Swords, Plows and Plumber’s Helpers

When I learned about medieval Japanese history, I imagined I would become one of those samurais who would solve all problems, meet all challenges and win all battles–not to mention write novels– with a single, decisive sword cut.

It never happened. When problems came, most of the time, I didn’t have a sword and wouldn’t know what to do with it if I had one. I was like that hopeless wanderer adrift in the aisles of Home Depot, searching for the part, the piece, the blister-pack tube of goo, the great-grand-and-glorious TOOL that would MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE! I’d find something, rush home, do this, do that, do it all over again because I screwed it up the first time, get dirty, ruin clothes and finally, at the very end, figure out what direction you turn your wrist to tighten the screws. The toilet would flush and I’d rejoice for a few seconds and then realize that the sink was still clogged.

Why not? Beneath the pylons of literary excellence is the scrubby, Grub-Street necessity of hack writing. Some of the beloved writers of my youth were hacks–they ground out novels quickly and, only when they became popular and wealthy did they slow down and agonize over plot details and turns of phrase. Even those who had literary pretensions would tell interviewers and, perhaps, biographers, of great works that wrote themselves. Yes, folks, the secret of great art is to “get out of the way” and let magnificence squeeze out of the cosmic toothpaste tube.

When I was on deadline with journalism, I could drink that extra cup of coffee and settle for a beginning, middle and an end. I’d almost never look at my work in print–it was too much of a disappointment to see what editors did (or failed to do).

With fiction, I’d start with a scene, or a character, and go back in time to find out how things happened that way, or who this imaginary person may be. Then I’d try to move forward and immediately hit a wall when I found out I didn’t know what should happen next. It wasn’t that I was completely ignorant of how things should end up. I just wanted a flickering of the light ahead and, when I didn’t get it, I fell into despair. I didn’t drink or make coffee because, for whatever loose prolixity those substances inspired, they made me feel worse afterward. I’d just turn on the computer and play so much computer solitaire that I even came up with a novel about a solitaire fanatic who….

Then I’d get an idea of the road ahead and whatever exhilaration followed with sputter as soon as I realized that what I wanted to happen was impossible, or, at best, so unlikely as to be unbelievable. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: people turn to fiction precisely because it isn’t real life. They want to meet people who might normally scare or intimidate them. They hope to experience vicariously situations that would otherwise send them running for Mama. And they want their heroes to fix the toilet and unclog the sink, or, if it’s a tragedy, they want to gain some cautionary insight into why things didn’t turn out.”Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” Albany proclaims at the end of King Lear.

As if it were that simple. “Uh, Officer, I just saw this play by Shakespeare and I feel that you were just sitting there waiting for me to drive by so you could pull me over and write this ticket and make your monthly quota.”

Creativity is about bringing new things into the world, so I’d go back and bless my character with peculiar experiences or latent abilities, or I’d litter the fictional landscape with the unusual items my hero would use to escape perdition and go after the bad guys. The scene would work and then I’d hit the next wall, and the process would begin again until all these bits and fragments, some of them reworked uncounted times and none of them exemplars of the perfection that only English professors find long after their beloved authors have died.

Like I’m plowing a field filled with rocks and weeds that would really rather not have me on their pied-a-terre.

Thinking back, I equated the sword cut with that elusive, illusory quality of the Enlightenment (I’m talking about a period in European history, not what happened in Benares to the Buddah when he sat with his back to a Bodhi tree), where coffee-guzzling cafe types believed that rational scientific inquiry–and not an inbred monarch, or an overweening institutional religion–would one day deliver certainty to you and me and Bobby McGee, about everything, little and big, here and there, and everywhere.

Didn’t happen as much as I would have liked. Oh, we have rational, scientific explanations that grope for defectiveness, but…they change. What we were certain of a century ago, or last week, is not what we’re sure about now.

So maybe the Japanese ideal (and, if one watches a Star Wars movie, justifiable use of the Force) may be prescriptive: something we hope will happen, or we feel should happen, precisely because we think the world would be better if it did (or certainly our own lives would be easier), but…it just doesn’t.

How many of us tried to “use the Force” when, after seeing the Empire Strikes Back and watching Luke Skywalker psychokinetically move his light saber from a snow drift, we dropped our car keys down a street grate and stood there, our hand outstretched, so honest and open and certain of the Force that was Great in Us…

And the keys just stood there until we unbent a metal clothes hanger, or purchased the Tool of Destiny at Home Depot, and awkwardly, hesitantly, frustratingly wiggled, waggled, hooked the keys, watched them fall off the hook once, twice, TOO MANY TIMES, until it came closer, closer and closer still and you finally grabbed your keys, asking yourself why you had to be so stupid to drop them and waste all this time pulling them out when somewhere, somebody is using the Force to unclog a drain.

As for me, pass the plumber’s helper.

 

 

 

 

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