I thought I was a writer, until I heard Richard Ford speak last Friday night at the St. Louis County Library as part of their Read St. Louis Program. This, however, is not a review of the event. (I’m not a critic, though I tend to be critical at times. Ask my wife.) I’m just a guy who likes to write. I've written a few things, some of which I'm happy with, others that I can never get right, most of which I know can be better. Which leads me to often wonder what it must be like to spend time with a great writer, listen to him talk about his writing and mine, hear him read what he’s written, then apply it to what I’ve written or, better yet, what I could be writing.
I’ve never taken criticism easily, but if it were Ford, I would make an exception.
I sat with Peter Carlos. He was sitting on the aisle when I got there, empty chair next to him, and I knew I’d enjoy talking with him. In the half hour we had before Richard appeared, we talked about making movies and videos and writing and editing and teaching. He does all those things. The last time I saw Peter was when I participated in a video program called “Fade Up,” which he produces at Lindenwood. It was a conversation with Mike Wall about “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” Charlie Chaplin and my novel.
So there we were, these two bearded guys talking creative stuff while waiting for this esteemed writer to enter the packed room, which was growing warmer by the minute. The place was electric with anticipation. I’ve been to other author events there, but this one seemed to achieve a higher level of excitement. After all, Ford has won the Pulitzer and the PEN-Faulkner award.
John Dalton, himself an excellent novelist, introduced Richard with well-chosen words. (How else would you introduce a great writer?) Richard came up to the mic, talked softly, very softly, to the point that the first short story he read was almost lost to the audience. Someone suggested he talk into the mic more directly, which he did after explaining that he talks softly, which we had all figured out, and he launched into a short story he had written some time ago, called “Reunion.” It had its roots in St. Louis and takes place in Grand Central Station in NY. Then he segued into the opening pages of his latest novel, “Canada.” I’ve read the book. Listening to him read that short segment made me want to read it again. A Q&A followed.
Here are a couple of things Mr. Ford said during the evening that struck home with me. He said every writer’s duty, during the course of his writing life, is to put everything down on paper that is important to him. That doesn’t mean opinions and self-focused thoughts, but the things in your life and your world that have meaning to you and you want to say something about. Someone asked him if he’d thought about writing a children’s book or a YA book (young adult). He essentially said “no.” He said it’s not what he’s good at, nor what he wants to write. It would be strictly a “show-offy” thing, as he called it. He knows his strengths and passions, and that’s where he wants to be. He writes every day for 4 hours in the morning and 2 hours after lunch. Every day! In a little shack/hut/cottage down the hill from his home in Maine on the edge of the water - either a lake or the ocean. Doesn’t really matter.
Richard’s from Mississippi originally but said he doesn’t write about the South because so many others have done it better than he ever could. He mentioned Eudora Welty and William Faulkner and a couple of other writers, one of whom lived in his neighborhood. “In fact,” he said, “I wasn’t even the first one on my block to win the Pulitzer.” So he moved to Michigan, to get out of the South where his non-racist attitudes were at odds with his neighbors.
Richard maintains a wonderful sense of humor, a strict writing discipline, and the ability to see deeply into people and relationships. I’m not very good at relationships; writing about them anyway. It takes effort. Lots of it. He’s able to capture in a few carefully chosen words what it can take me a paragraph to even get close to. One of the things I could have used along the way was a mentor. Someone who would look at my work and tell me how to improve it. It doesn’t come from open mic nights. It doesn’t happen with friends. Maybe it happens with on-line writing seminars, though I don’t believe it’s personal enough. It’s a long way from the ideal: a placid retreat amidst tall, stately trees and expansive stretches of lawn, a lake or the ocean within strolling distance, and a group of people interested in writing, brought together by men and women who “have done it” and can turn a piercing eye to my pages and pinpoint the excess, the vague, the missed opportunities, as well as the strengths, the occasionally sparkling phrase, the well-developed character.
That muse calls to me now. “Gerry, move to Greenwich Village. Be 27 years old again, catch Basie at the Vanguard, write all night, drink espresso with unshaven guys and long-tressed women. Or find that cottage in Maine, just a stone’s throw from Richard’s hut or Stephen King’s house. Or maybe discover that cozy cottage near Carmel overlooking the Pacific that needs a caretaker in exchange for rent. There’s a place for you, somewhere a place for you.”
The voice is tempting. What I plan to do, in a more realistic frame of mind, is to buy a trailer and park it on the banks of the River Des Peres, facing west. I’ll have a stack of spiral notebooks and lots of pens and pencils. I’ll also have a laptop but no internet connection. I will escape from the demands of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Groupon, and deliver my written masterpieces by hand, in a binder, to an agent or publisher who has been eagerly anticipating their completion. Then, as I await the royalties and reviews, and movie offers from small, independent production companies, I will return to my trailer, pour a half-tumbler of Woodford Reserve, sit in my plaid folding chair and watch the sun set over the river while listening to Bill Evans play “If You Could See Me Now.”
Then I’ll raise my glass to Richard Ford.