The Best Is Yet To Come (Or, “Good Words On A Bad Day”)

From Neil Gaiman’s Introduction to The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction:

“Some years ago a writer not much older than I am now told me (not bitterly but matter-of-factly) that it was  a good thing that I, as a young writer, did not have to face the darkness that he faced every day, the knowledge that his best work was behind him.  And another, in his eighties, told me that what kept him going every day was the knowledge that his best work was still out there, the great work that he would one day do.”

I sympathize with the first man, but I love the second man, and so should we all.  Books Here And There has said over and over again, in various ways, that writers can’t do anything but write.  We don’t have a choice.  It’s what we do.  But here’s a truth that’s just as valid as the former statement:  no writer has to write.  We can get along just fine without anybody‘s contribution to the cause.  In fact, we got along just fine everywhere before writing was invented.  Because we know this, any of us ought to feel free to step back at any time from the work we are doing without the slightest hesitation or guilt.  The well from which we draw the water of our words (and remember, please, Keats’s epitaph) can run dry; and when we lean down to draw from that well, it often looks dark down there, even when water, shallow as may be, is still there.  It’s not the lack of water that terrifies us; it’s the darkness, blinding us to all directions we might choose except one:  straight down.  What do we do with the few words that have come to us?  We all have faced that terror at least once in our careers, but none of us is bound to live our lives within its grip.  We are free to step back for a while, if we want to, or need to.

The second man I love because he has a writer’s courage, and a writer’s hope.  One of the truly wonderful things about the writing profession is that great work can spring forth at any age.  James Salter, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Sayers–oh, the list is endless–all published really good books when they were older.  And if the brain is still functioning well, why not?  If we still are, as the psychologists say, all the ages that we’ve ever been, that means we also have the ability to re-create all those ages–and characters, and mindsets–in our fiction.  Knowing this, we ought to press forward, and do the work without fear.

Non-fiction writers need to think the same way.  A work of history or science or technology is complicated.  It’s not easy to to put it together, and both invention and argument may flag for a while.  But here’s the thing:  the mind won’t let a good idea go, and though our bodies may need a break from it, our minds will be rolling right along, solving structural problems, writing sentences, or just confusing the hell out of us.  But as long as our brains are working, there’s no reason in the world to stop, and every reason to believe that something we write, even if it’s “just” a sentence, a phrase, or a paragraph (never mind a whole book) might be helpful to somebody else in ways we cannot predict.

One supposes that E.B. White could have gone on forever writing clever little paragraphs of pointed gossip for The New Yorker.  But the “queer prize” of privacy that New York City bestows on all its residents wasn’t enough.  He moved with his wife, Katherine, to rural Maine in the 1930s.  After a time, the pieces he sent back to the magazine were longer, deeper, more reflective than anything he had written before.  The solitude of the woods, and the clack of a typewriter that wasn’t in competition with all the other typewriters in the office, enabled White to produce not only the charm of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but essays such as “The Death of a Pig” and “Once More to the Lake,” compositions marked by the lyric dignity of a man well along in years, advancing hesitantly and somewhat fearfully toward the end of his days, but with his heart and mind open fully to everything life has to offer and to teach.

One’s early work often bleeds into his later work.  Yes, bleeds, because time and experience will change the light-hearted, off-the-cuff paragraphs of our youth into pages that have the rough edges of a freshly-opened book about them.  Both kinds of remarks, both kinds of writing, are often true and useful; the one has prepared us for the other.  That is why, speaking only for myself, I believe that a writer’s best work can always be ahead rather than behind:  because the work we’ve done prepares us for the work we’ll do.  The long days we’ve spent learning to craft the sentences that only we can write may well one day fit perfectly into the work that, however long our lives may be, only we could have done.

 

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