Why would anyone become a writer? Especially in a world that doesn’t seem to read anymore. Or go to the theatre, or go to the movies to see anything other than comic book heroes. Good question.
All the great writers were mostly drunks. Coincidence? Or is there a cost for looking too long into the abyss and reporting back to the good folk what they’re too timid to experience for themselves? Springsteen once wrote that there is a darkness at the edge of town. No, that darkness lies within us all. Each one of us has the latent potential to be a Hitler or a Christ. God has cleverly given us free will to choose our own poison. And the highly sensitive among us reach for the bottle, or the harder stuff, in order to numb ourselves to the responsibilities of that choice.
When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless. Sometimes I feel sorry for those who attempted to teach me anything. Not sure if my undisciplined mind was a result of the trauma I witnessed most nights in my abusive family home, or I had what is now diagnosed as ADD. One day the headmaster of the school phoned my mother for a meeting to question her as to why her son had the highest I.Q at the school and the lowest grades. She was at a loss for words. But not me. Words always came easy to me. In fact I could talk myself out of any beating I was about to receive from a Christian Brother. That was quite a feat considering the relish they got from handing out such brutal punishment. These guys would’ve been more at home as members of the Third Reich than Jesus’ band of 12. But talk my way out I did. So, words became my friend, my salvation. And humour protected me from the cruel slings of other peer group bullies. I could always hysterically put myself down before anyone else had the chance to. Timing was everything. Playing the court jester got me through my troubled youth and shielded me from revealing my true self. And what was that? I was scared of everything and everyone. I felt like an alien most of the time in a strange world that only threw contradictions at you.
My refuge again and again were words. The only subjects at school that I attained any respectable grades for were Art, English and Religious Knowledge. The latter because I loved hearing all the Biblical stories and for some reason remembered every detail. They were filled with such amazing imagery and drama. Oh, and miracles. I guess I was depending on a miracle to happen in my life that would save me. And this Jesus character sounded like he might’ve been the only person who would’ve taken the time to understand me. Whether he was the Messiah or not is up for debate, but he sure sounded like a nice man. And like me, and all the other loners and misfits in the world, grossly misunderstood. I never forgot those stories and if nothing else they were great morality word plays.
Due to my restless mind I found it too difficult to persevere and read a book through to the end. But I tried again and again to achieve this. Thank God I did because I now must own over a thousand books that I cherish and have taught me more than I ever learnt at school. I always tell people I was self educated and that’s the truth of it. All my education took place in a class of one. In many ways, books saved my life.
My introduction to books began when I was a small child and my Irish grandmother would sit me on her lap and read aloud the adventures of Noddy in Toyland. We bonded through the whole Noddy series until she was taken from me when I was two.
The first book that hooked me enough to finish was, ironically, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I guess it proved that I had a fascination with the mystery of women from an early age. This of course led to much heartache and my premature death but that’s a whole other story. Either that, or Ms. Alcott was one helluva writer that captured my imagination and kept me turning the pages. By the end of the book I felt I knew all the characters and cared enough about them to shed some tears. The mark of a great writer.
After that I read Enid Blyton’s book series “The Famous Five” followed by “The Secret Seven.” Then I graduated to “Biggles,” and then many books about the Wild West that introduced me to such colourful characters as Davy Crockett. Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy The Kid etc., etc., etc. Yep, who needed to time travel or see the world when you had books?
Then in my late teen years I read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and my life really did change. A book about the ultimate loner always surrounded by a party of people. I savoured every word in that book – it’s prose was exquisite and the story heartbreaking. It foretold me that following the wrong dreams can get you killed. Reading Fitzgerald was like finding a new best friend. I understood him. And from what I read I knew he understood me. After that I read all six of his novels and every short story he ever wrote. I couldn’t get enough of his words and the insight he gave into the human heart. It really was like he’d read my letters or thoughts and knew me intimately. Of course being part Irish, like me, virtually every story ended in death or heartbreak. He painted such a romantic but dangerous world where his characters always paid a high price for caring too much.
Fitzgerald’s own life was cut short by too much booze and heartbreak topped off by rejection in Hollywood. But he remains my friend and I reread “Gatsby” every couple of years. It never fails to move me. Hollywood has never been able to pull off a wholly successful film treatment of it for the simple reason that most of the truly beautiful stuff in the book are the thoughts in the characters heads, and that’s impossible to shoot. Films are about action. Fitzgerald’s writing is about emotions. Unless you do endless voice-overs and that usually renders your movie as exciting as porridge. That’s why the great Fitzgerald had such a hard time of it in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter in order to net enough money to keep his wife Zelda in a mental home and pay for his daughter’s schooling. He died a broken, despairing, weary man old before his time.
Like Gatsby, killed by the wrong dream.
I came to Charles Dickens late. Not sure why that was but come to him I did. The first book of his I chose to read was “Great Expectations” and was astounded. To me it remains one of the greatest novels of all time. And in my opinion he is right up there with Shakespeare.
I heard that Dickens original ending to “Great Expectations” was tragic and certainly all roads in the book are leading there. But his publisher leaned on him to come up with a more upbeat ending. Dickens listened, went away and rewrote it, and what he does is simply sublime. He gives it a happy ending that is so bitter sweet he moves us to tears as our damaged leading characters come together to try and seek a way forward, and into the sunlight. It is so beautiful my hands trembled as I read the final pages. This novel alone would’ve assured his place among the giants of literature, but he did it again and again, novel after novel – “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Hard Times,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Tale of Two Cities” (another ending that is so exquisitely executed as our flawed hero rises to the most noble of acts, laying down his wasted life so that others may live and find the joy that had always eluded him. Death giving his meaningless life a meaning. If there’s a better speech than his final words, I would surely love to know about it.
After Dickens I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, Schulberg, Shakespeare, O’Hara, Maugham, Hammett, Greene, Wilde, Twain, Isherwood, Chandler, Huxley, Ephron and many others.
All complex people, flawed, contradictory, confused, and yet so much wiser in their work than in life. Perhaps the writing down of stories and emotions helped them understand themselves.
It’s interesting how great writing never dates. You may think that picking up something that was written a hundred years ago or, in some cases longer, couldn’t possibly be relevant to your life. But the surprising revelation is that the emotions felt are timeless. Just different scenery and choice of words. But at the heart of every great story is just another human being trying to solve the same problems, whilst dealing with the same heartaches, pressures and obstacles. The universal human emotion. If you write the truth in its naked honesty it will always connect – now, tomorrow, a thousand years from now.
It teaches us that we are not alone. We are all in this together, wandering around a desert seeking an answer to why we are here. And awaiting that opportunity to rise to the potential of who we could be.
John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”
A person with books is never alone.
(C) Frank Howson 2018