The famed mystery writer of the Southwest wrote the above advice to me the last year before his death in 2008. We had been corresponding since before I published my novel of the ancient Anasazi of the Southwest, Sundagger.net. In a note to him, I had been complaining, whining really, about my writing life.
“Keep writing, stay heathy,” he wrote back. This is my mantra when I feel confused, at loose ends, or discouraged with my work.
I wonder if renown writer J. D. Salinger had taken this advice, he would have experienced life differently. When he died at 91 in 2010, Salinger was possibly the world’s most renown and most successful literary recluse. “Hermit Crab,” Time magazine dubbed him. Here was somebody who was up there with the Grammy winners in star power and prestige, yet seemed cursed with the dismal personality of old Scrooge.
Back in the ’60s when I read Catcher in the Rye, my teenage heart beat along with Holden Caulfield’s. I was the catcher, those sheep; I was the rye too. J.D. Salinger was my writing hero along with Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde and Dostoevsky (No females in that short list, alas, but that is another story.)
Unlike Tony Hillerman who wrote 29 mysteries set in Navajo country, Salinger wrote one novel, a phenomenal success that he disdained, and three small volumes of short stories–then nothing else for 45 years.
By all accounts, J.D. Salinger was a phenomenal writer who refused his success. Was he was sick with self-loathing of his own genius, his own work? He must have felt he had no choice. He must have done his best from inside the worm of his illness.
But he did take one piece of Tony Hillerman’s advice. His wives and daughters say he wrote all that time. What did he leave us? I am dying to read it. Maybe that’s all he wanted–fans dying to read him. Maybe that’s why he shunned his fame and adulation. To keep us hungry.
Life is strange, wouldn’t you agree? Keep writing, stay healthy.
Thank you, Tony Hillerman.
You’re a work of my teenage literary angst, a time where I was in free fall, a teenager with a bad case of sour grapes who rejected love the more she wanted it, who wouldn’t be caught dead writing the commonplace salutation, ‘Dear Diary’. You’re the Phantom of the Opera without the magnificent and haunting music, an angry, lonely rant born of frustration, like the ferocious hip-hop booming from car loudspeakers.
There’s a reason you’ve been buried for fifty years in assorted cardboard boxes stacked in dark closets and damp garages, moved from my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA to the places I’ve lived–Cape May, New York, Honolulu, Provincetown, San Francisco, Concord, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Cruz, Clear Lake, Sebastopol, and now Pinole.
And yet I’ve kept you. There were other diaries that I didn’t keep. The first ones would have been gifts–small blue or black stitched books with gold painted clasps that you could lock with a tiny key. The lock and key signified secrets no one else could know unless I shared them. At eight or nine I loved secrets and I still do when they are mine.
When I was about ten I had a black and white composition book like you can find today at Safeway or Walgreens. This diary had a name–Fiona. I remember I spent a long time thinking it up. Fiona was a Celtic name, rare and mysterious like I imagined Ireland to be and where all my relatives came from. Fiona would be that perfect, secret friend within the covers of a book I could talk to whenever I wanted.
I remember working hard for short spurts at Fiona, failing to fill more than a few of the blue-lined blank sheets. Each word I wrote shut me up further. I just couldn’t think of anything important enough to matter to the big world outside. My desire to write died in the act of trying. I threw that diary away like my mother threw away those novels she disapproved of.
When I thought of being a great writer, I thought of male writers, not women. Back then I hadn’t even heard the word ‘feminist’, nor yet reached the point of claiming God as “She” or perhaps even Me. I took for granted that ‘man’ referred to humanity in general, as if the generic ‘man’ could ever include the woman I would become.
Everything I wanted felt impossible to attain. I was a young woman doomed in Catholicism I decided, struggling with “a strange knotted mixture of love and sex”. Yet how I want to talk to God, spelled with a capital ‘G’. I wrote prayers while declaiming how I hated to read them. Once I lapsed into bad French as if to make my prayer more exotic and interesting. “I shall reverse the incarnation,” I wrote. What did I mean by that?
In truth, I was heartbroken to leave childhood behind. The summer I began to write in you, dear diary, I read many books I decide are “unsatisfying and hopeless” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for one). I’m afraid “I shall never get out of myself.” Maybe that’s why I wanted to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. Along with Holden Caulfield, I felt despair at the idea that my childhood was gone–forever.
But things were changing. Something happened in the middle of winter during semester break. I was having all my wisdom teeth out (the irony didn’t escape me then or now) and had to spend the night in the hospital. I remember lying in the hospital bed. The day was overcast, the room dark and poorly lit. It must have been the next morning after my teeth were pulled. I had been drugged and didn’t remember a thing, feeling relieved that the whole experience was over.
My cousin came to visit me. I felt embarrassed to have my mouth all swollen. It was hard to talk. Intermittent noises, loud and soft voices, bangs, the clank of medical equipment, sounded from outside in the hall. There was a knock on the door. In came a Catholic priest on his usual morning rounds. He was a short, compact man of middle age with a receding hairline, wearing a long black cassock. Carrying a chalice in his hand, he asked if I wanted to have Extreme Unction, the last sacrament given to Catholics who are near death. “No!”, I answered, shocked at the offer. He left quickly. I was worried. Had I offended him? My cousin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. How hilarious! How funny to imagine I would die having my wisdom teeth removed!
Kathy left and I was all alone with only the hospital noise outside for comfort. These unknown sounds made by strangers, people I would never know, reverberated in my mind. I realized I could write stories for these people and for everyone. I imagined my writer’s journey ahead as full of discovery and play. I didn’t find this idea impossible, not at all.
Now my diary bursts into an awkward joy. “I believe I am beginning to hope,” I write, while in the next sentence complaining that “working at the Sun Drug store does nothing for my self-possession”. Kathy found me that job the summer after my first year at Carnegie-Tech. She worked at the cash register, the better position, while I ‘manned’ the counter, serving up Cherry Cokes and a 29-cent breakfast (one piece of toast, one egg, one piece of bacon and one cup of coffee.) As usual these juicy details were not recorded.
“I shall never destroy innocence,” I wrote on the Fourth of July, 1963. Where was I that holiday? At a family picnic? Did I go to the fireworks at the Point? What did I experience that prompted me to take such a stand for innocence?
“This happy day–September 21st, 1963,” begins another entry. It’s the start of my sophomore year and I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s early comedy, Two Gentlemen from Verona, which I find “so entertaining and sweet.” I want to record how happy I am before the happiness disappears, describing how I prance about my bedroom eating grapes and listening to Johnny Mathis sing of true love. I write at length about the grape stems, marveling with awe and wonder at the purple-sweet fruit in my mouth.
Even now, every day when I start to write, it’s like I hold those grapes in my hand. I begin from that same unknowing, that blind innocence and hope. With the unknown yearning part of myself, I call up the story I want to tell. I might even dance around my room or listen to music about love.