Writers, Your Time Is Running Short

Sands of time

My father, who could be both loving and dismissive in equal measure, took stock of me at fourteen and made an assessment which has haunted me ever since. It was at the beginning of my “difficult period,” although I’m pretty sure everyone has a difficult period around that age. Along with the typical tiny rebellions against authority and wild swings of emotion, I had begun to do badly in school, which caused no end of concern in a family where education was highly prized and grades were the main metric of personal growth.

I should be a little more accurate: Most of the concern came from my mother, who was endlessly anxious about the prospects of her children and who observed my budding self-destructive streak with a sense of hopelessness and heartbreak. I don’t think I can fully appreciate how much trauma I put her through even now; I was certainly not paying it much attention back then.

My father, on the other hand, viewed the situation with a large degree of detachment. He had by that point proven himself a success in his chosen field, and had the air of equanimity one finds in those who have achieved the goals they set early in life and are aware that they have already won the game. Things had worked out for my father. If they did not work out for me it would be unfortunate, but it wasn’t something that would detract from his own victories. He could afford to be less apprehensive than my mom.

We were sitting at the dinner table one night, discussing yet another minor transgression for which I had been disciplined by school authorities. I believe my mother was crying. My father, probably in an attempt to convince her that he could help me through my struggle (but more likely because he wanted the crying to stop and figured that the best way to do that would be to take the control of the conversation), gave me a speech about the importance of appearances, of how there are things we don’t want to do but have to anyway and that often it is easier to simply do those things and be on your way than to push against them, be sanctioned, and still be forced to do them just the same.

“I mean, what do you want to do with your life? How do you think you’re going to get away with not following the same rules as everyone else?”

“I’m gonna be a writer,” I mumbled.

This was not something I had said out loud since early childhood, when your future career changes at least once a day. But I had been thinking about it. Even with my troubles in school, writing was still an area where I flourished, perhaps because the rubrics with which its success was measured were less constrictive than those in other subjects.

“I’ll write a book,” I added. I was probably trying to convince myself more than I was the rest of the table.

My father eyed me coolly. He liked me, my father, I never had any doubt of that. He saw a lot of himself in me: the cruel wit, the quickness with a joke, the brooding cynicism. If I had also inherited my mother’s emotional insecurities, so be it; at least his qualities were the ones that had proven dominant so far. His disappointment sprang from the fact that while I had taken on the sharper aspects of his personality, I had none of the leavening traits that made so many people genuinely care for him even though he could indeed be very vicious at times.

In any event, he looked at me, sized me up, and uttered the phrase that still burns at the back of my brain whenever I remember it.

“You’ll never write a book,” he said evenly. “You’ll be a character in bunch of other people’s books, but you’re never going to write one yourself.”

And there it was: loving and dismissive at the same time, and sadly accurate. As the years went on I abandoned any hopes of proving him wrong. The old man knew what he was talking about, and because of that I made the choices that brought me to the place where I am now.

Ya like that? It’s fiction! Well, mostly. Anyway, I’ve never really had an urge to write a novel, but reading Sam Tanenhaus’ argument that novelists’ best work is done before 40 got me thinking: I don’t have a lot of time left. If I want to write a great novel I’ve got to get cracking, like, now. I’m thinking of using that bit above as a starting point, but I worry that it’s a little too insular and not commercial enough. Maybe I’ll go with something about sexy sex vampires instead. Or international art thieves, that could be interesting!

Ah, who am I kidding? I’m just gonna keep blogging and then die. Those of you who do harbor aspirations in the direction of fiction, though, should consider yourselves warned. You’d better hurry up. If you need a little help, feel free to base one of the characters in your book on me. I pretty much write myself.