Tuesday, December 17, 2013


December 17, 2013:

          My readers will instantly recognize that I've stolen a line from Willie Nelson, or whoever wrote the song about not letting your kids grow up to be cowboys. Yeah, well, it's a good song, but riding herd on cattle isn't the only chancy profession.

          Take the question of "my readers"--who are they? My first cousin once removed, Chris, says this blog is required reading in his house, and I'm kind of amazed. And thrilled. I'm pretty sure some of my best friends have never seen it, either because they don't know about it or don't want to take the trouble, or the time, to look it up. So it's very gratifying to know that I have at least some readers, even if they are family. Nothing is more gratifying to a writer than readers. My last book sold in the low five figures, that's copies not dollars, but how many of those people actually read it? All the way through? I'll never know, and very few people wrote me letters about it. One, I remember, from England, wrote to correct an error I had made about a relative of Queen Victoria's. The book got very good reviews in England, which pleased me no end, and in the U. S., too, although the review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review was rather disappointing. But at least I got a review, and a full page at that. Turned out the reviewer was writing her own book on more or less the same subject.

          But what got me started down this road was reading this morning Christopher Logue's introduction to War Music, his very loose translation of portions of Homer's Iliad. He said that after publishing portions of the book in magazines he heard from readers who were not poets, not professional scholars, just ordinary people hiding out there in the great seething mass of the public who could, and did, read Homer in the original Greek. And who wrote to tell him they liked his version of the poetry very much. Now those are Readers. There isn't a writer in the world who wouldn't pay good money to have readers like that.

          Mostly we write in a vacuum. I must have written four or five hundred magazine and newspaper pieces in my career and still don't know whether anybody recognizes my name when they see it in print. Recognition, such as it is, has been local for me. When I wrote columns for the local paper, people would sometimes stop me on the street to say something about it, usually positive, and that was a nice feeling. I have gotten praise from some of the magazine editors I've written for, and a few of my pieces have been anthologized, mostly in writing textbooks aimed at high school kids. Once one of my nephews told me he had read an essay in one such textbook where the story I was telling, a family story, seemed weirdly familiar. Then he noticed the name of the author. He said he told his teacher, hey, that's my uncle who wrote that. The teacher didn't believe him. But what do teachers know? And would my nephew have noticed the name of the author if I hadn't been writing about our family?

          Like everybody else, teachers take writers for granted. It's content to them; it appears magically in books, magazines, newspapers, and it's only your fellow professionals who pay attention to bylines and know who you are. But otherwise the world is largely silent, responses to what you write are extremely scarce, and you don't know where you stand. There's no system for measuring reputation, no way of knowing how you're doing. Rates of pay are one measure, but I'm an historian for the most part, and history just doesn't pay very well. As a general feature writer I used to get good money, but never the top rates. I tell my friends about things I've written sometimes, and they occasionally ask to see it. So I send it to them, and do I hear back? You know the answer already.

          Why, then, don't I allow comments on this blog? Good question. My wife, Lorraine Dusky, has a widely read blog and she does allow comments, but from what I've seen the comments are often contentious, sometimes just plain nasty, and who wants that? Not me. To be sure, she's writing about a controversial subject, adoption, and she's got a lot to say about it. But I write about a considerable variety of subjects in this blog, I do it mostly to test out ideas, to amuse myself and maybe my readers, to touch nerves and hearts and to say things that I believe need to be said. It's like Johnny Appleseed, who planted the trees and then walked away. Plus I'm scared. What if I hear from the asshole ranks who just want to start a quarrel? What if a close friend finds my writing jejune, or stupid, or perverse? I'd rather not know. Courage fails me. And I've noticed that responding to all those people takes a whole lot of my wife's time.

          I don't want to spend time that way. I just want to write. There's no money in a blog. I doubt anyone will ever see an ad in this space, for which I would get some small percentage. But I love to write. No, I have to. It's a compulsion. An astrologer once told me that I was compensating for having burned down a library in a previous life, no doubt a barbarous life, because nothing is so barbaric as to destroy knowledge. So I have to replace all the writing that I destroyed. It's a fanciful tale, but I have no other explanation.

          Whatever the reason, I babble on. My apologies. Soon I'm going to write about something more interesting, more substantial. About loss, I think. Old friends are dying, really interesting friends whose lives remain unrecorded, unwritten about. They're joining the voiceless dead. I wrote a whole memoir--it remains unpublished--mostly to give the dead back their voices, to let them be heard. My daughter, who says she loves my work, tells me, keep on writing. It's all that will remain when you're gone. Maybe that's what's behind it all, that sense of coming to an end not having said all the things in my fertile mind that absolutely have to be said. Absolutely have to. Before it's too late.