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June 30, 2001

Why I Could Never Be a Writer

Have you ever felt the need to write? No, I don't mean that it occurred to you it would be nice to be a writer and write something. I mean you waked out of a sound sleep with the command: "Go, write!" ringing in your ears, and the voice would not go away.

It is the beginning of a terrible battle. It's me vs. The Muse again, and She is with a formidable host in the field.

Her right flank is led by Admiral Hemingway. He is armed with powerful words fashioned out of natural materials with simple hand tools.
Hemingway in Spain with rifle Hemingway's Old Man

Open "The Old Man and The Sea" to page 1. Find again a too-strong old man returned from his eighty-fourth day at sea without a fish to the boy who loves and waits for him. He carries his sail from the skiff wound round its mast. See: "The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat." I have no force to match this.

The left flank is commanded by Field Marshall Rostand, and led by the greatest swordsman in all France. Pick up the Brian Hooker translation and turn to Act I, The Hall of the Hotel De Bourgogne in 1640. Edmond has embroidered the scene with his words like a magnificent French tapestry. As the immortal Cyrano confronts the doomed Valvert, and that unworthy disparages Cyrano's lack of genteel raiment, hear Cyrano respond once more:

I carry my adornments on my soul.
I do not dress up like a popinjay;
But inwardly, I keep my daintiness.
I do not bear with me, by any chance,
An insult not yet washed away-a conscience
Yellow with unpurged bile-an honor frayed
To rags, a set of scruples badly worn.
I go caparisoned in gems unseen,
Trailing white plumes of freedom, garlanded
With my good name-no figure of a man,
But a soul clothed in shining armor, hung
With deeds for decorations, twirling-thus-
A bristling wit, and swinging at my side
Courage, and on the stones of this old town
Making the sharp truth ring, like golden spurs!
Rapier I have no blade as sharp as his.

Middle-Eastern woman In the center stands Omar Khayyam, the Persian hordes massed behind him. His vision is rendered in words onto a battle canvas painted by Edward Fitzgerald. The first three quatrains inevitably overwhelm:


Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted-"Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

These images sweep all before them.

And yet, I cannot surrender to so superior a force. I can only oppose it with my single ego and my pitiful effort, unequal to the task though these be. What choice? If I do not write my brain will freeze; my lungs will explode; my heart will melt down.

So even if I can't hope to slug it out with Papa Hemingway, or cross swords with Rostand's Cyrano, or awaken a sleeping world like Omar, I must join the fray. Like every poor soul who has dared to share a thought, I must confront self-doubt unflinchingly. If I cannot keep company with literary giants, perhaps I can contribute something of value. A line, a phrase, a snippet, an interesting idea should be enough.

So I get up to write, knowing that the Muse will win. She always does. I put a few words on paper. I go to sleep with my dreams, and I wake up with the same old inadequacies.

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