Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Not in Your Lifetime. So what?

A seasoned fellow writer recently commented on how difficult it was to attract readers lately, commiserating on the idea that he might die never knowing what effect, if any, his various writings had on anyone.  Even his wife (who encourages his endeavors), rarely reads the stories and poems he writes.  ("You have your interests; I have mine.")

Which reminded me  for some reason of a friend's son, who had some talent as a painter, and wanted to spend his life pursuing it.  His mother found this impractical.  You cannot make a living at it, she said.  "You need to study engineering or computers," and when they were packing to return to Europe, she threw out all his sketches and paintings.  He was 19 at the time.  (Regardless of their worth, what mother would do that to her child's artwork, especially one who had talent and had won prizes for it and professed to want to devote his life to the pursuit of art?)   I have not been in touch with this family for many years.  I heard some years back that he was living in Paris, working as a firefighter in one of the arrondissments.  The last I heard, he had opened his own studio and made his living by teaching art, and continues to paint.

How many artists and writers labor away, doing what they love--writing or painting--while trying to support a family or under crushing time constraints, while those closest to them, while encouraging them, yet hope they  won't  give up their day job. 

I read an essay this morning about Herman Melville, written by a librarian in Rhode Island,  that reminded me that even some of the most famous writers, in their lifetime, struggled with the same misgivings, dilemmas and employment issues many writers are faced with today:  How to make sense of the times one is living in; how to get people to read what one writes--how to put bread on the table.  Melville's early novels didn't generate enough income for him to live on, and even after the publication of Moby-Dick, he apparently had trouble getting people to read his work. (When Moby-Dick first came out in 1851, it flopped, as did its sequel Pierre, which did even worse).  "By the end of the 1850s, he was no longer able to support his wife and four children."

Melville tried valiantly to secure appointment as a U.S. consul in Florence, Italy, but never stood a chance. In March, he even traveled to Washington to advance his cause, and waited in a very long line to shake the hands of the new president [Abraham Lincoln].  He was possibly the worst self-promoter of all time, and said nothing to Lincoln, though he admired him  ...     Later in the visit, he sat in the park opposite the White House, “sunning myself on a seat,” and noticed that the shrubbery was starting to bud. Then he tried to get into the Washington Monument and failed. He was a middle-aged man, next to a half-finished obelisk, with no idea where he or his country were headed. [1]

That could be now--the part about not knowing where one (or one's country) is headed.  How many of us have been in that kind of situation, though--the dream job we want beyond our reach, forcing us to take whatever is available--in Melville's case, a job gotten for him through the influence of his wife and her family, where he would spend the next 19 years inspecting cargo for a living. 

In 1866, a collection of 70 poems he'd written on the Civil War were published, in a book under the title of Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War.  It was not well received; in fact it "tanked instantly."  He kept writing, though, working for years on a massive epic poem which his uncle actually paid to have published, but that, too, bombed, its unsold copies eventually being burned. Melville died in 1891, having been almost completely forgotten.

Fast forward to now, and how many today have not heard of Moby-Dick or Herman Melville?  It would be nice to know in our lifetime, that what we write is being read, or may someday be read--and might even  continue to be read.  It would be nice for writers to have some recognition now, of course, but you see how that goes.  Usually, it doesn't.  History is full of  writers and painters and composers who died, sick or broke or in despair, unacknowledged or forgotten in their lifetimes, without ever knowing how loved and treasured their works would one day come to be, or that they'd continue to be referenced and admired by countless people all over the world.  And there are thousands more--really good writers out there, who've written some remarkable pieces--who the world, and perhaps their own countrymen, will never know even existed.

My favorite Melville quote:  "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes his whole universe for a vast practical joke." Yes, it feels that way sometimes.  :)

I like the image of him, though, sunning himself on a park bench in D.C., after a bumbled job attempt,  looking at the shrubbery.   He's just lost his chance at a shot at his dream job and unknown to him then is about to face years of employment working on the docks, inspecting cargo, and he takes the time to sit and  feel the sun on his shoulders and notice nature unfolding in the bushes nearby.

What lasts and what doesn't; what is reborn again and again; and the compulsion to write, without knowing if anyone will ever read it, much less find it worthy.  The question came out of nowhere:  Does it really matter if it all comes to naught, that one's words may never get published, or even, for that matter, get read at all.  And the answer, equally surprising (at least in regard to my own lifelong scribblings), was a resounding "No".  And that's somehow--freeing.  It's not in the end, I think, about who wrote what, or if this work is more memorable than that work. It's that the world is full of wonderful words, there for the taking (there for the keeping!), that seem so familiar, that resonate, that wake us up, that bring unexpected insight, or solace, or waves of pure delight.  And that it will always will be so, for as long as writers write.

"Whatever fortune brings, don't be afraid of doing things." ~~ Herman Melville  


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