I sit atop a wooden tower constructed in the corner of our compound approximately 4 meters off the ground. The temperature according to the thermometer in the shade is 99 but above the ground and out of the shade it is probably more like 104. I was in my room reading not at a chilly 22 degrees, but a Celsius 22. I came out for Corn Nuts and Mountain Dew. One of these is a tough commodity to have. Not the Corn Nuts, potato chips are the rare thing here. Chips get smashed in transit, and everything is trucked in. Corn Nuts, not so easy to smash. It is the Mountain Dew that is rare. Not because it is a soft drink, not because it is caffeinated, but because it contains High Fructose Corn Syrup. Most of the drinks here contain sugar. Pure, unadulterated sugar. The sweet nectar of beets and cane and not of corn.
The wind atop the tower blows stiffly. On the ground it is probably half as much. While it gusts frequently, it regularly keeps the flags flying nearly straight out. Flags do not last long in Afghanistan. We have replaced the three flags we fly (American, Afghanistan, and Corps of Engineers) once since I have been on the ground and all were torn to shreds by the wind as well as faded by the sunlight. Where I sit I have had to place rocks on both my bag and my now empty can to keep them from flying off the plastic table which feels like it has moved once or twice while I type.
One may ask why I came from a cool, dark place full of perceived comforts to sit on a hard chair in the baking sun to type a rambling diatribe on what is going on. Especially when one realizes nothing is going on. A smarter soul would simply know that I will answer that by the time I finish typing, but I mention it because I am not sure that I will.
There are three things I intended to type with this entry and I'm not sure which will come out at all. The problem started Monday when someone complimented my writing.
Writers will typically do one of two things. The first is develop a thick skin.
When you tell people you write most people think that's neat. Some will say, "I tried to write as well," "I have a great story in me." Sometimes they try to get you to write their stories for them. Writers are never at a loss for stories. They do not need ideas. They make take some, will probably make them better, but they do not need them. Sometimes people ask to read your stuff. That is when they may criticize. Other times they get your writings and never read them. A lesser writer would flinch or worry at this point. Is my writing good enough? Am I any good? Will anyone read me and want to buy my work? When can I quit my day job?
The accomplished writer will not worry about these things. They develop a thick skin. They write for themselves first and others later. Others may like their stuff, may even crave their stuff, but they do it to entertain themselves first and foremost. Your opinion does not matter. Criticize all you want. Incorrectly tell me not to infinitive split, or end with prepositions all about. And God forbid not to start a sentence with a conjunction, or any other bad grammar rule that's bandied about like the proper Queen's Latin those rules are. Critics abound. So do enthusiastic readers who never crack open the work.
I began to grow my calloused skin quickly when soul after soul told me they wanted to read my allegory of Jonah and yet months later none did. One individual, who had a great deal to do with the genesis of my allegory on multiple layers, not only asked to read it but six months later admitted to having lost the copy and asked for another. His wife, who said she'd rather read a paper copy than an electronic version, was similarly given a copy but I do not believe that either have to this day, years later, cracked it open. I'd be the first to admit my error if either told me so, but even though some of the former's doctrines and mantras are included in the story, neither has ever broached the subject again.
I grew wiser and did the same. I never take offense when someone says they want to read and yet never does. Even the few people who I encourage to read my work I tell that I will hold no ill will towards if they do not. Of course, I also do not encourage many to read either for the same reason. I do want people to read my writing. I want them to enjoy it. But that isn't why I do it.
Thick skin is one writer's action. It is a defense. When a potential agent, or publisher sends rejection notice or fails to reply, writer's grow thick skin. Else they would be discouraged. The second writer's reaction is to go into seclusion. There is the occasional Harper Lee. Would any other work be as celebrated as her only? J.D. Salinger is reputed to be storing his writings in a vault or safe deposit box for what or when who knows? Seclusion is a writer's defense of extreme measure. We write for ourselves, but it is only through the sharing of our human emotions, thoughts, and experiences that we, reader and author alike, have an opportunity to grow.
Grow thick skin or crawl in the corner. Those are the only options.
On the surface there appears to be a third. Write and don't share until it is finished, polished, and its success is certain. That is not an option. The writer who would choose this course is not a writer. They are not cowards, they just will not write. A work cannot be written, edited, polished, and published by a single individual. Even in this age of self-published drivel it cannot be done. There are hidden jewels of literature. There are always stories like The Shack. Vonnegut or Hemingway may well have spent days on single sentences and had their works completely printable by the time someone saw them, but it still takes more than a genius to get it out. No man is an island of perfection. Nor is a woman. Writers do not exist in a vacuum.
Publish or perish is the mantra of the educated professor. Write or die is the work ethic of writers, of authors, of any who twinkle the light fantastic on the keyboard, pen, pencil or quill. Authors must write. Writers must write. Thick skin it is.
A writer who must get constant back-petting, ego-stroking, and reassurance of their abilities will not get far and never get published again. Thick skin or quit. I regret to report there is no second.
Harry Houdini could take a hit or kick to the stomach. Of any caliber or size. But died from a blow to the abdomen. While Harry began to brace, his would be challenger struck. The Great Houdini knew what was coming but was not yet prepared. It wasn't a sucker punch but it circumvented his defence.
In a similar manner, a compliment circumvented mine. In one well-meaning note, a compliment to my writing set me aback. How do you move forward? More paralyzing than a misplaced ill word. Fear of being able to perform is a real issue.
Is my comparing of Houdini's work to mine extreme or unfounded? Perhaps, but its symbolism is appropriate. Not long after I completed my allegory I attended a class studying Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. I never read it, even during the class (I did read Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis for what it was worth, an allegory of Bunyan's allegory). While studying the book I took a sidelong glance at my own work. It appeared to be like looking at a three-year old's crayon doodle compared to a work of Da Vinci. My talents such as they were, paled, indeed never had a right to be compared to the likes of John Bunyan's work. There simply is no comparison.
And then, weeks later, I remembered, I am not Bunyan. I have not had untold hours to hone my skill, my craft, my words. Not in the quantities he did, yet. Michelangelo did not paint the Sistine Chapel overnight, and he didn't do it for his first work.
I got back on my writing regimen. I began again to push, thick-skinned to no avail, but still I wrote. Still I write.
The day after my work was complimented, my wife sent me a copy of a book I had read literally years ago. Caravans by James Michener. I read it as a lad of 14 or 15. And yet, reading it again, in Afghanistan it was as if I had never read it before.
Michener wrote it in the 50s but the setting was 1946. The observations of Afghan life, while ever so much more in-depth than mine, has only one flaw that I have noted so far. That of a feeling of nationalism towards the country. There is no real patriotism toward Afghanistan the country. The people are fiercely protective, of family, of clan, of region, but not of the country. His other observations mimic so many of those I have included in my posts to date. Sixty years less of battle, scars, and wars. No Soviet airbases, no American Forward Operating Bases, but mimicked observations. Michener during his time in Afghanistan was immersed in the country, in the countryside. He walked without weapon, without body armor, without guards at all. Michener walked at will. Yet he walked with the same jaded, American eyes that had been opened, unleashed, and recognized that to see the world through such lenses would do no one any good. So he didn't.
Yes, I find myself trying to compare my work to Michener's and it will fail. I am not the master of prose that James was. I may never be. But I strive to show any who chose to read my work a different perspective, to open their eyes, and their minds to a world that may only exist between the messed up ears that sit below my hairline. I write because I cannot not write. I cannot not raise my feeble voice to holler at the howling wind. I cannot fail to share my useless thoughts and desires to any who would choose to listen. Even if none choose. The choice to write is not mine. It is in me. It is me. It is.
I have no choice but to believe in free-will, and I have no choice but to write. When I fall off the horse I will get back on. I can do no less and to attempt to do less would be to attempt to stop breathing. The level of my work may never achieve the level that received the compliment. But I had better begin to thicken to compliments too because I have no choice but to write. Whether it surpasses or falls far short.
There was no choice to remain in the comfort of my room when the rugged outdoors beckoned. Cool, cozy, warm surroundings serve no purpose when there is the chance to experience the harsh, dusty, heat of a place few will ever get to see. The friendly confines of a place called home.
By the way, Corn Nuts suck. Send Zap's and Barq's.