I Put My Money Where My Mouth Is

I should be more modest and add the word “mostly” to that claim. The fact that I bring it up at all is because I’m reminded of an episode in Exodus where Moses is lamenting to God that he’s unfit for the task given him—leading his people out of bondage—because he can’t even make a decent public speech. As he says, “I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” God says don’t worry, your brother Aaron is good with words—I’ll guide you and you tell Aaron what to say.

This seems to suggest that Moses may not have been exactly who we think he was, because the above passage seems more congruent with a thinker and writer. He did, after all, conceive of and record the Ten Commandments, which makes him considerably more influential than Shakespeare, who could be considered the greatest writer of all time. And don’t forget, Moses devised the plan to deliver his people to the Promised Land. That took conceptualization par excellence. Yet he was tongue-tied as a leader and never actually brought that plan to fruition—Joshua did. So it might not be too farfetched to say that he was as much a thinker as a doer, or maybe even more so.

I’m stretching a point here to suggest that “writers” often write because they do that better than anything else. They are essentially thinkers rather than doers, with rare exceptions.

Consider Plato, in whose “Republic” is elaborated the good society where one might live the good life. Yet when he was invited to Syracuse in Sicily to put his ideas into practice, he failed entirely. Even in his home city of Athens, he was unable to convince the powers-that-be that he was capable of political leadership. Today we remember him as a “philosopher.”

Let’s return to the Bible again and consider the case of Paul of Tarsus. Paul was a thinker and a writer. He wrote beautiful and profound letters to the churches springing up in the new millennium, but when he turned up in person at those same churches, so the story goes, people were surprised at his lack of charisma and said, “Did this guy really write those letters? Isn’t he the tentmaker?” But the man really could write. Less than impressive as a person, he’ll never be forgotten as a writer.

Is it so important for writers to be dynamic doers? Even one such as Shakespeare was taken to task by Emerson, who claimed that the Bard was ultimately a failure as a man because he knew as much about the human condition as anyone before him in history and yet he did nothing personally to change the world—he only (!) put his ideas into plays and sonnets for the public’s entertainment. Should he instead have been a Henry VIII, a Cromwell, a Churchill?

Jefferson was a man without parallel in our Revolutionary days (and maybe since)—philosopher, administrator, farmer, inventor, musician, architect, scientist, explorer, lover—and yet although he wrote the document that got America going and inspired others as well (especially Madison, father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights), he rarely spoke willingly in public and was never entirely comfortable or persuasive as an office-holder. (Madison himself had a speech impediment and was a poor speaker as well.) Some think of Jefferson as a doer but one only has to compare him with Washington to see that in the main, he was a thinker and writer, just as Marx was no Lenin and Thomas Aquinas no Jesus.

So what am I getting at? That these individuals I’ve been discussing (in such broad generalities!) were in temperament writers. Writers typically aren’t movers and shakers, but they do move and shake. They do this, not by force of personality but through generating ideas that influence others. Writers are not kings but more often kings’ advisers (or jesters). As such, they are open to the charge, “Do you really live up to what you write about?” Did Moses follow all his commandments? Was Shakespeare really so knowledgeable in day-to-day life? Was Jefferson’s mind really free? This post is about whether I practice what I preach. Do I achieve the high standard in my own life that I set in my writing? And am I any kind of mover and shaker, or do I just write about it?

Let me begin to answer this by opening with a paradox (and one that will take us from the sublime that we’ve been talking about to the absolute mundane): I think cars and the culture we’ve created around them are among the most potent banes of our existence—in my books, cars are anathema to the good society—and yet I’m undeniably and incorrigibly partial to them. I grew up in Detroit and cruised in cars on Friday and Saturday nights on Woodward Avenue, one of the earliest prototypes for the American Graffiti subculture throughout the country. I’ve had x number of convertibles, and some of the fondest memories of my younger years are of cruising in an Austin Healey as a teenager or racing along the scenic byways of New Zealand in an RX-7 rotary turbo. I read car magazines when I had the chance. In words lifted from Hank’s black friend in the Orange Crate Folly play, “Can you ’splain that to me?”

I think it’s important for you to understand that when I trash car culture and say we ought to get rid of cars (most of them, technically), it’s not because I hate cars but because I love them but am willing to do without them in pursuit of something better. That I don’t do without them now has less to do with hypocrisy and more with the fact that my life is hard enough without making myself into a pariah to boot. (I know a guy who did.) I made this case in the novel Refugees From Albemarle: the character Drew reacts to criticism from his best friend Ben about having a Porsche, saying that he’d have a hell of a time getting a woman if he rode a bicycle. Ben says he himself does, to which Drew replies with something to the effect that, “Sure, that’s because you’ve already got your woman! I don’t!”

If we follow that line of reasoning, I was married for just ten years, so I’ve spent most of my life single and on the lookout—and who wants to go out with a guy on a bike? I say this with a straight face, so please don’t laugh. Look, at my age and with what I’ve gone through, I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict, and having had a convertible now and then (as well as a string of fast motorcycles) has helped me survive, both by giving me pleasure and by preventing me from being seen as a leper by members of the opposite sex (and members of my own as well). If we can create the kind of environment where we don’t need cars, either for transport, enjoyment or minimal social standing, I’m all for it. That’s one of the things I push for in my writing.

Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s difficult to lead the exemplary life I propound in my writing as much as I’d like because I’d be a total outcast. (Having a car is just one example.) I’d tasted parts of the pariah’s lot and knew it wasn’t for me. I was certain of what I had to do to stay alive—in order to finish my work—and I did it. At age 33 I was just beginning.

In my defense (and you might think I need one at this point), I should add that I rarely use a car and for about twelve years of my adult life I didn’t have one at all. But more than that, I’ve really tried my best to live up to the standards I set for myself. The lengths I go to might even seem excessive to some—I’m certainly out of step with my companions in that, I think. In any case, I constantly strive to be what I think a person should and can be. The very fact that I have to strive, often against the grain of my own culture, accentuates what I say constantly in the writing—our society should make it easy to live a just and good life. Thus the need for change seems painfully obvious to me.

Nevertheless, I’ve fallen far short in many ways and I hope it won’t be said of me, “He set high standards but he himself couldn’t live up to them.” I tried my best and never gave up trying. And I got little or no help from my culture—if anything, it thwarted me at every turn.

Did I put my money where my mouth is (as per the title of this post)? I tried, in many simple and probably unremarkable ways. Did I step into the arena with a commanding presence and influence people with the force of my personality to follow me? No. Like most writers, that’s not my calling. I want to change the world but I wasn’t born with the charisma, social position, or animal vitality to do it. What I have been given is the ability to develop a reasonably clear picture of what we are and what we might be, and to write about it. I try to live up to that.

Was Shakespeare less of a man because he didn’t lead a nation but ran around backstage with social outcasts known as actors? Is this curious being Cat Tree Rain a failure because he didn’t grab America by the horns and use his might to turn it in another direction? What is a man? What does it take to be considered a man? Who decides? With only a cursory inspection of his life, who knows what good a man has done?

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