A Nearly Holy Thing

Last winter I tore the meniscus in my knee while shagging balls for my son. I cringed when the physical therapist ordered me to start spending a lot of time at the pool; I'm a terrible swimmer. Still, I've dutifully followed his instructions, and my knee has been steadily improving.

Maybe all the chlorine has started to get to me, but I was recently struck by this idle thought: why is it that a lousy swimmer, like me, for example, arouses no more than mild sympathy from the tanned young life-guards, while in the literary world where I spend much of my time, flawed writing can send people into paroxysms of visciousness. Part of the answer, I suspect, is that an inept swimmer makes no claim on us, but language always does.

I say this at a moment when book review pages are disappearing faster than the family farm and when, in the culture at large, literature seems so beside the point. The writing profession feels like a barbeque with not enough sauce to go around.

Yet we writers keep attacking each other like loony frontier religious sects, like Michael Vick's starved pit bulls. I'm as guilty of it as anyone. In the late 1970s, my friend Tony Giardiana and I used to meet at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan every Friday afternoon to drink cappuccino and work ourselves into a lather over which novelist or playwright had just been showered with unwarranted praise. When Harpers published a manifesto skewering a dozen of the biggest literary reputations, nearly every writer I know had read it within a week.

There is a long and storied tradition of this: Hemingway assailing Gertrude Stein, Llosa punching Marquez, Tom Wolfe calling Mailer and Updike "two piles of bones," Gore Vidal's comment about Truman Capote, "It is inhuman to attack Capote. He is an elf." Or, most quotable of all, there is Mary McCarthy's remark about Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

This behavior is a great subject for comedy, but beyond the comedy, beyond the posturing and the wounded egos, lurks a shared belief that language is a nearly holy thing, that it has the power to change the way we see.

On Monday night, after my workshop, I walk down the hill to my car. The grackles are making a racket, settling down for the night, and bicyclists whiz past me, crouched low over their handlebars. Not every class goes perfectly, but I often feel, on that twenty minute hike to the parking lot, what a privilege it is to teach these students. Some of the discussions we have are among the most intense, high-level conversations I've ever had in my life. I'm struck again and again by their ability to read, their alertness to nuance, their dazzling runs of language, their ardor. I know how long the odds are, and they do too, not being fools, but the great news is that they are in pursuit of something huge. Writers can be arrogant, dismayingly deluded pains in the ass, but they are also the most hopeful of people. Who but a hopeful person would spend five years working on something no one has asked for, that no one has ever dreamed of, and then expect the world to pay attention?

I've been writing for forty years and the best part of my day is still those three hours in the morning, when there's no literary din, no distant carping, and it's just me, my legal pads and my drawer full of Clic-a-Stic pens. It's the time when everything is possible. All I have to do is get my breathing right, get my stroke down, and there won't be an ocean I can't cross.