Shedding tears is no way to write a novel
It’s been a rough few weeks. I am struggling to begin this novel, and so instead of writing, I am reading, and what I am reading about is writing, and so I find myself wanting to kick Robert Frost’s ass. I want his head on a stick. Two roads diverge in a wood, and II want to bury Frost six feet beneath it. Bob doesn’t make it onto many people’s shit lists, but he’s at the top of mine today.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” wrote Frost, and I really wish that he hadn’t. It sounds like something my mother might have said, somewhere between “Man plans and God laughs” and “There are no atheists in a foxhole.”
I have a few questions.
Does the fact that someone prays to God while in a foxhole make him a believer, or just a terrified human being confronting his imminent mortality? I’m not sure exactly what the faithful are getting at here. Are the organized religions so desperate for new members that they’ll accept a guy withliterallya gun to his head? Wouldn’t “There are very few brave people in foxholes” be more emotionally accurate? How about “War tends to be a frightening and traumatic experience for its combatants, for whom the recovery process tends to be a long and arduous one?”
Secondly, if God laughs at man’s plans, doesn’t that make God a bit of an Omniscient Bastard? I happen to believe that He is, or at least tends to be, but it’s surprising to hear a believer of His be so honest about it. If a harmless dead poet hadn’t put me in such a bad mood I might even find this refreshing, but for now, all I can do is wonder why, if God truly does exhibit a callous derisiveness toward the needle-thin hope that is mankind’s only method of survival in the world He created, wouldn’t his representatives here on Earth try to, you know, spin that a bit? “Man plans and God laughs, uh, with you?”
Most irritating to me at the moment, though, is this Frost “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” thing. Maybe it’s because I’m looking at a couple of years ahead of me in the writing of this thing, and the idea of two years of tears being some sort of baseline for acceptance into Club Literature
makes me want to pull someone’s hair out. I know what he meant, and I know he gets to “joy” later, but why is “tears” the first thing he thinks ofand the only part of that quotation anyone ever quotes? Sadness and tears have never been the goals of my reading, or my writing, and I can’t imagine why they would be. I thought that was the goal of the Drudge Report, of the Evening News: “Now With TWICE the Misery.” Murder, war, rape, global warming, global cooling. Then the five-second clip of the squirrel waterskiing. Tears in the writer? Tears in the reader? This is some kind of victory? Catharsis, I know. No amount of dragging a reader over the miserable coals of a writer’s miserable imagination can’t be excused by catharsis, by the waterskiing squirrel: The lovers live on, only without legs, a home, or a future. Oh, and she’ll get raped. Him, too. But they LIVE, damn it, they LIVE. Mother, father, and children are burned to death in a house fire, but a rat in hole somewhere has learned an important lesson about life. I’m not buying it. I purchase more novels than I can possibly write off as expenses (trust me, I’ve tried), and put most of them down before I’m a third of the way through. Call it laziness if you like. I call it prudence: I can only kill myself once, and I’d like the book that makes me do so to be really worth it. I’ve read enough of them through, though, to know that if there’s a baby, it will die. If there’s a dog, it will be shot. A heart, broken. A family, torn apart. A city, demolished. A tire, flattened. A toe, stubbed. A nail, bent. A cup of tea, spilled. But cathartic, always cathartic.
I guess I’m alone in these matters. To the religious, the paucity of atheists in strategic military trenches truly does indicate something special about belief, and the fact that man is a schmuck for even thinking he could make his way through life without the contemptuous laughter of God above his head is somehow, to the believers, reason for admiring Him all the more. And most people, if book reviews and Amazon customer comments are anything to judge by, really would prefer to curl up in a chair, read something horrible about the awfulness of people, the futility of life, the inescapability of fate, and the impossibility of love, cry until the snot of authentic art runs from their noses, and feel like they’ve gotten their $21.95 worth. I am not a happy-ending type of person. If the truth is (and the weight of the evidence seems to indicate it as so) that life sucks, at least help me through it. Laugh at the suckiness. Show me why the suckiness is so foolish, so temporary, so meaningless. Comedy is anger (the good comedy, anyway), so Christ, get angry. But get me through it; not just “it’s worse than you think,” but “it’s worse than you think, but it’s all pretty stupid.” You can’t go on, you’ll go on. And you’ll trade bowler hats a few times, too, and lose a shoe.
Julian Gough wrote recently about the respect tragedy is given over comedy, pointing out that the Greeks had it the other way around. Here’s what I’m thinking about tragedy and comedy: I’m thinking that tragedy is in the moment, and that comedy comes later. And that because tragedy is in the moment, it mightmightbe more heartfelt, or mightmightbe more moving, but because comedy demands distance, and because distance provides perspective, it seems to me to be the closer of the two to wisdom. There’s no doubt that the view of the man at war is valuable; personally, I would rather have the view of the man who was at war years ago, the man who can say with authority, “Wars pass” and “People move on” and “The guilty will be punished” and “Check it out, there’s a Major called Major Major,” the counsel of the one who can get above all the terror and fear beneath which the present buries us. Here’s what I hope for in Hell: that when I die and I go there, and they drag me down to the Punishment Floor, and they put me in a pot filled with boiling water perched atop a pile of burning coals, and when my flesh bubbles, and my tongue swells and my bones break, that I turn to look at the pot beside me, and the guy boiling in that pot turns to me and says, “Yes, but who’s the entrée?” If God really hates me, he’ll stick me in a pot beside a writer, a serious writer, who throws his head back and wails, “Oh, what fresh misery is this!”
“What is it, Auslander?”
“Permission to leave my pot for a minute?”
“You can shit in your pot, vile sinner.”
“Yes, but I’d like to bash the writer’s face in, Sir.”
“Oh, sure,” says Satan, “Go ahead. I’ll get his arms.”
A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry