If Ya Don’t Have To, Then Don’t

Posted in: Uncategorized | By: | March 01, 2009

The Man“I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”- Cormac McCarthy

Those of us who write, either for income or pleasure, are constantly asked about where we get our motivation or discipline. Writing, of course, is a practiced and studied craft that requires an output of product on a regular basis to achieve a final vision. Good writing has never been the exhibition of a gift but is always the result of regular, hard work. William Styron was quoted more than a few times claiming that he wrote only a paragraph a day because it was the only technique he knew for perfecting his vision. This explains, perhaps, why it took him ten years to complete The Confessions of Nat Turner.

My favorite story about motivation for writing comes from a little cafeteria at the foot of the Franklin Mountains in the desert of West Texas. Cormac McCarthy, the peripatetic genius, moved to El Paso from Tennessee to concentrate his work on the American West. In the UK, he was already widely known as a man of great talent for his books like Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, and others but in the U.S. his work sold only to a core group of readers who appreciated his rich, ornate prose and vivid descriptions. His publisher said McCarthy’s books never sold more than 5000 copies. Then, however, he won the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses.

Famous for being reclusive, McCarthy never spoke with journalists; except once in a 1992 interview with the New York Times. The fact that he was finally ascendant in his native country, however, prompted an editor of a London newspaper to dispatch a reporter to Texas to seek a more contemporary interview and do a profile of the author. I’d had a slightly less ambitious goal for many years as a fan of his books. Blood Meridian had changed my romantic view of U.S. western history and I devoured every word McCarthy had ever committed to narrative. I just wanted to see his face and determine if there were a way to pick out greatness in a crowd, to see if it was betrayed by the eyes or the lines on the face or the muscles of a smile.

As a TV news correspondent, I was frequently assigned to do reports in El Paso and had heard McCarthy hung out at a particular pool hall at the end of his writing day and always took his lunch alone at the Luby’s Cafeteria on Mesa Avenue. As hard as it was for me to see him sitting at a table for one eating square fish or the LuAnn Platter, I still stuck my head into Luby’s whenever I got a chance hoping to see the great man in physical form. I never did and I considered that chasing him down at his neighborhood pool hall was a bit too much of an invasion.

The British reporter, who apparently hung out at Luby’s long enough to see McCarthy, is said to have walked up to the author’s table to request an interview. Although the reporter was polite and sought forgiveness for the interruption, McCarthy was non-responsive. The reporter, as reporters will, persisted until McCarthy told him, “I don’t do interviews.” Undaunted, this particular journalist explained how he had traveled across an ocean and spent thousands of dollars to try to find McCarthy and that his editor was pressuring him to deliver. The author was unmoved and did not speak. Hell, I can see him there scooping up his peas and moving forkfuls of his square fish into the pile of tartar on his plate, acting as if the determined newspaperman were not even alive, much less standing next to his table.

The reporter was silent until he came up with a new idea. Perhaps, he assumed, McCarthy would at least offer some advice on the topic of writing. According to the story I was told by a friend of McCarthy’s, the reporter begged for words of wisdom on the craft. The great author remained impassive and silent through repeated requests.

“Mr. McCarthy,” he pleaded, “can’t you at least just give me some advice on writing? People would love to hear anything you have to say about it.”

McCarthy’s face was impassive but there was a decision moving across his weathered countenance. He was willing to speak, though he didn’t put down his fork or stop eating. His rendered insight, however, ought to be hanging over the desk of every wannabe author or columnist or novelist manque’.

“As far as writing goes,” McCarthy said without looking up, “If you don’t have to write, then don’t.”

And there it was, wisdom winnowed down from the cosmos, passed through the genetic code of literary masters and artists, boiled in the blood of frustration, bred from the nonsensical optimism that there is reward, monetary, emotional or intellectual, in the desire to write. There ain’t, McCarthy was explaining in as sparse a language as he could muster. There just ain’t. Writing is a primal urge for some souls and a craft at which to be clever for the merely artistic. There are no masters in writing but there are many slaves. The truth that had traveled through the ages passed over the tartar sauce on the great man’s breath and rose with a snake-like hiss to the reporter who busily scratched the words onto blue lines and left as if he’d discovered golden booty.

“If you don’t have to write, then don’t.”

Nobody has ever said anything more illuminating about writing. You know if you have to write. If you don’t, go find something to do that is more lucrative, and that’s a pretty long list of endeavors.

And now, if I may be so bold, I’d like to offer Mr. McCarthy some advice. You, sir, are horrible in interviews. You were right not to answer questions about your art. Don’t do it ever again. Remain a recluse, an orphic brain hidden from lesser mortals. Keep your language and abilities as secret as a witch’s brew.

And for god’s sake, stay off of Oprah.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Mike Jasper

    So let me see if I’ve got this straight: If you stalk someone at lunch, ethical. If you stock someone at a pool hall, unethical.

    Got it.

  • Mike Jasper

    I was just kidding.

    As everyone knows, it’s always correct to stalk authors, anywhere, any time. That’s what they get for writing.

    What do you think I’m doing to you?

  • lea cox

    Great story, I was just thinking, how do I learn to write like this and then comes the end from McCarthy’s mouth, ‘If you don’t have to write, then don’t’.

    Great Mr. Moore, I guess I should have stopped before I commented!
    I find it for me the motivation is emotion, or passion, or justice,right and wrong, false or true, all the things that seem to have a universal meaning to arrive at truth.
    Then I remember Ecclesiastic and vanity-vanity and wonder if silence would be the greater good most of the time.
    I debate in my mind whether the right of free speech and the web have partnered to create an alluvion of trite and superfluos speech, a twilight zone for reality to wonder.
    Are we talking eachother to death?
    Is truth become meaningless and lost in the sea of opinions and falsehood?
    I love words, but at times I am inclined to hold them in rather then letting them out,I fear the oblivion among the millions of words thrown carelessly in the web, winding chaos of ideas like kites flying in the wind and ending up like Charlie Brown’s kite, stuck in a tree somewhere and left hanging.

    My best
    L C

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