Naked and Personal
I confess to a lot of throat-clearing past posts, so far lot's of stuff about our current times, like those that stimulated novels by Camus, Defoe, Márquez, Lewis, and Shilts -but not my story. This is a post about my writing why and how, written as a newby writer before coronavirus hit the fan.
Why do I want to do it? (Write). Feels like an essay question for school, and somewhere out of my rebellious and iconoclastic depths comes the response, “I don’t,” like a recent post from Jay Koppleman. But like him, I’ve liked to write since I I was a kid. My father was an English professor, an admirer of Donne and Milton, a romantic, who taught because he loved it, but upon retirement, said he “didn’t have a book in him,” and that somehow disappointed me. My mother, a restless, ditzy pre-feminist, always wanted to write fiction. She took some courses and sent stories (that I regret I don’t now possess) off to Eleanor Roosevelt and Pearl Buck. And received personal replies! Neither parent was particularly interested or supportive (or even aware) of my faint ,stirrings but once, by indirection, my mother intimated that I had some talent. When I was about 12, she confronted me with a few pages in her hand and asked if I had written them. I said yes. She said, “But you didn’t copy it from the Reader’s Digest?” I told her no. She walked away, shaking her head, muttering, “It’s very good. Hard to believe you wrote it.”
So much for genes. There are other reasons. For example, those described as the primary heuristics in a book by Henry Plotkin titled, Darwin, Machines and the Nature of Knowledge. In medical school I met an exotic and zaftig undergraduate from Scarsdale who I almost killed when she was riding double on my motorcycle. For her, I wrote poetry with the clear and singular aim of getting her in the sack. (Unsuccessful. Mainly, she said, because I wasn’t Jewish). (Couldn’t have been my vapid poems). Odd how fate twists, now I am. (Jewish I mean, not a poet). On meeting an attractive woman at a party, I still may let it slip that I happen to be a pediatrician only in order to eat, but one with the soul of an artist what with being an unpublished novelist and all.
Other reasons: Writing nonfiction was the work of my day job. With writing I get into the zone, flow, space, or whatever the current trendy term is, where nothing else matters or exists, and hours disappear. Often enough there’s a sense of doing something well that comes in the practice of medicine, riding a bike, helping a trainee. A sense of mastery. That’s the high that some folks talk about. I like how it makes me feel. Often enough to make me want to keep coming back. Sure, at times it’s frustrating, looking for the right word, trying to write clearly in non-Latinate prose, or not writing at all. As I’ve mentioned in a prior post, these frustrations drive writers bonkers: Fitzgerald, Berryman, Williams, Capote, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bukowski, Thomas, and others turned to alcohol. Updike said that golf saved him from booze.
Nick Hornby said he writes because he has no other creative talent—can’t paint or sing. That applies to me as well. Writing was a craft that I could learn to learn, unlike calculus or building bird houses with my kids—the ramshackle results always looked like they should be placed under a freeway overpass for the truly homeless birds.
What else? It’s a cliché that writers are screwed up and need to record their feelings, and this is true for me. I write more when I am angry, in love, confused, or beset by large emotion of whatever coloration, and what I compose at those occasions, at times, has emotional oomph. At other times, I make Hemingway seem flowery.
Wait, there is another important reason. I share the universal urge to express matters of importance. As a physician seeing patients who confront death or a lifetime of maimed existence, the big questions come close. Dilemmas, often medical, are best dramatized, so that we can appreciate extremely fine distinctions—the ones that are not evident with blunt instruments like committees on ethics that have the covert primary directive of protecting the hospital from legal action. Bureaucracy discounts the need to match rationality with feelings, process is all. I admire the phrase, “The singularity of ethical choices,” (which many in the business of telling us what to do, rail against).
How do I do it? Write. I wrote in my day job. Papers. Grants. Memos. Letters of recommendation. Responses to requests. Patient notes. I lack the principal writers’ tools of close observation and memory, so I have notebooks all over the place, with ideas, thoughts, titles, descriptions, references, great phrases, things to do, places to visit, food, restaurants, and words that I want to use. At a conference I met a former trainee from years ago who came up to me with an appreciative look on his face. Instead of the anticipated/hoped for thanks, he asked, “You still make lists?” I’d made my mark on his young mind.
When I started to worked on the craft of writing in my mid 40s, I had a fair bit of unallocated personal time. Being a doctor is like being in the army or being a policeman. There are many periods of waiting—for lab results, for the baby to be born, for a hoped-for response to therapy. I filled these idle minutes writing in notebooks.
But finally, only thirty years ago, computers appeared for use by us ordinary mortals. Talking about computers…. Fragments can be filed away. The last draft is always timed and dated. The most recent project is invariably at hand. And, one may flit from short story to chapter 12 in the nascent novel in microseconds. Suddenly so many of us were converted to writing zombies.
So there you have it. All the elements for the perfect crime. Motive, Opportunity, And a weapon, the computer, easily at hand.