For Christmas this year, my mother gave me a first edition copy of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. When I was a younger, angrier, more confused man (or, ever since I discovered The Catcher in the Rye on my mom’s bookshelf when I was a fifteen), I was a die-hard Salinger fan of the type he would probably have deplored. So I’ve read Raise High probably a half dozen times, at least, but not once in the last half-dozen years. Since Dana and I were on the road (literally) over the last week or so, I took the opportunity to read it again. Salinger’s command of language still brings me great joy, even if, philosophically, I feel like I’ve moved on from him. And something in Seymour still inspires, still helps me overcome my own personal and professional slumps.
In Seymour, the narrator, Buddy, transcribes a letter he received from his elder brother. The letter is something of an advice to writers everywhere â€” or, as Buddy puts it, “A Nineteen-Year-Old Prescription for Writers and Brothers and Hepatitis Convalescents Who Have Lost Their Way and Can’t Go On” â€” elicited by one of Buddy’s short stories. Seymour’s advice is simple and impossible all at once:
If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy ! Trust your heart. You’re a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you….I think I’d give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a story, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart.
Back before I started grad school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. And not just a writer, but a writer of really first-class fiction â€” literature, if I’m being completely honest. But the truth is, I don’t have the stamina for that. What I do have the stamina for is teaching, and, lucky me, that’s what I get to do more often than not around here. But part of being a teacher (or this kind of teacher, at any rate) is writing. Part of earning my keep as a scholar, as a teacher, is publishing. So, when I meet people at cocktail parties, I think I’m entitled to answer the “what do you do?” question with “I’m a writer.” Just not the writer I thought I’d be when I was obsessing over Salinger short stories.
But regardless of what kind of writer I ended up as, Seymour’s advice is no less appropriate. That mangled book I extracted from my dissertation was definitely not the piece of writing in all the world that I, as a reader, would most want to read. My heart lies elsewhere, so it’s really no surprise that it wasn’t my best work and that it isn’t, as we speak, off to the printers. What I most want to read in all the world is still in me, of course, and it’s bound to come out eventually.
I just don’t think I’ve sat still long enough to work up the courage to write the thing myself.
But, rest assured, I will. And that something, that anything, will come. And I’m pretty sure it’ll come in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different mediums and, lucky you, will cover a lot of ground. My heart is deeply invested in too many things (Buddhism, pop-culture, politics, music, and, above all else, love) to be constrained to just one thing in all the world that I’d most like to read.
I’m feeling optimistic and idealistic. A new year’s already upon us. And it’s time to get down to work.