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Writing is Hard. Grief Abounds.

5 June 2014

Most of what I do is writing. I write papers and grants. I write two blogs. Probably half my waking life is spent pounding out sentences at a computer. But I am not a writer.

I’ve written before about wanting to be a writer. I feel like I’m better than halfway-decent at putting words into pleasing sequence. I can generally find a way to express myself. I’ve worked hard at it. I love to play with words the same way I play with piano keys. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I can usually find a way to say what I’m trying to say.

For a while I really thought I could be a writer. A full-on, drunk every day, tragically wasteful writer of ideas and glories. I thought that while I scribbled on notebooks in coffeeshops chainsmoking. Writing lugubrious prose and baleful poems. It was abominable.

I sat down once with a colleague of my great uncle’s. A professor and gentleman. A scholar. I told him I hated graduate school. I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer. I wasn’t my uncle. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him, “I think I could be a great writer.” He told me, “Great writers don’t say they’re going to be great writers. Great writers just write, because they have stories to tell.”

I knew immediately he was right. I was not a great writer. I am not. I will never be. What I was was a depressed, lonely, alcoholic young man. It took me a while to appreciate the gift he gave me by telling me what I wasn’t. I stayed in school. I finished my degree. And now I write. And publish. No great works. But useful articles.

Yesterday I learned that that man has died. He was about 88 years old. I saw him last fall, when his grandson gave a concert of his original compositions. He was spry and healthy and engaged. He remained so until he died suddenly, having fallen ill only a few days before. I hope I am as fortunate to live well, be loved and productive, and die peacefully without anguish.

I don’t know if he was right about great writers. Probably too heterogeneous a group to make blanket pronouncements like that. But he was right about me. I am not a great writer. And by steering me from that ill-conceived fantasy, he helped guide me to the productive career I now enjoy. A fine man. A fine scholar. And a fine mentor. I’ll miss him. I’m grieving.

But this is the sort of death that ends a life worth celebrating.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Syd permalink
    8 June 2014 09:17

    I’m sorry about the loss of your mentor. He sounds like a wise man. Being in love with the idea of doing things, whether a writer, an explorer, a great painter is different from having the passion to do those things no matter what. Being driven to do something because it is your heart and soul. That is rare.

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