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Just Another Sinner

A writer’s best hope is to articulate woe and avoid killing too many frogs

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A while ago, I took part in a group reading at an artists’ colony in New Hampshire. Each of the three participants had to read for fifteen minutes. The other two were just starting out as writers and still hadn’t published anything, so, in a gesture of either generosity or condescension, I offered to read last. The first writer, a guy from Brooklyn, was pretty talented. He read a relatively moving text he wrote about his grandfather who died, or something like that. The second writer, a woman from Los Angeles, began to read and sent my brain spinning. I sat on my uncomfortable wooden chair in the overheated library auditorium of the artists’ colony and listened to my fears, my desires, the violence that smolders in me like an eternal flame but conceals itself so well that only it and I know it exists. It was over in twenty minutes. She left the podium for me, and as I walked limply past her, she gave me a pitying glance, the kind a proud lion in the jungle gives to a circus lion.

I don’t remember exactly what I read that evening, only that throughout the reading, it was her story reverberating in my mind. In that story, a father speaks to his children, who are spending their summer vacation torturing animals. He tells them that there is a line that separates killing bugs from killing frogs, and no matter how hard it is, that line must never be crossed.

hand holding a frog

Such is the way of the world. The writer didn’t create it, but he’s here to say what needs to be said. There is a line that separates killing bugs from killing frogs, and even if the writer has crossed it during his life, he still has to point it out. The writer is neither saint nor tzaddik nor prophet standing at the gate; he’s just another sinner with a somewhat sharper awareness and slightly more precise language to use in describing the inconceivable reality of our world. He doesn’t invent a single feeling or thought—they all existed long before him. He’s not the least bit better than his readers—sometimes he’s a lot worse—and so it should be. If the writer were an angel, the abyss that separates him from us would be so great that his writing couldn’t get close enough to touch us. But because he’s here, at our side, buried up to his neck in mud and filth, he’s the one who, more than anyone else, can share with us everything that’s going on in his mind, in the lit-up areas and especially in the dark recesses. He won’t take us to the promised land, he won’t bring peace to the world or heal the sick. But if he does his work right, a few more virtual frogs will get to live. The bugs, I’m sorry to say, will have to manage on their own.

From the day I began writing, I knew that truth. I knew it firmly and clearly. But at that reading, when I came face to face with a real lion in the MacDowell Artists’ Colony in the heart of New Hampshire and felt that fear for a second, I realized that even the sharpest knowledge we all possess can become blunted. Someone who creates without support or reinforcement, who can write only after working hours, surrounded by people who aren’t even sure he has talent, will always remember that truth. The world around him just won’t let him forget it. The only kind of writer who can forget it is a successful one, the kind who doesn’t write against the stream of his life, but with it, and every insight that flows from his pen not only enhances the text and makes him happy, but also delights his agents and his publisher. Damn it, I forgot it. That is, I remembered that there’s a line between one thing and another, it’s just that lately, it has somehow turned into a line between success and failure, acceptance and rejection, appreciation and scorn.

That night, after the reading, I went back to my room and straight to bed. Through all the windows I could see huge pine trees and a clear night sky and I could hear frogs croaking in the woods. That was the first time since I’d come there that the frogs felt safe enough to croak. I closed my eyes and waited for sleep, for silence. But the croaking didn’t stop. At two in the morning, I got out of bed, went to the computer and started to write.

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Just Another Sinner

A writer’s best hope is to articulate woe and avoid killing too many frogs

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