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Letter to a friend who is a bureaucrat and is thinking of writing a book
Okay, so you've been yakking about writing this book for three years, and now you're freaking out. I remember a jazz teacher one time who said that the only reason to become an artist is because there are no options left. Because you are such a hard-headed cow, and probably because you have a whack of things to prove, you have been successful in your career thus far. But now you've hit that famous wall.
Most people who strive for excellence and excitement in your situation would climb the bureaucratic ladder, play the politics along the way. And why not? It's fun. You can do that if you want to. Problem is, you don't want to. I know you. The writing you want to do is simply the last stage in the process of thinking well. You know as well as I do that elegant ideas are usually the right ideas, that elegant language usually completes the process of good thinking. Language and ideas are two sides of the same coin and, for you, the writing is not so much self-expression as part of the thinking process. If thinking is like, say, sex, writing-fixing the ideas in language-is climax.
You seem to think writing is a function of ego, or an emotional deficiency. That's because you're getting up the guts to start, and you need that ego to start your engine. But in the end it's not about being best, or being competitive, or being famous, and certainly not about being rich (trust me on this). It's about the fulfilment of potential: to engage your brain with the hardest and most fascinating things you can think of.
Brian Fawcett wrote one of the most important books in the last part of this century. It is called Cambodia, a book for people who find television too slow. The top half of each page is short stories, which I didn't like much. The bottom half was the essay, Cambodia. I tell you what, that guy can really think. I asked him how he came to write it when I stayed at his place in Vancouver a few years ago, and he said that he simply decided to write about the hardest thing he could think of. It happened to be the Khmer Rouge. He thought about it, was willing to immerse himself in the horror. He wrote what happened to him, what he thought about it, and he came up with one of the most humane and intelligent dissenting positions on the concept of the global village I have ever read. It's a book of enormous importance, and I am quite sure the writing of it nearly killed him.
Remember that great scene in the movie Poltergeist when the mother ties a rope to herself and goes into an alien dimension to save her daughter? She's gone a long time but, finally, falls through the ceiling covered in slime and gasping, but she's back and she's got her arms wrapped tight around that little kid. It's like that. Just exactly like that.
Fawcett lives in Toronto now and is recognized nationally as a bad boy of the Canadian intelligentsia. I don't know if his lifestyle is different from what it would have been if he had stayed a city planner, except that he is probably more obnoxious at parties (if that's possible). Internally, however, I think he must harbour a delicious secret: he's been through the fire and emerged intact, with a great freaking book in his hand. All artists have that kind of knowledge, and it is as delicious as holding a world record, of anonymous philanthropy, keeping a secret lover.
And then there's the flip side. Remember the little sister in John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire? The little sister who stayed little and tried to grow by writing? That's what she called her writing: Trying to Grow. She failed, and she stepped out a high window. Why do you think writers are so weird? It's because we're terrified of that freaking window.
Candas Jane Dorsey is a great writer, and she keeps walking the precipice. The other day she sent me a piece, a terrific bloody piece that she literally chainsawed out of her psyche and put on a plate of language. Totally freaked out, she was looking for feedback. What she really wanted was comfort and safety, and I told her what she always tells me: Keep going, you won't die. No, really, you won't. It was a strange and scary land she was in, and it takes everything she's got, and a lot of good friends, to give her what she needs to carry on.
It's a tough road, but you don't need to walk it alone. I interviewed Northrop Frye many years ago and one of the things I asked him was how Shakespeare got so...good. He said that he was simply the highest peak in a mountain range of artists. He pointed out that, with a few notable exceptions, most writers need a supportive community, and he's right. My pals (like Candas) and I cling to each other like survivors of the Titanic. When I am sitting at my desk and my hands shake at the magnitude of what I am trying to do, I call somebody, ostensibly to talk about the weather or to gossip. Or I'll call you at work so you can make fun of me and tell me to get a real job. But you all know what's really going on with me.
So why bother, you might ask. Well, years ago I was driving at midnight from Jasper and there was this deep sonorous voice on public radio that intoned: "When is art [long pause] art?" followed by thirty seconds of silence. Then music came on. I nearly drove off the road laughing. I've run a variety of theories over the years, especially when people ask me how I can say some bizarre performance piece is art, or what is artistic in a sculpture made out of found objects, or scratching on a violin that sounds more like an abattoir killing floor than Mozart. And I've come up with a theory that works for me: art, regardless of the result, of skill of execution, and definitely regardless of audience reception, is the hideously difficult work of transforming yourself in public. One thing-the artist is irrevocably altered.
I get the feeling that you crave transformation. And if you don't do this, or something like it, you'll always have a bee up your butt. I couldn't stand living like that, but that's me. You will do what you want, and I respect your choices as much as I respect my own, as much as I am confident of your respect. There's more than one way to skin a cat, find enlightenment, extremity, or heightened experience. More than one way, certainly, to lead a stellar life. Take up long-distance running, volunteer for something noble. It's just as good, you know. It's the same thing.
Maybe you've had enough challenge for one lifetime already, huh? But I will quote Thoreau (who you refuse to read, ya moron): "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." I would add that most people sleepwalk through life, or attach their hearts and minds to unworthy objects of desire. Most people have a sense of incompleteness, of a low-grade buzzing sadness, of a mystery the answer to which lies directly behind a door they are too frightened or blind or lazy to open. They are restless and they don't know why, and they spend their lives distracting themselves or creating dramas to ease the tension.
Listen, in the end, we're all compost. The earth will revolve around the sun long after the last human corpse is dust and Shakespeare's sonnets are a cosmic memory. So what the hell, do what you want.
Have a pleasant morning. Let's go for beer later, okay?

Nora Abercrombie lives in Tofield, Alberta.


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