Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Professional Life

Most of us discover by our twenties that others’ professions are not remotely as we imagine. Film actors, no matter how successful, spend a lot of time waiting around. Musicians need to practice constantly. Lawyers learn to look fascinated while hearing about other people’s problems.

And writers? Civilians have absolutely no idea what it’s like. If they did, they’d never wish they were writers, even for a day. (Anyway, the urge is usually to be a published author, not to spend all day writing. Big difference.)

I remember interviewing Paul Theroux when I was twenty-five. He was the first superb professional writer I’d ever met who wasn’t in my immediate family. Because I asked, he showed me the first and second drafts of The Mosquito Coast, handwritten in ink, filling two enormous ledgers. He said lightly, “If you showed this to most people, they’d shit.”

He was right, of course, but it wasn’t just the quantity of hard manual labor involved, but the commitment behind it, the scraping away of self for every inch of material. This excoriation is the aspect that’s hardest to describe; it’s as if you were determined to build a road with the gunk you sponge out of the kitchen sink at the end of every day. And the road has to look beautiful, too, or you won’t get paid.

It would be crude to mention money. As Stevenson wrote, extolling the pleasures of our profession to a young would-be writer, the wonder is not that it pays so little, but that it pays at all.

There are also the problems of living with us. Even in a digital age it’s a profession that produces a messy profusion of pesky paper. Writers tend to be distracted, too, in a most selfish way; their minds are literally (or literarily) elsewhere. This is often portrayed as romantic, but it’s annoying for everybody.

It may simply be a question of spelling. Change one letter, and “writer” becomes “waiter.” That’s much closer to the truth, since you spend so much of your time waiting—waiting for a solution to be revealed for some problem that will be irrelevant come the next draft, waiting for your agent to get back to you, waiting for some career-changing review that makes no difference. Waiting to become a successful writer. Whatever that means.

When I told one colleague what I was planning to write about this week, he said, “Be sure to explain that we get to drink all day. And don’t forget the parade of willing women.”

I almost forgot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tell It Slant

One question nobody ever answers truthfully is, “How are you?” This is among humankind’s great achievements—our ability to fine-tune an answer. And if you happen to be cursed with a serious neurological disease, you get used to lying, because if you told the truth, even part of the truth, nobody would ask again.

I got the idea for my fourth and most recent novel, The Land of Later On, back in the 1980s, long before my first novel was published. In those innocent days I travelled extensively as a freelance writer, so “one man’s odyssey through the afterlife” (whatever that meant, it sounded cool) seemed no more outlandish than other distant journeys I was describing.

My afterlife idea was that sole cryptic phrase in a notebook, and over the decades other novels intervened. But I never forgot it.

Gradually my magazine work was replaced by a career performing and recording as a jazz and classical guitarist. Then, six years ago, I realized something was terribly wrong. Diagnosed with so-called “progressive” multiple sclerosis, I quickly sank from running a few miles a day and playing an instrument on a professional level to living in a wheelchair, unable to play at all. I couldn’t type or even scribble anymore; I could write only by dictating into my computer.

Once you’re hit by an incurable illness that doesn’t kill you, but ruins your life and (especially, cruelly, brutally) your mate’s, you learn that relativity’s at the heart of who we are. What had seemed unbearable a few years earlier now struck me as a picnic—was there no way to wind the time back?—and I daily found myself contemplating suicide as an understandable escape route. Not for me: the core of my life is that I’m happily married. But suppose my wife had somehow died, shortly before my own illness took hold? Would I bother to stick around?

Suddenly that scant idea for a novel, buried for twenty-five years in my notebook, came calling. I began dictating it almost as a lark, to see if there was really anything there. The only blessing of my disease was that plot questions were unexpectedly settled, and I could write of a suicide-inspiring disease with authority. As Emily Dickinson said: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. I wasn’t writing confessionally (I’m not that sort of novelist), but autobiographical elements inevitably offered themselves.

Here’s the plot of my novel: Kip—a New York jazz pianist whose career was cut short by a neurological disease—returns from a failed suicide attempt with a vivid memory of his journey through the afterlife. Resembling the world as he knows it, but unlimited in space and time, its residents are those who choose not to reincarnate, which would erase all memory of who they once were. Kip has a quest: to find his beloved Lucy, a yoga teacher who shared his apartment for years but died of leukemia before he took his life. Is she still here? Has she waited for him, or “gone back” to become someone else? In his odyssey to find her across centuries and locales (Istanbul to the Marquesas Islands, India to Oklahoma and New Guinea), Kip is guided by the poet Walt Whitman, who urges him to write a memoir on his return.

I know this doesn’t sound funny, but believe me—along with everything else, it’s a very funny book. It’s not a novel about having a neurological disease; that’s simply the excuse to push my narrator to commit suicide and venture the very surprising afterlife. But suicide is the rarely-discussed elephant in the multiple sclerosis waiting room. It’s on everyone’s mind at some point, despite all those nauseating community photos they throw at you of cheerful, healthy-looking folks bowling along in wheelchairs, playful as puppies.

I can’t imagine I’m the first writer with a severe form of MS, though mine may be the first novel whose narrator has it. My subject isn’t suicide or suffering, but a liberating, life-affirming afterlife. I’m not religious; it’s not a religious book. It is a humane one.