The PB Writer Search Cont'd: On Writing, Paddles, and Silences

What I lost and where I lost it, and what you might lose before you have it.

Having a dramatic life, filled with emotional highs and lows, elating and painful events, does not necessarily fuel good writing -- at least, not if you don't have the time to let the sensations reverberate in the correct parts of your mind.

My teenage and early adult years were filled with explosive disruption. Speaking with a friend recently, I was trying to describe the mad intensity of that time. There was no way to encapsulate all of the mad mood swings that accompanied life then. I thought of the swirling eddies of words that came from the girl on the toadstool, writing words on the wall of a bedroom not hers, then tearing at the paint until there was nothing left but scars; arriving at a party you hadn't been told was an orgy and wondering how to tell one guest from another as they writhed around each other making pink balloon animals; borscht with beat poets in the East Village and on the way there a man selling stolen formalwear on the sidewalks -- Hey, man, tuxedo, ten dollars? Just try it on, man! - then being told that Dylan had just left because you couldn't find parking; rescuing a young woman supposedly kidnapped, only to realize much later that she hadn't been, her saying, "I looked at you and saw someone else" -- that someone else being someone bad -- and relating tales of dark priests prophesying dire futures, saying she might heal everyone she touched -- or was it hurt? She couldn't remember, but thought it was maybe the former.

I was twice condemned to Hell by zealots before I was 21 and went there each time, finding it's a nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit. I fell in love with a girl who dressed only in rags; when she moved the layers swirled and cut the air like swords. I dropped out of school to live with her because we had the same favorite film and ended alone in an unknown city, strangers I met showing me more kindness than she ever would again. Coming home, I lay on the floor for days thinking of the time a friend had invited me on a double date, not bothering to tell me until I arrived at the movie theater that I would be going alone. I thought of a quiet girl of whom I asked questions, her saying, "No one has ever cared what I thought about things before." When we parted, her eyes were aglow with something beautiful, a realization of self. She never spoke to me again. Then there was the large-breasted woman who was obsessed with international fishing rights. She never spoke to me again either; that was okay. I hear she's changed and is into charitable giving. I'm afraid to make further inquiries.

I lived every day in extremes of passion and pain. You can survive like that at that age, and the friction created by the switchbacks in the road, the tectonic plates of rebirth and self-destruction pushing against each other, fueled songs, stories, novels, plays, screenplays. I had had the technical abilities for a long time, but those days and nights made me a writer in the sense of having something to say and giving me the need to say it. When confronted with the incomprehensible, you can either run away or write it down. I wrote it down.

None of those experiences was directly applicable to baseball, but you are the sum of your history, and much about those days found its way into my baseball writing. I've never been as passionate about sports as many of my colleagues, but I was passionate about so many other things, including the way that we talked about a game, that elements of the mad years entered my sportswriting, animated it, and thereby did I find success.

Late in my twenties, I found a safe harbor from the upheavals of those years, sanctuary. I shouted "No more!" to a sparkling night sky, banished the insanity, and whitewashed the wall. I got myself a wife and a family and lived quietly.

***

Sanctuary seems like a good idea, but it's not, not if you want to stay vital creatively. Now, as throughout this series, I have to add a caveat: I'm not talking about baseball analysis. If all you want to do is blog reactions to transactions, the Yankees will be signing Matt Diaz at least once a year for the rest of your life, so you can paint by numbers for as long as you like. That's not what I'm on about. Rather, I am referring to the life-energy and experience that provides the fuel for originality.

In 1966, Stephen Sondheim made a television musical out of "Evening Primrose," a short horror story about a writer (played in the film by Tony Perkins) who drops out of society to live secretly in the Macy's flagship store in Manhattan. In the first song, he is elated by his decision:

He steps out of the kiosk and starts wandering through the deserted store, past the wine coolers, French telephones, dog collars, ceramic bookends and into the yawning cavern of the store.

Look at it:
Beautiful:
What a place to live,
What a place to write!
I shall be inspired.
I shall turn out elegies and sonnets,
Verses by the ton.
At last I have a home,
And nobody will know,
No one in the world,
Nobody will know I am here.
I am free.

It doesn't work that way, not when you're older. If you ever wonder why your favorite writer or songwriter (be he or she in a band or a solo performer) declines in quality as he gets older, it's because he or she is safe, has found sanctuary. When you're young, you live in the turbulent world I described above, not one identical to mine, of course, but yours. Brightly colored emotions flow into your work. Later, as the days grow quieter, or you do, your spirit calming, you have to find something to replace the demons and poets and orgies. Many never do. The quietude of sanctuary -- and sanctuary may be a synonym for age, but I don't think the change is as inevitable as that -- has cut them off from their muse.

Now, I am not saying that there is no such thing as pure invention, that all good writing is generated by autobiography. That's plainly not true, as I'll explain in a moment. However, for all but the most gifted at imagining, whether writers of fiction or non-fiction, there is something lost in the way of verisimilitude when the power provided by experience is replaced by craft. That is, a different kind of experience takes over; having written so many stories, songs, or even trade evaluations, you have come to understand the mechanics of creation, and therefore can do a passable imitation of inspiration even if the real thing is nowhere in the vicinity.

The difference between inspiration and craft can be seen in the gap between Paul McCartney in the Beatles and in his solo career, or Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer and Tom Sawyer Abroad, or, if you prefer baseball, between the early editions of the Bill James Baseball Abstract and the later ones, or between the Abstract and The Bill James Player Ratings Book. It's the difference between giving birth to something and assembling it from parts.

***

Since about mid-2011 I have been trying to shake loose from my sanctuary. It wasn't done for the sake of writing, it wasn't all done consciously, and I'm still unsure if I was motivated by the death instinct or the life instinct, if the point was to get one's head above the surface of the 40-year-old's day-to-day life and breathe uncompromised air or to just open one's mouth and inhale regardless of the water rushing in. Some of it may have been the product of the typical midlife crisis, and some the product of a failing constitution -- I have been battling cancer and other illnesses since I was 30, and the war to stay alive changes you in that you are so busy trying to save yourself that you might wake up one day and find that you're no longer worth saving, having given over so much of your time, energy, and initiative to pills and therapies and men in white coats that there is no part of you left. "We had to destroy the village in order to save it," a soldier supposedly said during the Vietnam War. That can apply to a person as well.

Over the last 18 months I have taken many risks, not all of them smart. Some of them paid off very nicely. I have a better job than I started out with and many new friends, some of whom quickly became part of my inner circle and I hope will be there forever. I have also lost a few people I would rather not have lost and learned some things about others I would rather not have known. I once wrote (borrowing from an ancient Greek aphorism) that the hand that has hurt you might be the one that heals. This year I have found that the reverse is also true. I have been injured quite badly at times, and, I am ashamed to admit, I have inflicted pain as well. Even if much of my share was unintentional (I would like to believe I am a good person), I have to take responsibility for it -- no one deserves to be a casualty of your personal earthquake.

In short, I have returned to the days of the tattered cloak, the sleeping on floors in the wrong cities, of sitting at strangers' tables with a notebook. You would think that the old formula would mean the old results: take one writer, add trauma, shake. Result: compelling, vibrant material. It turns out it doesn't work that way.

The reason for that, I think, is there is not enough time to rest with what you have lived through when you are an adult living in an adult world of jobs and a family. When you're 18 or 20 you have gaps in time, hours you're not going to class, not working. There is no anxious drum drum drum of the next thing being due, no boss at office door, the only deadline perhaps some distant term paper you'll do the night before. Emotion takes up residence in those spaces and ferments. Creativity lives in the silences. With too crowded a life you lose something essential. Pain no longer begets prose; pain just begets pain.

This is something I should have realized more than a year ago. My first appearance at SB Nation came while I was still working for Baseball Prospectus, part of a home and away series Rob Neyer and I played; he did a guest piece there, I did one here. Here is how mine began (I would supply you with a link, but the piece seems to no longer exist in the archives):

I come to you today as a writer on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Well, over the edge of one, actually. I am deeply in the midst of a nervous breakdown, passing bent mile marker 50 out of 100, 1000, or 1,000,000 on the shivering highway. I am 40 years old, consumed with work I don't necessarily want to be doing, and obsessed with the idea that I should chuck it all and do the work that I want to do, except that I don't trust myself to do it even if I had the opportunity. Worse, I am torn by the inherently conflicting ideas that I am running out of time to do the things I am not talented enough to accomplish.

You can date my kicking at the walls of sanctuary from roughly that moment (the piece ran in late July 2011). I went on:

I think I had abilities to exploit at one point. I wrote one book, then stopped to manage book projects for others. That seemed like a good idea at the time, but seven years have gone by and I won't be getting that time back. I have been 12 years in the business of writing about baseball, and I have made a small name for myself, but I don't think it will be getting any bigger. I can't stop to think about it, because this blog needs another entry written, that one needs another entry edited. I am no longer my own master.*

The ending, then, is like "The Wizard of Oz." "Oh, Dorothy. You had the power to be a miserable asshole at home all along!" If the goal was to live dangerously (more accurate: stupidly) so I could write, I needn't have bothered. That wasn't the goal -- as I explained earlier, there was no goal. It just happened. Yet, it would have been nice to have at least receive that much in return for the price paid.

*When the piece was published, one of my then-bosses was offended. "You just said you hate your job," he said. "No, no, no, no," I said. "I love my job. I hate myself."

As such, what I hope to impart to you is the same thing I knew 18 months ago but was incapable of truly absorbing: you won't be getting the time back. In chapter 9, verse 4 of the Book of John, a section of a bestseller of which you might have heard, it says, "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work." The 19th century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle took that thought and spun it into a writer's creed. "Produce! Produce! Were it but the pittifullest infinitesimal fraction of a product, produce it, in God's name! ‘T is the utmost thou has in thee; out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever they hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the night cometh wherein no man can work." I have used this quote many times, have tried and failed to live by it. May it serve you better than it has served me.

Justified by his own philosophy, Carlyle went on to produce 30 volumes of bad essays. Nevertheless, his point is still good. Many people like to claim that they are writers, or say that they would like to write, but they never put anything on paper. The only way to be a writer, to know you are a writer, is to write. The career of many a Mark Twain has died aborning because of a fatal disconnect of the imagination, pen, and work ethic -- or simply fear. The day job is too good, the risk too great. Tomorrow, I will try it tomorrow. I promise you, your number of tomorrows is limited and dwindling by the day, hour, and minute.

There are many nights that descend in the course of a lifetime. One is named sanctuary and it is the death of something important, even if it may make you, in other areas of your life, happier overall. Some would call sanctuary maturation, or the taking on of responsibility, the end of your inner Peter Pan. In many cases they would be correct, but not for the writer. Cherish the dramatic days of your youth, cherish the fertile darkness that will soon be forever dispelled. And if the noise of life does come for you, if the waters of complacency threaten you with a fatal calm, grab your oar and paddle like hell for the next silence.

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