A few weeks ago I announced, giddily, like a bride-to-be announcing her engagement, the acceptance of my third novel The Glass Character by Thistledown Press. The elation lasted maybe five seconds. Like the song says, “I’ve seen that road before”.
Those who haven’t done it don’t realize. Writing the book is about 15%. There was great joy in writing this one because it’s centred around a subject I came to love – Harold Lloyd, one of the master comedians of the silent screen - but that’s just the trouble. Being too close to a subject can get in the way.
I haven’t done a really close reading of this thing for some time. When I re-entered it for the sake of editing, which will be a long and winding process, I honestly wondered who wrote it. That person does not exist any more, but if that weren’t true I might be worried. I know am not the person I was in 2008.
This isn’t good news or bad news, but it’s news nonetheless. In five years I’ve moved house psychologically, and in doing so I have had to leave many things behind. The shell is outgrown and constricting; the lobster must shed it and grow a new one or be crushed to death, not by outer forces but internal ones.
One of my favourite quotes is the Bob Dylan philosophy-in-a-nutshell: “He not busy being born is busy dying”. I have known people who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to push back on the forces that try to flatten them, the forces that bear down on all of us whether we know it or not. They surrender, but not in the sense of letting that mysterious grace we can never understand work its magic.
The result is either stagnation or martyrdom or sour carping or just giving up. Their world gets smaller and smaller, and dealing with them is exhausting. A kind of blindness sets in, and a “them, them, them” mentality which abdicates responsibility for anything. I’d rather walk through the minefield, myself, though more than once I’ve come close to being blown up.
Anyway, enough about all that, I’ve re-entered Haroldland, and this time it is very different. I see things I want to fix or change on every page. And I have not yet really looked at my editor’s notes, which I know will be another round, or rounds. Will it come out perfect? It can't. I hope it will glow more, have fewer contradictions or inconsistencies and a surer voice. And I hope readers will be willing to come along with me.
The road isn’t just long and winding. There are switchbacks that make you think, “Why must I go through this again?” New Agers might say “life presents us with the same lesson over and over again until we learn it. Then we can move on.” Like a lot of ready-made, freeze-dried philosophies which have never been tested, this one is somewhat lacking.
Life is a sexually-transmitted, terminal condition with certain inescapable rules. Or truths. The culture has it all wrong, as far as I am concerned. It demands “triumph”, “victory”, a once-and-for-all conquest of all adversity, especially things like illness (and, God help us, mental illness, which is still seen as an embarrassment, a moral failing and a horror). If you don’t conquer whatever-it-is, if it doesn’t stay conquered, then there must be something wrong with you.
Few things are conquered, because life is ambiguous, complex, a chronic condition. It’s just something you have to live with (like the pompous assholes who always insist, “Oh, I’VE never had that problem. I’m just so sorry for you that you don’t have the strength to deal with it.”) If life-threatening challenges do return, everyone looks away, embarrassed for you, convinced you just don’t have your shit together or this never would have happened.
Aside from family, the fountainhead of my life, writing has been the consistent theme, and while some of my early efforts make me wince to think about, I am still glad I did them, glad I put it out there. The alternative is to let your dream die, and dead things begin to decompose after a while, to blight the soul, to stink. To put it out there is still sometimes harrowing, but necessary, and because this life is made up of switchbacks and great hills that prevent us from seeing past the horizon, we can’t determine the results. Achieving goals doesn’t make people happy in a lot of cases; they either want more, whatever that is, or become convinced the world owes them a kind of adulation.
I have always been convinced The Long and Winding Road is a spiritual. I love this original version, which sounds pared-down compared to the sudsy Phil Spector wall-of-sound version that appeared on the Let It Be album. Paul sounds best on his intimate acoustic songs like Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son. (The exception is the hair-raising Helter Skelter, the song that inspired Charles Manson’s act of carnage: strange that the Beatles’ most violent, harrowing song was written and performed by choir-boy-faced Paul.)
Many times I’ve been alone, and many times I’ve cried. Anyway, you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried. Those annoying little Facebook homily-cards or whatever they’re called always say things like, “It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you make, so long as you keep getting up and trying again.” And so on. The only problem is, we live in a culture that DOES keep track of mistakes and often punishes people far beyond the extent of their missteps. We’re told to make lots and lots of mistakes, because that’s the only way we’ll learn. But there's only one problem. Our careers or marriages or friendships or families can be brought down by only one serious, central mistake.
I’ve written about this before because with few exceptions, nobody ever says it. It isn't popular and is seen as "negative" and somehow party-pooping. “Make lots and lots of mistakes” means – what? Take somebody’s pencil? How about having an affair with your boss, being caught taking office equipment, slapping your kid (just once, ever!), saying something really embarrassing while tipsy at a party, forgetting your seatbelt, forgetting your child's seatbelt, texting while driving, texting while WALKING, looking at porn "just once" on your computer at work, sexting “just a little” with a co-worker and being caught in the act. . .
I could go on.
These are mistakes, are they not? Serious, full-bodied mistakes, but things that people do every day. Should you welcome and even embrace these “because it’s the only way you learn”? Is losing your job or your marriage or even your child worth it? "Oh, but we don't mean THAT kind of mistake," some might say. Only "honest" ones. But the most serious mistakes aren't honest. And even forgetting a deadline or losing a file can mean the end of your career. It can, and it sometimes does. The workplace is no longer a very generous or hospitable place, and it isn't only the security cameras that are watching you.
As usual, this piece is long and pretty winding. So what’s the conclusion? Should we stay frozen in one place to avoid mistakes? I'm going to squeeze out one more homily here: "One must look, but one must also leap". It's a two-part process. Even the original, less-daring version, "Look before you leap," still assumes the leap will take place. And the "look" part means using your brain and not trying to do something that’s just goddamned foolish.
I still find it hard to put my work out there, and I still do it, or I wouldn’t be sitting her clacking away every morning. Who reads it is, to paraphrase my favourite e. e. cummings quote, “none of my immortal business”. When you have a story to tell, you’d like to think someone will some day hear it. To that end, but also due to sheer fascination with the process, I have to stay on the serpentine path, bloodhound-like, often with only my nose to tell me what’s hidden in the brambles.