Note: This is the last of the “On Writing” columns that I have been writing for the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly since September 2014. After writing more than fifty columns and receiving the Alaska Press Club’s 2016 Suzan Nightingale Award for Best Columnist, I cannot continue writing the column because Morris Publishing Group, the owner of the Empire and CCW, is requiring columnists to sign a new contract that gives the publishers rights over a columnist’s work beyond publication in the newspaper. I cannot agree to such conditions, so I’m out.
But it has been a good run, and I end this last column with some words of appreciation to Juneau’s readers.
For most of the 1980s I was a poor graduate student, but thanks to two of my mentors I had the cultural life of a prince. My dissertation director loved George Balanchine and the ballet, and would sometimes invite me along with him to the New York City Ballet. (And I was surprised to find myself growing to love the ballet and appreciating the talent of dancers like Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, who made the most strenuous dancing look like a walk in the park.)
Another friend and mentor, the late Father Thomas Coskren, O.P., a Dominican priest and professor of Humanities at Providence College, loved the opera and had a millionaire patron who always bought him season tickets to the Mets—I mean, a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera (my sensibilities lean more toward baseball than toward opera).
Now and then, Coskren would invite me along to the opera, and we’d go into the City, catch a little Verdi, a late dinner, and then wander the streets of Manhattan, since we shared a love of the City.
Coskren had a formula, a mantra, for surviving the streets of modern cities like New York and Boston—a formula that I am sure he derived from the theology of his fellow Dominican, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who thought highly of our senses’ ability to know the world and who himself had survived the streets of 13th-century Paris. (Not all Medieval theologians did.)
Coskren’s formula was this: Trust your fear. If your Spider Sense tells you that you might be in a dangerous situation, you really are, and you had better get your ass out of there fast, any way you can.
Don’t let your fear keep you from enjoying the city, but trust it to keep you safe when you’re there.
And that is my formula for writing: trust your fear.
Trust the fear that you’re saying something everyone already knows.
Trust the fear that your reasoning is unsound and your prose incomprehensible.
Trust the fear that everyone’s going to misunderstand everything you say, anyway.
And trust the correlative fear that readers will understand everything you say.
Trust the fear that nobody gives a damn.
Trust the fear that you’re going to seem like a pretentious ass or a pedantic bastard or both (although with me this is not so much a fear as an act of bemused resignation).
These are some of the danger zones of writing; there are more. But trust your fear to let you know you’re wandering where you shouldn’t, and then get the hell out of there.
The fears sometimes keep us from trying, from committing our true thoughts to the page, but we can’t let them. Not anymore. Be like Thomas Aquinas and Peter Parker.
Trust that your sense of fear is real and true, that what smells bad is bad, that what sounds suspicious really needs to be viewed with skepticism. Let your fear keep you safe when you’re fighting crime or Albigensians in the perilous byways and back alleys of English prose.
Jean-Paul Sartre, whose notions have informed so much of my thinking about writing, says that “there is no art except for and by others.” What’s interesting about this statement is that it leaves the artist’s self out of the picture. There’s no room for ego in art.
It’s all about community. Writing is like the city. Dangerous and beautiful, strange and distressing, bright and alluring. Worth all the risks. It’s where we come together.
It’s where we live, a city we share, a community we build. Like Juneau. Writing is Juneau.
Which is to say that it is not Atlanta.
This is the last “On Writing” column. The stars have been aligning to tell me it’s time to stop, so I’m going to listen to the stars, for a change.
Some thank yous are in order:
Thanks to my editors at the Capital City Weekly, first Amy Fletcher and then Mary Catherine Martin.
Thanks to the numerous friends whose names I have taken in vain and whose ideas have given me a clue what I’m talking about. Thanks to Clint Farr for responding to a challenge and serving as a guest columnist.
Thanks to Paul McCarthy for the good work we do together teaching writing at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, and to the other friends I’ve made there, like Sherman Pitt and guest columnist Byron Benedict.
And thanks to my friend and guest columnist Lowell Ford, in the hope that we will someday sit down together over a few beers, both of us free men.
Thanks to my twin sister Judy and my son Harry, who have helped in more ways than they can know. Thanks to all my kids, actually—Jamie, Harry, Katie, Ben, and Mary, for being models of fearlessness and irreverent good humor.
And thanks above all to Michelle. In addition to serving as a guest columnist, Michelle has been the most constant presence in these columns; if I had time and space, I could take you through each column and point out the observations that came directly from her wisdom and acuity and the conversations we have every day.
Finally, to all of Juneau’s readers, my deepest gratitude. To borrow some great words from A. A. Milne’s preface to The House at Pooh Corner: this column would have been my gift to you, were it not your gift to me.