I left home when I was 18, moved out to Colorado, got a few part-time jobs in order to scramble the cash needed to upgrade my camping equipment so I could, within the year, travel the Southwest. Which I did, and which is a story for another day. I only mention this to lead here: While I was camping outside Taos, I somehow got invited to a writer’s party. Since it was a decision between hanging out with writers or hanging alone by my sputtering pinion fire in late November, it was really no decision at all.
Yet, within minutes of getting handed a glass of wine and hating how my bootheels clacked across the hardwood, I wished I was home, as in back at camp, where at least I could smoke cigarettes in peace, journal, and enjoy the cooling high desert night. I was slightly intimidated by these people. They were well-dressed, older, and clearly moved in educated and urbane circles that I had yet to encountered. To be fair to myself, I was nineteen, reading everything I could get my hands on, and just starting to put together some sort of aesthetic, some system of beliefs and values that would inform my writing, my reading, and my thoughts on literature, life, and just who I wanted to be. And what I learned that night was who I wasn’t and who, gratefully, I could never be.
After a while, a smarmy loafers-and-no-socks, white jeans and braided belt kind of guy started in on me, asking pointed questions about college (which I had yet to attend), what I thought of this, that, and the other book he clearly knew I knew nothing about, etc, etc. Long and short, I was his intellectual sparring partner and vastly out-gunned. The group I had been chatting with awkwardly laughed and drifted away.
“So,” He asked, “What do you intend to do with your writing?”
What I told him I knew even then was ridiculous, pompous, and every bit as smarmish and mean-spirited as he was. But I wanted to find a way to smear the condescension on his face into shock, indignation, anything but that patronizing smirk.
“I intend,” I said slowly, “To be the only American writer that matters.”
Which I knew then and know still is complete bullshit. I don’t want that. Though I didn’t know what I wanted, I knew it wasn’t that. To write, travel, and live well was about the extent of my plans. Other than that, I couldn’t say, and now, years later, that’s still about as far as the master plan goes.
But I can tell you this: that experience made me realize the importance of keeping a balance on the inside. I am never as great nor as hopeless a man or writer as it may feel in any given moment. I plug on. I write on. That’s it. I judge harshly my work and revise. I’ve learned to see writing like any other job. I’m like an accountant but with words. Or a carpenter, a pipefitter, whatever.
That smarmy twit taught me was that I’d rather been known as a good man than a great writer. I’d like both, of course, but would not sacrifice the former for the latter. We write best from love and praise, from a place where mystery sings the world’s hymn, and we’re lucky enough to hear it and transcribe the results.
So thanks, Smarmy Man, I appreciate what you’ve done for me.