I think it was James Michener, a solid craftsman who once wrote a beautiful novel called The Fires of Spring, and also once said that few aspirants really want to be writers, but everyone wants to have been a writer. Well, as they say, I’ve got mine, Jack. I’ve been a writer. I made a fairly decent living off of this talent for 15 years but it was never enough. By that I don’t mean the money—no matter the income, it is never enough. What I mean is that being a writer was never enough.
There is a passage on this blog in which I once wrote:
“Note—Wholeness. Born from the stuff of world, the Whole Being freely wanders waist deep within it, fulfills all the world stuff, all the stuff required; no resource ignored, no faculty unindulged. There’s this memory…Max’s Cafe, Nashville, TN, I’m with two other writers and a photographer and the three of them are talking about the photographer’s curious times with Ali in Zaire, but I’m flirting with the only waitress around who still has all the teeth one is be able to see. She’s flirting back from behind the counter. She used to run with the Texas song writer who’s at a table between me and her and she and I are feeling deliciously brassy but he’s feeling badly left out and dangerously Texan; looking huesos at me as they say in the north. He’d written, maybe not too long before, a line that sang thus: “Too far and too high and too deep ain’t too much to be. Too much ain’t enough…”
The Iron Rule of Sociology says there are always two kinds of people: “Some who do, and some who don’t.” I quit writing because I found writing to be a passive occupation. Those who don’t, like Faulkner, kept on and lived out of their heads and all the bottles they bought along the way. There are two kinds of writers. There are those who are true writers like Faulkner. And then there are those who are ego writers and do it for secondary needs and cheap gain. They, like Freud said, don’t write out of deep psychological needs, but to attract money and beautiful lovers. It is probably the closest thing Freud ever came to hitting the truth.
Passive writers, honest writers, write out of the need to come from their imaginations and splash fantasies that are big or small or domestic or full-bodied grandiose or work-a-day humble and serviceable to their work-a-day little readers. Ego writers say, “I did this so I could write about it and make a little money and pick up a lover or two along the way to the bank.” Ernest Hemingway was an ego writer, the ultimate high/low was Hunter Thompson. But I should not be so cynical. Hemingway could never write about war (Thompson never came close) like George Orwell wrote about war in the book “Homage to Catalonia” said to be the finest book about war ever written. Orwell was a closet ego-writer whose book about the Spanish Civil War never was eclipsed by any of his other works except the essay “Politics and the English Language,” which is, I think, the most artful, most insightful piece of English writing from the 20th Century. Nonetheless, as much as I respect Orwell, there is a dishonesty about being an Ego Writer and not being up front about it.
In 1974 I was given a nation-sized prize for investigative journalism, a calling that is about damned hard writing, down to the ground creativity under the gun of The Man. And it was not long after that I knew it was not enough because honest writing is passive no matter how creative the approach, no matter how creatively one attunes to the truth. I could not do passive and so I switched out and got licensed to be a private investigator—an adrenaline rush is more toward having enough and I didn’t have to sit on my ass for the next six months writing about it. An old friend of mine said once, “Of course you became a PI because it gave you something to write about.” To which I thought, “No, it just gets things closer to the bone than writing ever will.” I have only written once, one little essay out of 18 years of material, about just a fraction of those 18 years.
Except for that essay and a sentence here and there, succumbing to the lure, I have yet to be an ego writer, and so I chose not to be a writer at all. I am a blacksmith. Writing is easy, an easy ego boost, I wrote this little piece off hand, half distracted by country music, half-drunk on absinthe. Smithing is hard and there is no equivocation about what comes out as the final works on a piece of steel. Words invite equivocation like whores on the street. If one’s writing is easy it will never be honest. (I hope y’all got the irony of that last little line slipping under the lesson,)