Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A dangerous profession

Last week, Shakespeare's Sister asked as one of her fun questions of the day:

Think of a person you knew only briefly—no more than one year—who nonetheless left a significant and lasting impact on your life. It could be a lover, teacher, friend, boss, whatever. What did you learn, gain, or lose?

I didn't leave an answer because I had the same trouble thinking of one as Mrs Shakes had herself:

I can’t think of anyone who I knew for so short a time. Even my teachers were people I saw often after having their classes, because my parents were teachers, and so it was typical for me to see teachers outside of school.

Same with me. As for friends, I've been lucky in that most of my best friends are still my friends and the good friends I've drifted away from or who have drifted away from me---a couple had the nerve to drift right out of this world, for which I'm still having a hard time forgiving them---were my friends for years. If Shakes had asked for memorable characters I could write for days about several bosses and co-workers. And if she'd asked only for a person outside of your family without setting a time limiting frame I'd have had trouble choosing just one. There have been a bunch, including Uncle Merlin's mom; Uncle Merlin himself; my fourth grade teacher, Mrs MacLane; Mrs K, our high school drama teacher; my old pal Rennie; my old pal Cindy; my old pal Steve Kuusisto; my old pal Nancy Nall.

(The answer Shakes came up with to her own question is very interesting, by the way.)

There is one person, however, who sort of fits Shakes' bill. (There's a pun there that is almost true, as you'll see.) The novelist Frederick Busch. I didn't know Fred for less than a year. Our acquaintance lasted for the better part of two decades, but I guess if you added up all the time we actually met up or spoke or corresponded, it would amount to much less than a week, maybe even a day. (If you throw in the time I've spent reading his books, however, and time spent reading a writer's work is time spent in his company, the total shoots way up.) But he still had a significant impact on my life.

Technically, Fred was never my teacher and I can't say we were friends, although he was always very friendly whenever we connected. But that didn't happen often. I met him at Iowa. He wasn't teaching there at the time, he came for a visit, and I interviewed him for the college paper. A few years later I interviewed him again for the newspaper in Syracuse and a few years after that I interviewed him again and one more time after that. In between we exchanged a few letters and emails and I visited him a couple of times at his office at Colgate University, where he taught.

But although I never took a class or a workshop from him I think of him as the best writing teacher I ever had. Fred was one of the hardest working writers I've ever met, and he thought more deeply and seriously about the craft than any of the men and women who came through the Writers' Workshop while I was a student there. A half hour's conversation with him was worth far more to a young writer's training than an entire semester with any of them.

Fred Busch died this past Friday.

I have been trying to work up a post about Fred and his work but I'm not sure I'll get it done in the next couple of days. I want to say something fitting about him now though and I think the best I can do for him is let him speak for himself---or at least give you a sense of what I got out of speaking with him. So what follows here is one of the articles I wrote about Fred. I interviewed him for the next to last time in the fall of 1998 when his collection of essays about writing, A Dangerous Profession, which may be his best book after his novel Rounds, was published.

“Put your fingers on your throat when you’re reading something,” the writer suggests, “And see if you don’t feel your larynx moving just a bit as you’re adjusting your air intake as if you were saying the words along with the writer.”

The writer is Frederick Busch. Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University. Novelist, short story writer, essayist. Thirteen novels, six collections of short stories, three books of non-fiction, including his latest book, A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. Two more books coming out next year, another novel and an anthology of advice to young writers that’s he’s edited.

He’s talking by phone from his home in Sherburne about A Dangerous Profession, and about the many dangers inherent in his profession that gave the book its title.

Writing, of course, can be dangerous in the strictest, most physical sense. Salman Rushdie lived for a decade under a death sentence. Vaclev Havel went to prison. So did Wole Soyinka.

And writers can be politically dangerous. Certainly, in the cases of Rushdie, Havel, and Soyinka says Busch, the ayatollahs in Iran, the communists who ruled the former Czechoslovakia, the military dictators of Nigeria thought and think of these writers as dangerous men.

But the dangers Busch is talking about, and most concerned about in the essays that make up A Dangerous Profession, are not the more public ones, but the private ones---the dangers writers pose to themselves and to their readers.

The relationship between readers and writers, Busch says, “is an emotional and physical entanglement.”

“We can’t all write. But most of us do wish to tell our stories. And sometimes the only way we can even approach that is to have somebody else tell his or her story. We share in that vicariously,” Busch says. “That’s why we enjoy certain writers. That’s why a non-writer who’s a good reader will say to you, God I worship (so and so), I’ll read anything she writes.”

“It strikes me that that’s not only because of her prose, or the adventures of her characters, but because the reader somehow thrills not only to what goes on in the book but to the very act of telling, which he witnesses and with which he ultimately emotionally cooperates.”

The cooperation is conditional, however. That condition is paradoxical. It is this: Readers want to hear the writer tell a story but they hope that it is not the story that the writer wants to tell.

This is bound to lead to mutual disappointment. A good writer, a serious writer, doesn’t tell readers what they want to hear. He tells them what he believes to be true. This truth is often hard. Disappointed readers move onto other books by other writers. Where do disappointed writers go?

Into government work, in one famous case, into obscurity, into near silence. Herman Melville, the subject of two essays in A Dangerous Profession, and Busch’s forthcoming novel, The Night Inspector, wrote two best-sellers to start his career. Neither one was Moby Dick. That book nearly finished his career. Critics harpooned it. Readers let it sink unsold and unread. Melville lamented:

“What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."

A Dangerous Profession has two parts. The ten essays in the second part are critical examinations of the lives and works of writers Busch likes and admires. The first six essays are personal, Busch relating the earliest stages of his own career.

One of those essays is called “The Writer’s Wife,” an apologetic, comic valentine to Busch’s wife of 35 years, Judy. Busch calls the essay, “My expiation.”

The first essay is about Busch’s father. It’s called “My Father’s War.” Benjamin Busch, Sr., a lawyer in civilian life, served as an Army scout in Italy during World War II. In the essay Busch describes his attempts to recreate for himself his father’s wartime experiences, which his father rarely discussed, using his father’s laconic, sometimes monosyllabic, soldier’s diary and maps from the college library at Colgate.

It’s a frustrating exercise, which leaves Busch shouting to his father in his head, “Where are you?”

At the end of the essay Busch suggests that his mapping of his father’s war is emblematic:

“When I write, then, when I place my characters in a geography I labor to make actual-feeling, in some way true, perhaps I am trying to earn my reader’s approval. Maybe I have to find him first. Maybe, when I write, I’m mapping him.”

The reader, of course, may not like the map or find it useful. His answer to the question “Where are you?” may be “Not where you think I am.” Or as Busch puts it in “Melville’s Letters,” a writer sends mail out into the world, his work, and then waits for the world to reply, which it very often does not.

Or if it does bother, the response probably isn’t all the writer hoped for, even when the reply comes from very someone very close by. Busch remembers how when he gave his mother a copy of his short story collection, Hardwater Country, she said, “Will I like this one?”

“Success is only delayed failure,” wrote Graham Greene, whom Busch quotes in an essay called “The Unscrupulous Purity of Graham Greene.” Even writers who never seem to have disappointed readers, whose careers were one success after another, and included fame, fortune, wealth and life-long adulation, may finally disappoint themselves. Busch writes of Charles Dickens as one example; Ernest Hemingway, as another.

Towards the end of his career, and his life, shortly before he committed suicide, in fact, Hemingway was in the Mayo Clinic, being treated for hypertension, diabetes, and depression. While there, Busch has been told, Hemingway taped a sign to his door. It said:

“Quiet Please. Former Writer Preparing Press Conference.”

“He was one of the writers made by media hoopla. He cooperated, he liked it. We all like that kind of attention, it’s very tempting. But he looked himself in the eye and with that sign he said two things. ‘I let myself become a creature of press conferences and publicity. And I can’t write anymore.’”


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