Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Writer’s Life

Late Monday night, I received an email that I was happy to get but one that disturbed me nonetheless.

It was from Rick DeMarinis, a one-time Type M guest blogger and my longtime friend and mentor. Rick is approaching 70, the winner of two NEA fellowships, the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a guy who has been in this business much longer than me.

“My new (old and stale to me by now) novel, Mama's Boy,” he wrote, “comes out in December from Seven Stories Press. It was accepted in 2008, and now it's almost 2011. The years click by and you look at your reflection in the window behind your desk and notice suddenly that your hair has gone gray and the skin around your jowls is hanging low. It's called the writer's life. I hope your life is going well. Love to all…”

It had been perhaps a year since I’d heard from Rick. And the tone of his e-mail saddened me a little. The writer’s life: one of joy and self-discovery, but also the existence Rick described.

His e-mail also reminded me a great deal of Cynthia Ozick’s brilliant 1982 essay “A Drugstore in Winter,” in which she takes readers on the journey of her life, from “luckless goosegirl” (who else could turn that phrase?) to O. Henry Award winner and one of the most acclaimed prose stylists of our time.

“A writer,” Ozick writes in “A Drugstore in Winter,” “is buffeted into being by school hurts—Orwell, Forster, Mann!—but after a while other ambushes begin: sorrows, deaths, disappointments, subtle diseases, delays, guilts, the spite of the private haters of the poetry side of life, the snubs of the glamorous, the bitterness of those for whom resentment is a daily gruel, and so on and so on; and then one day you find yourself leaning here, writing at that sameself round glass table salvaged from the Park View Pharmacy—writing this, an impossibility, a summary of how you came to be where you are now, and where, God knows, is that? Your hair is whitening, you are a well of tears, what you meant to do (beauty and justice) you have not done, papa and mama are under the earth, you live in panic and dread, the future shrinks and darkens, stories are only vapor, your inmost craving is for nothing but an old scarred pen, and what, God knows, is that?”

It’s called the writer’s life, indeed. Rick knows that. Ozick sure does. I see it in the students I teach every year—those one or two kids who find something (maybe themselves, maybe an outlet, maybe an escape) in writing. That kid was me. At age 6, I wrote my first “book” one weekend, bound it with colored paper and string, and brought to my school librarian, who (God bless her) put it on the shelf. At 9, I would fail math, and my dyslexic youth would begin. That book, that librarian, kept me going. “Stories are only vapor,” as Ozick says, but they are also so much more.

To many of us.


Anonymous said...

As I'm sure you know, John, you owe a lot to that librarian. So nice of her to put your book up.

Rick Blechta said...

Great post, John! Thanks.

Hannah Dennison said...

Wow. That's amazing and gave me the chills. It's so true!

John Corrigan said...

The Ozick essay is difficult to fine. A librarian located a copy for me. But it is worth the effort. Check it out. Her syntax alone makes it worth the read.