I have for some years now been trying to read a book entitled A Dangerous Profession by Frederick Busch. It is, as its subtitle takes pains to indicate, “A Book About the Writing Life.” Since this is a life, indeed the life that I myself wish to live, I eagerly seized this volume when I happened across it in a used book bin, undeterred by the fact that I had never heard of either the book or its author.
That was something like four years ago. In the interim I have attempted to read this book at least five times. I have wallowed through the book’s opening chapter like a homesick Midwest farmboy through a Cambodian rice paddy, with no clearer an idea of why I was where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing there. I have shared my frustration about this with one or more of you as the years have passed. “I just can’t get into this book,” I have said. And I would pull it out of my Tumi man-purse and stick it back on the shelf.
Yet I keep pulling it out again. I have to believe there is some reason why I have not packed this book away by now, or culled in out of the paper herd to be hauled back to the used book store. Something makes me hold onto it, to keep it handy even. And now I think I am finally breaking through whatever barrier there was impeding me.
Busch is good. I have still never read any of his fiction, either long or short. But I am fast coming to appreciate him as an essayist, which is well, since A Dangerous Profession is more a collection of loosely related pieces on writing, rather than a cohesive and uniform whole of a book on writing. As someone who has historically found it far easier to write about writing than to actually write (whatever that means), I appreciate his ability, his voice, his self-criticism coupled with a keen eye for detail in his own life and in the world of words. I can only strive to produce such writing of my own, to see the world, my world, with as much command as he sees his.
The second piece in the book is entitled “The Children in the Woods,” a reference to the story of Hansel and Gretel. Apparently Busch has written several short stories throughout his career that connect — more or less explicitly — with the Grimm Brothers’ story. The essay tracks his gradually winnowing down to what he sees as the core of the tale: hunger, though not necessarily of the physical variety.
Do I have any such themes that I return to again and again, turning them over to examine them from many different angles? Not yet, not really. I would have to actually write things, be they stories, or essays, or novels, or what have you, for any such leitmotifs to meaningfully emerge from my work.
But there are hints. An overarching theme of belonging is emerging in the draftings of my memoir project, a theme I would not have predicted or consciously sought to develop. I am not surprised, however. A few years ago my wife was humouring me by reading through my various false starts at writing fiction. She pointed out that almost every single story involved the main character being a regular, usually at a drinking establishment.
“You really like this idea, don’t you?” she asked, not really needing my response to know the answer. Again and again, in fragments of scene and scattered sketches, there is some variation on this: the character walks into a bar, sits down, and either says “I’ll have the usual” or is simply brought his beverage of choice without needing to ask for it at all. Then, inevitably (or seemingly so), these pathetic scraps of stillborn fiction are followed from my nib by some long rambling rehash of my perennial lack of completed work, with an annotated catalogue of self-criticisms of the un-constructive variety.
Not that any of this is really relevant, or even coherent. My point, I guess, is that I could see myself, like Busch, as the kind of writer who would milk one theme until it was dry, to mine one source of inspiration over and over again; to find a fruitful jumping-off place and just keep jumping off it until I felt I had exhausted either its possibilities or my interest. But I would have would have to actually write things for this to be true, and so far my mewling solipsism has not allowed for this.
So I’ll take up my pen, dust myself off, and forge ahead, trying not to expend quite so much time and energy looking back. Rather, I’ll keep pushing out new words, day after day, letting the prose pile up in untidy heaps all around me, and worry about patterns and paradigms at some latter date. More writing, less writing about writing. Like I can stick to that…