at the lowest end of the wage scale. (I believe that time is second only to ability as a necessity for good writing.) Many examples of my work are available on the Internet, hidden for all to see, in the crowded topography of the digital wilderness.

The question that must be asked, inevitably and uncomfortably, by someone in my situation is: Why have I been seeking to be "something"? The other question that must be asked, even more inevitably and even more uncomfortably, is: What does it mean to be, or at least to honestly believe oneself to be, "nothing"? To make even a halfhearted attempt to answer either of those prickly questions, one must be willing to enter into the forbidding realm of existentialism, a bleakly dry realm whose native difficulty, in my own experience (admittedly not extensive, but sufficient to the business at hand), frequently proves to be a lot more bothersome than it is worth. At the least, I think it is fairly safe for me to presume that my overwhelming desire to be "something" is rooted in my lifelong lack of self-esteem. Even as a child, I regarded myself as an unworthy person. (I know that sounds a bit maudlin, yet it is true nonetheless.) I do not know why I was so strongly inclined to feel that way, but I suspect that my wretched opinion of myself was, to a considerable degree, directly connected to my upbringing in the Catholic Church.

When I was growing up (especially in the days before the Second Vatican Council loosened, if only slightly, the harsh framework of Catholicism), being a Catholic was a fairly tricky proposition. It seemed that a Catholic was required to constantly seek a pure outlook of moral perfection, while constantly acknowledging that such an outlook could never be attained. For me, that irrational principle, founded in the heartless dogma of a wicked institution, was a vile pathway to mental suffering. (By the time I had reached the age of ten, I already had grimly accepted that, for reasons beyond the small range of my tender comprehension, I was destined to become an eternal resident of hell.) I applied myself to the goal of being a writer partly because I enjoyed the practice of writing and appeared to have an ability in that direction, and partly because I hoped that establishing myself as a writer would provide me with a means of redeeming myself. I believed that I needed to be saved from my own unworthiness. I separated myself from Catholicism, and from all other brands of religion, a long time ago, but the damage had been done.

I cannot blame the Catholic Church for all of my miseries. Even if I had never been exposed to its baleful guidance, I still would have struggled to find my own mode of living. I knew, from the start, that my life would not be lived in the usual manner, mainly because I never wanted my life to be lived in the usual manner. I was a loner, someone who actively wanted to be different from his peers. I did not want to be part of any crowd. As the years passed, and I tried to make my uneasy way through the world, I became more determined to write myself out of my despair. I fooled myself into believing that, by pursuing my chosen aim of being a writer, I could have it both ways: I could be different, but I also could be a person of acceptable stature. I was certain that if I could only prove myself as a writer, my troubles would be justified. In the throes of my fervent delusion, I reckoned that if my writing was acknowledged as being worthwhile, then I, as a person, also would become worthwhile. Unfortunately, having totally failed to establish myself as a writer, I now find that my absence of self-worth is more profound, and more painful, than ever.

The one question that continues to hang over me with the greatest heaviness, and which carries the harsh power to destroy me, is: Why have I failed as a writer? Is it merely a twist of destiny, an endless instance of ill fortune, combined with a random lack of opportunity? Or is it because my writing is undeserving of acceptance or praise? If that is the case, then my worst fears regarding myself have been brutally confirmed, and I am helplessly trapped in the hideous confines of my lifelong predicament, wearily going round and round within a malign circle from which there appears to be no escape. I feel worthless because I have failed, and I have failed because I am worthless. It is hard for me to decide which truth is the most painful to grasp, the most bitter to know, the most unpalatable to my sensibilities, the most stark in its pitiless effect upon my spirit: that I am cursed by an abundance of bad luck, or that my writing is inferior. Whether owing to chance, or to fate, or to a scarcity of talent, my private doom is the same.

None of this matters (or, indeed, should matter) to anyone apart from me, of course, and lately even I have grown doubtful that my threadbare collection of careworn problems will ever resolve itself into the perceivable shape of an absolute meaning. Am I condemned to spend whatever remains of my sorry life in an extended fit of existential agony, always wallowing in a pit of nothingness? If so, how can I endure it, without losing my essence, and without being consumed by the relentless action of my continual frustration? In any case, what is the actual difference between being "something" and being "nothing"? If one has failed, as I have done, at being "something," does it necessarily follow that one has succeeded at being "nothing"? As an ongoing condition, is nothingness itself merely another form of being "something"? Finally, how much longer can I keep writing, offering my words to no apparent purpose, before I finally go completely and utterly mad? The answer to that last question could, I fear, arrive at any moment.

To have failed in the pursuit of a deep-seated ambition is an old story, and a woefully familiar one, but that does not render the experience any more palatable, or any less discouraging, for the hapless person who has to live it from one day to the next. All human beings (struggling writers included) must contend, as best as they can, with the apparent bounds of their own existence. It certainly is not entirely rational for a person to continue with an activity as demanding as writing, for the duration of a lifetime, with no prospect of ever receiving a due amount of recompense, but that is what I have done. On the other hand, I know that I have done what I was compelled to do. I embraced a life of words because no other life would have suited me.