Category Archives: Walker Percy

It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, MFA, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Summer, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Walker Percy, Work

The Little Way

Strange how the sting of a statement can persist.  Lately, my memory keeps replaying an encounter with a college classmate in 1985.  She appeared in Tewligan’s, a bar in Louisville where my friends and I danced on Friday nights.  I hadn’t seen her in two years and, in that time, I’d received my masters and taken a job teaching sixth and seventh grade English. We exchanged what-are-you-doing-nows, and she said the only important part of this story.

“Sort of underemployed, aren’t you?”

I haven’t seen her since—I can’t recall her name—but she provided one of those moments when everything seems shaken into place—the DVD seated and swallowed, each bottle slotted into its proper square in a lattice, all the b-bs settling into the dimples of a clown’s face.

Her question stuck with me because high school and college classmates expected more of me. The usual scrawled good wishes fill my high school yearbook but so do many assertions I’d someday be president, a movie actor, a general all-around famous and accomplished person. Many students probably have yearbooks like mine, but in college my ambitions ran unchecked.  They rose to Parnassian heights.  My senior roommate and many of our friends fully expected us to be renowned writers reviewed regularly in the NY Times.  He is.  I’m not.

My son is a high school senior.  Right now, his applications fly in a holding pattern over his head, and he waits to see which acceptances will land and which jet elsewhere.  I wonder if he has such ambitions for himself and hope he doesn’t. His impressive talents, nurtured well, might take him far, but I’d like him to live by the standard of satisfaction, not accomplishment.

I’ve measured my own life by what I might have done. 25 years later, I hear my college classmate echoed in questions about why I’m here and not elsewhere, why I’m not doing something different or something more.  People are no longer asking really, but I hear it. I ask myself.  So short of my early dreams, I resist recognizing I’ve found my level.  Satisfaction feels like rationalizing, trying to bury an ambition that pounds like a heart long separated from its body.

In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, on the way back from an blissful day on the coast with a new love, the main character Binx Bolling realizes the small joys of his life and says, “It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

As the great Catholic novelist, Percy has Bolling express the sentiment of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who espoused the Little Way as a devotion to everyday people and everyday tasks—in her view, the right way to worship.  Salvation was daunting in her day, a question of how near perfection believers came.  She expressed the welcome idea people might love God less through Acts and more through simple, day-in, day-out goodness.

And I wish I could believe her.  I’ve nothing to be dissatisfied about.  I’m good at teaching, or at least earnest about doing my best, and have always sought to exercise my talents, such as they are.  In my best moments, I’m happy in Thérèse’s little way.  I want to be because there’s agony in comparison.

When my son was small, he told me he was “good at a lot of things, but not the best at anything.”  He’s attended schools where even bright, creative, and diligent students stand in the shadow of brilliant and dazzling talent.  It’s hard not to compare, but I want him to be satisfied with making the most of what he has and form no ambition beyond devoting full effort to building on his considerable gifts.

Like every father, I want him to have what I lack.  I want him to find his way.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Parenting, Recollection, St. Thérèse, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Walker Percy, Work, Writing