Wednesday, December 13, 2017
A FEW THINGS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND LIFE
This past week, I “celebrated” (at this point in life perhaps “commemorated” or “marked” would be better terms) my sixty-eighth birthday. I’ve foregone the formality of “birthday parties” since I was in my early forties. But this year there was lunch out with Virginia at our favorite eatery, La Fonda del Tío. Virginia had gone through the relative indignity of turning sixty-eight two months earlier, but I’d been away in the States at the time, so she didn’t have to worry about anyone at La Fonda finding out and making a big deal out of it, because she never goes to lunch there alone.
Unfortunately, in my case, one of the waiters is a friend of mine on Facebook and knew it was my “special day”, so after lunch there was a mortifying moment in which a gaggle of waiters—most of whom, to my chagrin, take me as a kind of “father figure”(I never saw myself as father material, but apparently some people do)—gathered around the table, sang me a full-throated version of “Que lo cumplas feliz” (while I looked down at the remnants of lunch and muttered “No, come on, don’t do this to me”) and then proceeded to set a large dish of ice-cream with two spoons and a flaming candle stuck in it in front of me.
Let me just say, La Fonda is not TGI Friday’s. Waiters don’t sing Happy Birthday to the patrons, and the owner, Mario Longui, is not wont to hand out free desserts. This was special. So there were hugs all around as the other patrons gawked. It’s that these lads are a lot like family to me.
Anyway, sixty-eight...That’s a number! Granted, there are bigger ones, but still... That one’s big enough to carry some weight.
I must say, I’m grateful to have made it this far. There was a time when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and lived under a dictatorship, when some of the activities I was involved in as a writer and ad hoc human and civil rights activist made me doubt I would ever make it to my fortieth birthday. And for a while I kind of lived my life that way: in a certain sense, as if there were no tomorrow.
But there was a dichotomy too playing out in my head, one that made me eat, drink and be merry to almost criminal excess, but at the same time to start understanding the importance of being strong physically in order to keep strong mentally. So that was the exact same time—a time of too little sleep, too much booze and huge meals at 2 a.m.—that I also worked out like never before, lifted heavier and heavier weights, did faster and faster cardio circuits, ran longer and longer distances, and even did a bit of martial arts training (nothing crazy, mind you, just enough to re-learn how to handle myself, long years after my Army training) to sharpen my senses and my combat skills...just in case.
Then, all of the sudden, circumstances changed. After seven years of fairly constant risk, my world became a quieter, less dangerous place. I missed the adrenalin, sneaking around like a spy, sitting with my back to the wall and my eye on the entrance in bars and restaurants. But democracy was afoot, and it was, at the same time, as if the sun had finally come out in the world I was reporting on. Even the topics I was writing about turned tamer—no longer murder and mayhem, though often still corruption and high crimes and misdemeanors. But also stories of a new and better business world, of new-found corporate responsibility, of contemporary, entrepreneurial companies that were treating their personnel like family and their customers like community, of environmental issues and how to face them, of trade in a globalized world that, back then, looked like it might become the new diplomacy in a context where war would become anti-economical and financially suicidal, and where everyone would live in peace, harmony and ever-increasing prosperity. All a pipe-dream as it turned out, but a hopeful message for the future for as long as it lasted.
And then I was fifty, and wondered how on earth that had happened! It sneaked up on me in the Patagonian woodlands I had moved to at age forty-three and where I had subsequently and ultimately isolated myself from my former environment of non-stop urban madness and media deadlines. But this too was a sort of ruse by which I fooled only myself and started taking on more work than I could safely handle, maintaining constant contact through the Internet with the fast-pace world I’d pretended to abandon and allowing myself to continue to be a roped into insane deadlines for translations and writing projects and editing assignments that I might as well have been doing in a big-city office considering the extreme stress I was under. Although, when the work-day...or the work-week...or the work-month was finally done and the deadlines met, my new surroundings did indeed fill me with something like peace. But sometimes as if I were looking at them through iron bars or, more aptly, from behind bullet-proof glass, where I touched nothing and nothing touched me.
Fifty-five, however, was to be a turning point. There were momentous events that triggered it. Momentous for me, while merely fortuitous or fateful in the minds those whose lives were not directly affected—things one could expect out of life. But hey, they happened to me! Namely, within the two-year period from my fifty-third to my fifty-fifth birthday, I lost both of my parents and my younger brother. The loss of my father, and then my mother, six months apart was sobering. Suddenly, I was the older generation and, despite my advanced age, technically orphaned. My brother’s death, meanwhile, was a sock in the jaw and had a profound wake-up effect. He was only fifty-one, and the kind of vital guy I thought would live forever. Certainly, I figured, he would outlive me. But in a heartbeat, he was gone.
I started looking at life differently. Oh, it wasn’t an overnight process, nor was it without trauma, and, subsequently, it left me with chronically erratic blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmia. But there was a kind of metamorphosis—even if what I turned out as was nothing even remotely as beautiful as a butterfly. And indeed, the change is still incomplete, and full of serious flaws and doubts. But one of the things I’ve learned is that change is often good...liberating...healing, while avoiding change can be stultifying and paralyzing, and can, ultimately, turn you into one of the walking dead.
Within the process of this transformation from young to, um, not young, there are some other things that I’ve learned as well, both about writing and life. As my sixty-eighth birthday gift to you, let me just share a few, for anyone who cares to listen:
1. Everybody has a story. No matter how boring or commonplace a life might look from the outside, there’s a unique story in each of us—our story. It is as distinct—if as apparently similar—as fingerprints. And only you can tell yours.
That said, not everybody is capable of sharing his or her story. That’s where we writers come in. We have the means and the obligation to help others articulate and share their stories with the world, sometimes even after they are gone. This is our job and our duty, apart from telling our own story, to write the stories of those who can’t figure out how to tell theirs. But first, we have to get them to provide us with the elements of their stories. Or, failing that, we must develop the know-how to piece their stories together from clues with which they themselves or others provide us.
Therein lies the biggest part of what some might call “our gift”—our talent, our special innate skills. The rest is just about setting word to page. When we try to answer the question of why we are writers, this should be the answer. A shrug and an enigmatic arching of the eyebrows is an unacceptable response.
I prefer to define this as “human insight” and if you don’t possess it, you may indeed write, but you will never be a storyteller.
2. There’s an expression in Spanish that goes: The Devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the Devil. And yet, it’s next to impossible to transplant what you know through vast experience into the consciousness of a young person, and you certainly can’t do it by lecturing him or her. They simply don’t have the intellectual stomach for it. For one thing, they can’t picture themselves old. At their age, their theme song is “I’m Gonna Live Forever” and almost everything they can learn by experience, they can only learn by growing older. You can’t transfer age and experience like currency from one account to another. Why, because a young mindset compared to an old one is apples and oranges. But what you can do is take the time to tell them your story and hope that the lessons it offers will help them with the decisions they’re going to have to make later. Lighten up, though. Tell it like you were sitting around the campfire together, not like a parable from the pulpit. I’ve learned by experience that no one wants to hear an old man preach.
3. If you seriously want to be a writer and/or storyteller, there are some things you need to do no matter how talented you might fancy yourself.
Learn the rules: language use, grammar, structure, style, spelling, syntax, etc. You can decide for yourself which ones to occasionally break later, when and if you ever get good enough to do so. But first you have to learn them and know them backward and forward. Think of them as being like the rulebook for baseball or for a card game. You can never be a serious contender if you don’t know the rules of the game.
Another thing you have to do is read—deeply, broadly, eclectically, constantly. I cannot stress this enough. Thinking you can write without reading is like thinking you can step into the ring for a prize fight without training. Boxers spend hours and hours training for every minute that they will spend in the ring. Writers spend hours and hours both reading and writing for every line that they will ever publish.
And while you’re doing it, analyze what you’re reading and try and find out what makes this writer or that so alluring, so inspiring, so exciting, or so boring, irritating and impossible to read. Figure that out and you’ll be on your way to finding a style and a voice of your own. In the meantime, imitate! Like the art students you can see at the Louvre, sketching what they see on the wall so that they can go back to their rooms and try their darnedest to forge the masters down to the last detail. If you practice imitating enough different writers, you’ll eventually start catching on to what makes their voices unique and in that way get clues to finding your own unique voice.
4. Never argue with a fundamentalist. Religious, political, nationalist, regionalist, creationist, whatever. Trying to change a fundamentalist’s mind is a fool’s errand, as is even trying to get one to at least understand your viewpoint and, perhaps, consider that it may be of some merit.
This is a particularly hard lesson for liberals or moderates to learn. Why? Because their whole premise for living is that there is nothing that can’t be questioned, that we learn by constantly challenging our beliefs and incorporating new knowledge that will help us evolve as human beings and as societies. Fundamentalists, on the contrary, live by their beliefs and take them as “the god’s truth”, inflexible, immobile, unchanging forever. And anyone who challenges those beliefs or tries to present a different viewpoint for consideration is a mortal enemy—and perhaps a demon assigned by the Devil Himself to wreak havoc in the world.
With the rise of the social media, we tend to interact with all sorts of people with whom we would ordinarily not come into contact. So there’s a learning curve we need to cover quickly. Fortunately for us Americans, last year’s presidential election has provided us with a crash course in fundamentalism and fundamentalists—who seem to have come out of the woodwork in record numbers.
My advice, based on recent immersion-course experience: Avoid wasting time and patience. Watch for the fundamentalist warning signs—unbending adherence to a narrow set of beliefs as hard and fast facts, intolerance to anything that challenges said beliefs, hostility in the face of other opinions, taking any and all questions posed as a personal attack, rash reactions toward logic and reason, irrational reactions in the midst of debate, etc.—and do not engage.
Maintain your peace of mind. Walk away. There is nothing to be gained by doing otherwise.
5. The cemetery is full of “indispensables”. When you come to believe that without you, the world you live in will grind to a halt, it’s time to take a deep breath and get a grip. How do I know this? Because I have been “indispensable” multiple times during my forty-odd-year career. I was an “indispensable” news editor, an “indispensable” managing editor, an “indispensable” special projects editor, an “indispensable” translator and an “indispensable” free-lancer.
As such, I worked my way into several near-nervous breakdowns, and became an inveterate insomniac. More than once I feared work might literally kill me. But I couldn’t just quit, because I was “indispensable”.
Oddly enough, whenever I have managed to question my indispensability and simply walk away, there has been no Armageddon, no collapse of society, no crashing of my former place of work into chaos and oblivion—and, truth be told, when there has been, it has been richly deserved. Usually, everybody has managed to muddle through without me, and yet, I have been a repeat offender when it comes to “indispensability”.
Okay, couple of things: If you think you are indispensable, you’re only kidding yourself. And in the end, it’s an act of vanity, a way of embracing self-importance, usually as a home remedy for low self-esteem. The saddest thing is that by believing in your “indispensability”, you are playing into the hands of those who want to exploit you: your boss, your workmates, perhaps even your family. They know you’re not indispensable—only you are dumb enough to believe you are—but as long as you’ll reject delegation of authority and allow them to keep piling responsibilities and tasks on you until you finally collapse, they will, because whatever you will take on, they don’t have to!
My advice: Just say, “No!” Get a life and enjoy it.
6. Which brings me to my final point. This really is the first day of the rest of your life...Unless, to paraphrase Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty, it is the last one.
Either way, you might want to think about this: Today, right now, are you doing what you would be doing if you knew for sure that this would be the last day of your life? If not, then maybe you should be thinking about doing what you would be doing if it were. I know that it’s not always possible to cast caution to the wind and do whatever you please. Maybe there’s someone you have to take care of or something you still feel obliged to do.
But life might seem so much more rewarding if we were to get up every day thinking, “This is the first day of the rest of my life...or perhaps the last one. What do I really want to do?”
If you’re footloose and fancy free, own it! Answer to know one, and do exactly what makes you feel fulfilled and happy, whether it’s sitting in an armchair reading a book or strapping on a backpack and traveling the world.
But if not, then at least take some time for yourself today and every day, and do something that you really want to do, and let nothing and no one stand in your way.
Many thanks for helping me celebrate the start of yet another year. I plan to make this one count!