The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

LIVING BY WRITING

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Photo: Beth Loizeaux
by Bill Loizeaux '76

So you're wondering what to do -- or what you might have done -- with that B.A. in English and a burning desire to write. There is journalism of course, or for the more sly of heart there is public relations. And God knows how many magazines, newsletters and burgeoning web sites could use a dexterous wordsmith. Graduate school is another option, if you want to put things off for a while. I tried that. You teach freshman composition and grind out a thesis for a committee. And then . . . ? And then sooner or later, if you're bold or nutty enough to call yourself a writer, you come to the abyss of What if? What if, like Thoreau, Melville, Baldwin, Faulkner, Welty, Didion, what if I just followed my own muse, wrote my own stuff and sent it into the world?

I don't necessarily recommend the plunge. Unless you or your spouse has a truckload of cash, to write on your own, and to write your own stuff, means to live more or less on the margin. Especially early on, you are lonely and poor. You take part-time jobs. You paint houses in the afternoons so you can write in the mornings. You cobble together low-paying teaching gigs without any benefits. And that's to say nothing of the real blows to the ego: those rejection slips that fill up your drawers, the suspicion that you are not as good as Flannery O'Connor, and that the world, oddly, does not await your every word. Then when at last your ship does come in, it has the look of a dingy. I "sold" my first short story for thirty-five bucks, and they misspelled my name on the cover.

So it is hard to make a living by writing this way, though in time, I think you can live by it. In my pocket, those thirty-five bucks seemed to swell. I whisked my wife off to dinner. I recall that we ate very slowly at a local Chinese place, savoring the limp pea pods and clotted rice, bought with the very fruit of my soul. It was the best meal I'd ever had.

A few years and some stories later, however, I truly learned what it means to live by writing. Our first daughter, Anna, was born; then five and a half months later she died. All I could think of doing was writing, and I went to it as to a basement in the midst of a cyclone. Each day for a year I wrote the date at the top of a page and then all the things I was thinking, feeling and remembering. Never before had I written like this, so openly and with such terrible truthfulness and compulsion. I needed to say that my daughter was here, that this, however short, was a human life, and like all of our lives, any life, hers deserved our attention. Day after day, entry after entry, the pages grew, along with a slow affirmation: that although those pages could not bring back her life, they might stand up beside its loss.

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That journal, when published, became the book Anna: A Daughter's Life, which attracted unexpected attention and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 1993. Looking back on it now, the attention was wonderful, but it was the writing itself -- and I'm not exaggerating -- that gave me a way to live.

That book led me to another project about another person whose life and death have haunted me. Back in January 1973, an artistic, multiracial young man with whom I went to high school was shot and killed by a local policeman in my small/affluent, and usually peaceful hometown in New Jersey. His name was William Wells, though we all knew him as `Rabbit.' I was a Colgate sophomore at the time, and today I can still remember the beery air in the Brigham Hall phone booth where I learned from my parents of his death. Now, for the past three or four years, I've immersed myself in Rabbit's life. I've returned to my hometown, talked with his friends, and listened to their memories and stories. I've walked again on the streets, through the fields and among some of the rooms where he walked and ran. I've collected photographs of him, and his poetry and sculpture. For hours I've spoken with the policeman who shot him and with those who saw him die. Then from these fragments and my own memory, I've reassembled and imagined his life and death in the place we both called home. The result is my new book, published this year, The Shooting of Rabbit Wells.

When I was at Colgate, I took a lot of English courses, and I think it was Fred Busch who said something that might seem obvious, though it didn't seem so at the time. He said that writing at its heart -- like all art -- is a response to the inevitability of death. You put your human stories on paper to keep them alive in the mind. You try to make something from catastrophe and loss, a monument of words. You memorialize your subject, and in the process you memorialize the act of writing and understanding. Then if you're good enough, and lucky, you might stamp on the world a small thing that can remind you and others of the delicate fact of existence, and why we hold it so dearly.

I'm not sure my own work measures up to all that, and, alas, I am sure that it hasn't measured up to what publishers call "a big splash." You will not see my books on best seller lists. My advances are small, my royalties smaller. I still cobble together low-paying teaching gigs, and I drive my second daughter to school in a rusted-out '84 Volvo. If you take this plunge, you will not likely emerge streaming with golden light. But a book is still a book. And in writing one of this sort at least, you have the fearful and exhilarating sense of holding a life in your hands. However imperfectly, books can stand in the places where lives have been lost. For that knowledge, for those books, I wouldn't exchange anything -- except those lives themselves.

See Also:
The Shooting of Rabbit Wells Review