Every summer, icebergs from Greenland float by Newfoundland, a silent flotilla centuries in the making. Click on each image to make it nice.
If, in your rare buoyant or less rare unassured moments you fancy yourself a fine writer, you regard other fine writers, especially the ones you know, with a complex gumbo of admiration, envy, respect, jealousy, mystery, yearning, studiousness, fondness, and recognition.
Brian Doyle, who died yesterday from what brain cancer does to the body, would have written the latter part of that sentence more like "with a complex dark astringent wild gumbo of admiration and envy and respect and jealousy and a deep mystery and a human yearning and studiousness and fondness and recognition" because more than anything else he was exuberant with words, a wild and reverent and irreverent and exalted word-drunk scribbler who could deeply move me one moment and piss me off the next. Writers who can do that are the real thing. They write like they mean it. They knock a wobble into our stride, an essential forced veer from the witless path we are on, the one that leads to our fearful and semi-blind and smug and sketchy "grasp" of life.
I knew Brian for more than 20 years. Our friendship most often consisted of brisk emails, his invariably signed "bd." I paid close attention to his unique university magazine, Portland, and he paid attention to mine. We'd bitch about things, share a discrete derisory chuckle about some new folly of our academic milieu or publishing niche, and on those rarest occasions when we found ourselves in the same city, have lunch. He had an assurance about his judgement that lived on the fringes of arrogance. William Blake was the English language's greatest visionary poet and that's all there is to it, Van Morrison had no equal as a singer and songwriter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Plutarch were without peer, the serial comma was essential. He once argued strenuously with the Dalai Lama about which was the greatest sport, basketball or soccer. He never made Van Morrison listenable for me, but to several classrooms of undergraduates I taught his roisterous exemplary essay on Van the Man, published by The American Scholar, one of Brian's regular launchpads. I thought that sometimes he worked too hard casting himself as another in the ancient line of voluble Irish bards, and I may be the only person on Earth who cringed when he induced a rapt audience at a writer's conference to sing "Amazing Grace." Can't say why, I just did. Then I'd read something new from his pen and think goddam that boy can write, and understand all over again that he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent. Now and then I got a note from him praising something I'd written and I'd think, Well, there's something.
I think he was a serious Catholic and reverent about many things, but he could be gleefully irreverent and obscene. As I've said, he wasn't much for commas, especially not commas impeding the cascade of adjectives he might fling into a single sentence, and I remember him telling me about going over an edit of one of his essays. The copyeditor, following her stylebook or Strunk & White or whatever her source for grammatical edicts, had doggedly injected commas into Brian's prose. No no no. He began marking them for excision one by one, countermanding the editor, who perhaps had edited with her brain and memory for rules instead of her ear. When editing a proof, if you indicate a correction or revision and then change your mind and want the original left intact, you write STET in the margin. It's proofreading argot for "never mind." After a dozen individual annotations, a dozen stipulations that he did not want a comma there or there or there, he lost his patience and scrawled on the manuscript "STET FUCKING STET!!!" He cackled with joy when he told me this story.
In a 2007 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Brian wrote this:
Ten years later, he's gone, in one more example of how life is mean. This morning, I read several things about him and about his passing, and thought about him and remembered him, and finally sighed and said to myself, "Ah, fuck. Get your ass off the sofa and go write something." So here you go.
Start with a mustard seed of irrelevant fact. Rutherford Hayes’s wife, Lucy, was the first American president’s wife to be referred to as the first lady. Scribble this on a scrap of paper and present it to Karen Russell. Tell her she has to write a story about this old dead guy and reincarnate him as a horse. Give her a couple of pencils. Put her in a locked safe à la Houdini. Tie one arm behind her back. Give her the sniffles. Let her go after a modest interval and see what she comes up with: the hilarious, impossibly realized, even moving, story "The Barn at the End of Our Term."
Or how about this? Instead of menses, drugged young girls in feudal Japan produce silk. We’d like 9,000 words, please. Blindfold Karen Russell. Make her compose wearing mittens, her only sustenance Red Bull and those little mandarin orange Cutie things. See what happens: the exquisite "Reeling for the Empire"—first-rate, elegant horror.
Vampires, krill, a stolen rabbit renamed Saturday: Russell will make magic of them all.
That's Joy Williams writing about Vampires in the Lemon Grove in The New York Times about Karen Russell. Williams notes that a "grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories," and what a fine thing to aspire to as a writer—grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic.
The full New York Times Book Review text is here, but behind a firewall that will repel non-subscribers.
You may read a portion of Williams' essay courtesy of Book Marks.
While I would wish you to love America most because it is your home, I would have you love the whole world and think of all the people in it as your countrymen. You will hear people more foolish than wicked say, “Our country right or wrong,” but that is a false patriotism and bad Americanism. When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her.
— William Dean Howells, from a statement written on his 75th birthday and read to students in New York City public schools
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
— Robert Pirsig
When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, there were three books we all felt were essential texts: Slaughterhouse-Five, Steppenwolf (or The Glass Bead Game, if you considered yourself among the more discerning readers of Hesse), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To a 21-year-old Ohio hickboy, Zen seemed unlike anything I'd ever read. As I read more, I realized it wasn't really sui generis, but no matter—reading it for the first time was an expansive experience all too rare at university.
Pirsig died Monday in Maine. I've been tempted to reread Zen a few times, but I'm afraid the experience will be like rereading Kerouac as a grown man—what was so captivating about this when I first read it? Great books transcend the time of their authorship and the time of your first reading. Good books, sometimes, cannot accomplish that, and there's no reanimating that self you brought to the pages the first time around. Maybe I should have a little more faith.