A Friend Named Robert

Robert Benson.2

In the winter of 2004, I found myself in unexpected conversations with a publisher about the possibilities of my first book. In unfamiliar territory and attempting to wrap my brain around the strange world of publishing (and particularly, the far stranger world of publishing houses that cater to the religious market), I asked the acquisitions editor if I could talk to one of their authors to get a feel for how their press operated. The editor suggested I chat with Robert Benson, and there were few names she could have given that I would have welcomed more. A year earlier, Miska read Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Living Prayer, an encounter which moved Robert onto that special section of our bookshelf reserved for our beloved writers, writers who had something of substance to say but who offered this substance with tender care for sentences and stories. We like the writers who do not beat the mystery off the page.

Robert and I chatted on the phone, arranging a meet up at the Frothy Monkey in Nashville, one of his haunts. I stood outside in the March cold, and a large black Mercedes slowed to the curb. As we’ve later rehearsed our meeting, Robert promises me he has never owned a Benz, but that is precisely how I remember it. Perhaps in my subconscious it’s just that Robert seems like the sort of man who deserves to own a Benz, if anyone does. Robert wore black pants, black long sleeve shirt, black shoes, a greying pony tail poking out from under his Yankees cap. He looked like the literary version of Robert De Niro. We ordered coffee, and Robert welcomed me into the writing world. He gave me advice providing a wise corrective for an upstart suffering from the temptation to strive too hard to manage his reputation (a reputation I didn’t even have). “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Robert said. “simply be thankful when someone will pay you to put words on a page.”

In the years since the Frothy Monkey and the Benz that doesn’t exist, Robert and I have stayed in touch, though not as often as I’d like. A quick email. An off-the-cuff phone call about something one of us has written or just a hello. A couple visits. I now consider Robert a friend, and I trust he would say the same of me. In an email between myself and another good friend, Robert referred to me as “Our man in Virginia.” I like that. Funny what strikes you, huh?

There are a small cadre of writers I deeply respect, for their years tending to the work and settling comfortably into their well-weathered voice. It’s a real achievement in this world to labor, over a lifetime – refusing the fast way (if there really is such a thing), paying honor to the craft, staying quiet when silence is required, keeping clear of the dog-n-pony show as much as possible (and it’s never entirely possible), being a good human, helping others be good humans. It’s also a thing of beauty to encounter a writer who is a storyteller in the old sense. “Story” is all the rage these days, but I’m not sure if many of us know what we’re talking about. True storytellers do not let their too-many words get in the way. True storytellers believe the human experience powerful enough and painful enough and joyful enough to stand on its own, so their pen simply opens up the possibilities for us to hear it and see it fresh. I think most of us are too self-conscious for this kind of simplicity. Maybe we just need more years. Maybe we need more hunger. Robert is a true storyteller.

This is why I wanted to dote on Robert a little. I want you to know how much I admire him, how much I cherish him as one of our good writers. Robert has just released his newest book (or as Robert says, “no one unleashes one of my book upon the market, so much as they come and tell me it is time to give it up…”), and this is one Robert has teased me with for a long time now. Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life reflects on the intersection of spirit and art. If you are a writer, you’ll find every shade of joy in these pages. If you love reading good words, you’ll cherish this book at your bedside table. If you think about beauty or useful work or being human, Robert will be a friend to you.

Robert has been a generous friend to me. He has encouraged me in my writing when the terrain looked bleak. He’s been an advocate for me. Everybody needs a few friends in their life like Robert Benson, and I’m thankful.

Once Robert told me: “When in doubt, make sentences.” I’ve found this both helpful and hopeful. You can replace “sentences” with whatever your good work happens to be, and it shakes out just as well.

Writing Notes

The past couple weeks, I’ve had a fresh burst of writing energy toward a new book project (coy look interjected here). I haven’t felt this writing vigor for a while, and I receive the gift with open arms.

But today, once again, I’ve come up blank. Zilch. Nada.

Amid the vast blankness, I’ve been handed time to think again about this maddening art I love. My cursor over on my other page sits there, blinking at me, taunting me – so I defiantly move over here to write down what I want to remember – and, if you are a writer, what I hope you’ll remember.

//surrender the quest for brilliance//

Most writers I know have flashing visions of receiving that gold-embossed envelope (okay, I have no idea if it is actually gold-embossed but that’s the way I conjure the moment) acknowledging, with accompanying accolades, that we have won the National Book Award. However, most of my fantasies are slightly less ambitious (but only slightly). I’d like to receive a phone call from my editor, breathless, over this masterful prose of mine she has just read, singularly unlike the work from any of her other vagabond writers. I’d like for The New Yorker to get in line behind The Atlantic, wrangling to publish this writer (me) who, “writes with unparalleled grit and beauty – a new literary light.” (And, yes, they are free to use my quote)

Dreams are fine things; I’m a fan. However, something gets twisted when we aim to write words that are monumental. Most of life is plain, simple, and most writers are plain, simple people. Our job is to give away what we have. Most days, that’s going to be a little trace of life, a whiff of love. A story here. A question there. Maybe we will stumble upon something that opens up new terrain, or maybe we will just stumble. Whichever, our writing must be true. If we aim for brilliance, chances are we will only create dull fabrications –  because most of our days (and most of our words) are not brilliant but ordinary.

We can hope for brilliance – that’s a good hope, I think. But we do best to shoot for truthfulness and the hard work of simple, elegant craft – and then hold it out to the world with an open hand.

//read…but not like that//

Every writing advice I’ve ever seen says that writers should first be readers. True enough. However, we are tempted to read with a critical eye, comparing someone else’s skill to ours. This is all the truer when we face the deep abyss of our own lackluster writing, sitting there with nothing but the reminder of someone else’s “genius.”

Here’s the deal: every book you read, every article or blog post is not an indictment against you (but this blog post is, definitely). Seriously, we can’t read others through the eyes of what their work says about us. We have to move through our jealousy over others’ successes. Who can say why they succeed and we don’t. Or why they turn a sharp phrase or have such an amazing quick wit or are so freakin’ remarkable. Maybe they’re just a better writer. Maybe the timing was right for them. Maybe the Green Publishing Goblins just have it out for you, and you will always and forever be screwed (well, probably not that).

None of that matters. Really. Though the Amazon rankings suggest different, we are actually on the same team. We are all artisans of beauty, truth and goodness. And, God knows, our world needs all the beauty it can get. Thank the cosmic muse for every good word that finds it way free. And pray that here and there, along the way, you set a few free as well. I bet you will.

//yeah, that//

Cliche alert: Writing is hard work. Annoying, I know. Book club legend has it that Cormac Mcarthy wrote The Road in a single sitting. I doubt it, though that would explain the whole no punctuation thing – the man was in a hurry. (And if it is true, and McCarthy did write The Road all at once, first draft, forget my previous paragraphs – Cormac is a grade-A literary punk and I hope he rots in the very, very bad place for…ever.)

I feel like there’s much more to say here, but “hard work” pretty much sums it up. And my editors have always told me “less, not more.”