Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Only in the past year and a half have I begun to self-describe as a writer. Before that I was a theater guy, then a small-time entrepreneur, then a regional publisher. I sold my publishing company in 2010 so that I could write full-time. Only then did I look in the mirror and realize that I was nearing 60. What sort of future is there for a 59-year-old writer who has never been anything but self-published?
As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a 2008 New Yorker article,
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with Moby-Dick.
Well, I thought, there’s always Norman Maclean (1902–1990, pictured above), the exception who proved the rule.
A beloved professor of Shakespeare at the University of Chicago, Maclean did not publish anything but academic papers until his 70s. He tried but failed to finish a book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Only after he retired, and after his children asked him to set down some stories of his youth, did he publish the novella “A River Runs Through It,” with the opening line, “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
You may remember “River” as a 1992 Robert Redford film that was a break-out picture for Brad Pitt, as the bad-boy younger brother. You probably don’t remember Maclean’s one great full-length book, Young Men and Fire. I see that I haven’t obsessed fully about this book on this blog, though I did a pretty good job at my old Web address, “Why I Am Catholic.” Can a new post be far behind? No, it cannot.
latest installment, by Lisa Peet, features the great Danish writer born Karen Christentze Dinesen. Yes, like George Eliot, Isak was a she. The portrait at left is unmistakably the work of Richard Avedon.
Dinesen was past 40 when she began to self-describe as a writer, and isn’t 60 the new 40? (Well, maybe not.) What she wrote, like what Norman Maclean wrote, was memoir, a form in which I have done considerable work, though mostly as an editor. Maybe there is hope for me, after all.
Dinesen’s memoir Out of Africa has a deceptively simple opener: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” You may remember Meryl Streep reading that line with a milky Danish accent over the beginning of the 1985 film, co-starring, though not directed by, Robert Redford.
If Young Men and Fire is my favorite work of non-Catholic nonfiction, then “Out of Africa” is my favorite romantic film, without qualification. And what gives the film its majesty, as much as Sydney Pollack’s direction or John Barry’s music or the acting of Streep and Redford is Dinesen’s writing.
“If I know a song of Africa,” Dinesen writes in the book, “of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”
Of course, this is why we writers write—not to sing songs of others, but so that others will have songs to sing of us. Otherwise, being saints would be enough. We writers are different than saints, however. When our footfalls no longer ring, we want our words to continue echoing.
This explains my silly, vain, supremely human wish to write a song like Maclean’s, like Dinesen’s, which others may recall when I am dust.