Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Medium Rare

Whoa, The Ruiner had an amazing experience that I don't know if I believe for a minute. Most of a minute, perhaps. I really need to start watching more television.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sterlingian Majuscule

It’s hard to write about my friend Sterling Brown, one of that great tribe of modern American writers operating well clear of the fatal distractions of recognition, praise, and payment. Hard because it betrays some ugly secrets about this life, brings light to a labor perhaps best left unseen. If you want to enjoy the steak, you don’t visit the slaughterhouse.

But it’s a fact that the heavy preponderance of writers working today do so with no incentive beyond their own crackpot wish to tune a given body of writing to a high state of agreement and felicity, to see a thing well done, to do something well themselves.

I do not lament this fact, only state it, in as much of a cool and objective tone as I can affect.

It’s not enough that Sterling has built several houses with his own hands, run several businesses, renovated three boats—three boats and counting—and employed his gifts to bring many a small project in wood, fiberglass, metal and mechanics to beautiful completion. These accomplishments don’t seem to register. What counts most to Sterling is the writing. The most difficult structure is the story’s. The heaviest raw material is the blank page.

Sterling began his writing career not long after he grasped his first pencil, and has remained loyal to this calling, whether in his right mind or out of it, through a long eventful life, a long marriage, two children, a full-time job.

It’s fair to say his themes and characters were never calculated to bring him instant celebrity. He writes about Atlantic City and its losers, the dying occupations around the old South Jersey bays, the people who still embody the folkways of an older, less polite, less pretty world. But it’s clear the vision burns strongly in his imagination. Some writers nibble and nag away and their little plot of lines, slashing this part, amplifying that, adding three pieces and subtracting two. But Sterling writes like a storm; events unfold faster than he can record them. He is as much an audience as a creator, the mark of a true writer.

Oh, how many hours he has sat at table, watching this or that character jig and caper in utter despite of his instructions, often running off with a plot that had until then stuck to a careful plan. He has witnessed murders, rapes, violences of no clear explanation or intention, and he has seen them enter boldly upon his stage and revise his affairs in a way not consistent with his predictions.

He has rewritten patiently, and rewritten again, a conscious and deliberate craftsman, figuring the actions to the characters, scaling levels of detail, seeing so much that can be put in and choosing painfully what to leave out. His writing desk has been a tabletop at home, the dashboard of his car, the inside of a drawer at work.

His reward for all this—it hardly needs to be said—has been constant and convincing rejection.

Talent, of course, only gets you the lottery ticket. It’s luck that gets the jackpot.

There is no especial reason to decry this fact, just as there is no reason to send the writer anonymous money in a box. Misery is its own reward. Little stories make nothing happen. They don’t cut the tax rate, they don’t shoot down the school board, they do not bring extravaganza points if returned with proof of purchase. They do not gain 5 percent by mid afternoon or signal the flight of capital from growth to value stocks.

Rather, I feel inclined toward gratitude, if not exactly for Sterling the writer, at least for the knowledge that on this planet solitary constructive labor, the work of the independent artist, is going forth with undiminished naïveté—and vigor. Like those monks and hermits who disappear into their hermitages to explore the rare but still important realms of spiritual life, expecting nothing but perhaps the satisfaction of a carefully elaborated new investigation of the soul, so it is good that this writer feels his way toward the illumination of his inner world.

I am glad that somehow amid the cost/benefit analysis of our modern life, there is yet some particle of the imaginative, the thoughtful and beautifully useless at large in the world.

Meantime, Sterling is indeed getting more frequently published—in South Jersey Lifestyle Magazine, Art Beat, and a soon-to-be-released magazine called EnVision. You can get samples of his recent stuff here, here, and here.