Chapter 100: Fear, Itself
I started this newsletter one hundred chapters ago when I discovered after decades of writing that it was possible to find joy in the work.
As I wrote in January 2020 – the date does jump out; the before times – this began only after I’d stopped writing for eight years when, after being advised that the publishing landscape was no longer hospitable for mid-list authors like me, I concluded that I’d find greater satisfaction in publishing other peoples’ work. I did, together with colleagues with whom we first founded The Big Roundtable, the precursor to The Delacorte Review.
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But then, in 2019, I returned to writing, seemingly by chance. My daughter was planning a trip to Israel and I thought that if we could overlap for a few days I’d finally have the excuse I’d been needing for 35 years to make my way to a barren stretch of the Negev Desert and visit the grave of my best friend, who had died in 1984 when he was 31. Her plans changed but I went, notebook in hand.
I came home and began to write a story and did not stop for three weeks. It was difficult, and at times heartbreaking, as it must be when you are telling the story of a friendship that endures longer in death than in life. But as I wrote in Chapter One, I also experienced a newfound joy in the work.
Perhaps, I wrote, “It stood to reason that if I could find joy in writing after experiencing mostly pain, others could too. And if they could, not only would they be better for it, but so too would their stories. If their stories were better, the readers would be happier and if the readers were happier, well, the virtuous circle was complete.”
There is something about anniversaries, especially those marked by big, round numbers – I spent enough time in newsrooms to appreciate the easy peg of the commemorative story; where are we as a society now…? – that lends itself to pausing and, inevitably, looking back.
When I do, I return to the end of Chapter One, which set up Chapter Two: the story of the book that changed my life as a writer: Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean.
Writers are forever seeking inspiration, and with it comfort and reassurance from the great ones who came before. Maclean assumes that role for me. He did not write a lot, and he came to it late; for decades he was a legendary English professor at the University of Chicago. He wrote a novella, A River Runs Through It, that sold very well and which Robert Redford made into a movie. Then, in his mid-70s, he thought he’d start a new book – the story of a fatal 1949 forest fire in Montana, where Maclean had grown up and where, for a short time, he too had been a firefighter.
“He thought it would be a quick and relatively easy task,” his son, the author John Maclean wrote to me recently. “Just a recap of a western fire with sad consequences. It wound up consuming the last years of his life, more than a dozen years…”
I’d initially wanted to return to the story of Young Men and Fire as a way to make the point that in an era when commercial publishing has become ever more risk averse, university presses and small, independent publishers can be a home for books that might otherwise not fit on a big publisher’s list. Three publishers had turned down A River Runs Through It before Maclean brought it to the University of Chicago Press. That same press also published Young Men and Fire which to date has sold a remarkable 350,000 copies. Take that every editor who turned down A River Runs Through It because it was too “western” and had “trees” - a book that has now sold over a million copies.
But as so often happens, my story about his story took on a life of its own. What began as a chapter on sales and publishing, quickly evolved into something altogether different, and for me as a writer, and I hope for those of you who write or love those who do, illuminating: a story about fear.
In this case, the story of an aging man’s fears that somehow the story would elude him.
I am not alone in my admiration of Maclean and of Young Men and Fire. Both the author and book have been the subject of essays, articles and commentary. I had not known this; I had not looked because I preferred keeping my connection to Maclean limited to the book and in particular two short sections.
The first comes seemingly out of nowhere when Maclean pauses, in his recounting of the mystery of a fire that appeared extinguishable only to explode into a fast-moving inferno that killed twelve of the fifteen men who parachuted down to fight it, to consider why he had embarked on his quest to make sense of this freak occurrence of nature.
If there is a story – note the if – “it will take something of a storyteller at this date to find it,” he wrote, before adding, “He probably should be an old storyteller, at least old enough to know that the problem of identity is always a problem, not just a problem of youth, and even old enough to know that the nearest anyone can come to finding himself at any given age is to find a story that somehow tells him about himself.”
Maclean was saying what no editor had ever told me: the choices we make as writers are personal, because in what we choose to write, no matter the form, we are searching for ourselves. It was, and remains, the most liberating expression of what the nonfiction writer’s life can, and should be. I’ve read it aloud at the start of every semester for the past thirty years.
The second passage concludes the book. And before I recount it, I should explain that as a decidedly indoors person, someone who has never wished to fight a forest fire, nor fly fish nor walk the hard terrain Maclean traversed searching for answers, I would appear to be the least likely reader of this book. But I could not put down Young Men and Fire. The book possessed the elusive but essential quality that makes for memorable writing: the electric sensation of words jumping off the page. Something was propelling Maclean to find and tell this story and only when I came to the final sentence did I understand, or believe I understood, what it was.
“Perhaps it is not odd,” he wrote, “at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
Every time I read that passage aloud I pause to catch my breath to keep my voice from cracking.
Those two passages were all I needed to know, all I needed to take from this remarkable book. I was wrong. John Maclean began to set me straight. Yes, it was about his mother, who died at 63. But in his search for a story that could “tell him about himself” Maclean had stumbled upon much more and, as he tried to sort his way through things, it became ever more elusive.
The story his father was chasing, wrote John Maclean, was “transforming into a story that helped define his personal identity, his concept of the highest form of literature, namely tragedy, and at the very end his lingering grief at the earlier, too early, loss of his wife, my mother Jessie.”
To a great extent this was true. As Norman Maclean told Pete Dexter in a 1980 profile in Esquire, “Eighteen years before she died they told her it was hopeless. Emphysema. She wouldn’t leave the cigarettes alone. The last years, she lived with an oxygen tank, but she never whined, I never heard her cry. She died in December 1968, in Chicago, and I thought I died with her.”
But, John Maclean wrote, citing one of his own books, there was more to this quest than her death alone: “There was no one source of inspiration. I write about this evolution, too, in Home Waters: his first completed draft of the book, as I reported, was a failure.”
I cannot associate the word with the book or the author. Failure? Yes, but even as he struggled, his journey led him to a larger and fuller world. As John Maclean wrote: “The story enlarged his sense of himself as a man and a scholar: he recovered his history as a young woodsman and sometime firefighter, and he made an original and deep push into a complex event that no one else had plumbed to that depth before. The story enlarged his sense of tragedy, mixing the classical literary model he had taught with a real life event with its own twists and turns.”
The operative word, or rather words because Maclean uses it several times is: enlarge. His father began what felt like a manageable search and like the fire he labored so hard and so long to understand, the story enlarged to a point well past humbling.
“In the end he could not finish it,” John Maclean wrote. “He did not have the time, and perhaps even with a few more years he would not have been satisfied that he had done all he could. But he came very close. The editing of his final manuscript was not a rewrite job. It was a reordering, an extensive one, of material he had written. Only a couple of minor sentences were added, to make a necessary transition.”
I have carried with me an image, an idea really, of Norman Maclean: an elderly man, by now well into his 80s, clambering up a steep incline in a remote stretch in Montana where decades before young men had died in flames. He is searching and searching and he is, despite the good friends he has made in his journey, alone with the story that feels forever beyond his grasp.
It is a tough image because it captures what is central to the writing life – the struggle with the story, the journey to find your way to knowing it, owning it. And if we do our work right, if we insist as Maclean did in moving past the expedient and easily accessible, if we allow ourselves to get lost in the dark, we accept that we will face perils that leave us shaken and filled with doubt.
“In your second book you are for the first time competing with yourself,” Maclean told Pete Dexter, “and that turns out to be pretty tough competition. Even when all you are trying to do is make jokes at a small party, it’s paralyzing when you can’t tell the old ones over again. There’s always a question one often asks himself painfully, ‘Is there nothing more to me than I have already found out?’”
Just now I am struggling with my own writing. I had thought I said everything I needed to say about my friend, his life and death and our bond. As I wrote many chapters ago, when I was done with my story my editor asked whether there was a book in it. I said I wasn’t sure. He suggested I approach it as a novelist might: don’t write a proposal and try to sell it. Write the book.
The story grows and that, as I have learned from Norman Maclean, is at once thrilling and terrifying. I feel I have my arms around it. Almost.
At the same time I remind my students that as they wrestle their brave and ambitious stories to the ground, the work will not get easier, that while experience teaches you craft and lessons about human nature, the challenges of the writing life are a constant.
It is the same for them, and for me, as it was for Norman Maclean who told Pete Dexter, “At the end I was almost afraid to sleep, afraid I’d lose the connections as it came together.”
Fear. But also the joy. The two companions that follow, or should follow writers wherever they go and whatever they do. I suspect Maclean possessed that quality, too, though he did not seem the sort of person to dwell on it.
“I am often asked what my father was like,” wrote John Maclean, “and more specifically what it was like to fish with him. I tried to answer especially the latter question in Home Waters: he could take an ordinary day and put magic in it, but God help you if you lost a big fish in front of him.”
I am fearful of losing the big fish. So is every writer with big dreams. Fear is part of the compact we make when we embark on this life, knowing, too, that what we do, when we do it right, can put magic in someone’s day.
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We’re delighted to feature a story by a writer new to The Delacorte Review, Claire O’Brien, whose terrific story, How Not to Dig Your Own Grave, appears this week, in partnership with CrimeReads.com.
We hope you enjoy it.
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100 chapters = 100% inspirational
This was gorgeous. New to your newsletter and relieved to have made it.