Thursday, June 02, 2016

You Can't Write

by Fred Owens

A quote from Somerset Maugham in Of Human Bondage....."There is nothing so terrible as the pursuit of art by those who have no talent."

Maugham certainly had talent, so he must have been referring to some other writers he knew. This is something I have wanted to say upon reading a snatch of someone's effort. I look up from the page in my hands and say to the would-be writer, "You can't write.... maybe you can surf or cook, but you can't write."

I've even thought that about myself. It's comforting in a way, to say I don't have the talent. I know I have the effort and dedication and discipline and determination, but I might just lack the talent.

I'm sure I have some talent, at least a little..... but isn't it a little like baseball? "Son, I know you love the game, but you can't hit a fast ball and you're never going to make it to the major leagues."

In Maugham's book, Philip, the main character, studies art in Paris for two years, making great effort, but he has doubts about his ability and asks -- insists -- that a renowned artist judge his work with complete honesty.

The artist reviews Philip's work and declares that Philip is destined for mediocrity. Philip took that for truth and abandoned his quest to become an artist ..... he went on to become a doctor and he seemed (but I haven't finished the book ) to have found success in that career.

So if you have this nagging fear that you can't write, it could be true.
Is Death Funny?
Is death funny? Everything else is funny, so I made inquiries about death, to see if it was funny too. My friend died of a heart attack, what they call a massive heart attack. His wife told me it happened in the bathroom at his house. He was standing in front of the mirror brushing his teeth when the heart attack struck. He dropped like a stone, falling so heavily that his head banged against the sheet rock wall and left a dent.

His wife rushed to his aid and called 911, but he was dead instantly.

I called her a few weeks and I asked her if I could write a story about her husband, and it would be a funny story.... you know, "funny as a heart attack."

She became upset and angry at me for suggesting such a thing. I quickly backed up and apologized.

Some months later she forgave me. She said, "You're a writer and you thought you had a good story. I'm sorry I could not help."

I was glad she forgave me, so instead I wrote this story..

A Buddhist Walked into a Bar

Rick Epting walked into the LaConner Tavern one night in the late spring of 2002. He had been in town for the poetry festival. His poet friends were gathering at Nell Thorn’s pub, but Rick decided to go down market and have a Rainier on tap at the LCT as the locals called it.

Gordy Bell occupied a stool midway and he gave out a Hey to Rick, so they joined company and began to drink the beer, paunch and paunch, side by side. Gordy was a hands-on working man of a liberal persuasion. He ran LaConner’s public works crew, fixing potholes and such. There were two men on his crew, Lynn Berry, wide and squat, an expert with the weed-whacker and twice as smart as he looked, and that other younger guy Brian who looked good but wasn’t really that smart.

Anyway, Gordy had but public works aside for the day and was enjoying the view – although sitting on a bar stool all he saw was the bartender and all those bowls of lottery tickets – meaning he enjoyed the view in his mind, maybe thinking of some good day he had out on Skagit Bay on his boat, and secret places near Hope Island where he could trap the best crabs.

It was that far-away look that grabbed Rick’s attention, and the reason he grabbed a stool next to Gordy, Rick being a word guy, and Rick being a guy who had spent most of last two days listening to poets who were all gathering at Nell Thorn’s to detox from the word-fest with plenteous booze.

“So, Gordy, how does it look?” Rick asked. Gordy raised his glass in response. “I just finished the poetry festival,” Rick began, “I got all these thoughts buzzing in my brain. I got that feeling like a balloon head. I’ve been a musician, you remember Future Pastures? That was my group. Then I helped with the Ducks when they played at Rexville Grange, or you can go back all the way to the beginning of hippie world at Toad Hall in Bellingham, I was there. Then I worked at the newspaper. I interviewed various Berentsons serving in public office. I visited Bud Norris in his county commissioner some-time-Democrat, sometime-Republican office with his feet up on the desk. I convinced Norris to deny the nuclear power plants proposed for Sedro-Woolley, although I can only a take a little credit for that one – but I was part of it. And the Food Co-op, I helped get that going when all they had was 25-pound sacks of brown rice and a cup full of brewers yeast, when the broken down hippies – I mean the hippies in their broken down cars – came in from Walker Valley to spend their food stamps and one of them always needed a jump start to get back to camp. I helped that to go. And I prayed, or I should say I learned not to pray. I learned to be a Buddhist, which means I learned to be the Buddha, I learned we’re all the same inside, what do you think, Gordy?” Rick was very earnest.

Gordy smiled beatifically and said, “Let’s move over by the window, we can watch the tide come in, it’s a 12-foot tide today.”

The LaConner Tavern sits on Swinomish Channel and the back part of the tavern, past the bar and the pool tables, opened to picture windows of the ever-changing current of the channel – four movements of the water, and those four being in, out, up and down, meaning the tide comes in and then it goes out, the water rises and then descends, in a rhythm that only the stars can truly understand, those four movements joined by the sublime non-movement, slack tide, when the surface of the water takes on a mirror finish on a windless day and stillness reigns.

So Gordy steered Rick over to a table by the window and the waitress brought them two more flagons. The sunset burnished the sky over the Swinomish Reservation across the channel. “There be Indians,” Gordy intoned, pointing across the channel.

“No, I can’t see them,” Rick replied. “You can’t see them with your eyes wide open,” Gordy said.

Rick closed his eyes and began chanting, “Om, Om, Om.”

“Now, see the salmon,” Gordy said. “They come up from Padilla Bay in flocks and herds and schools, splashing and leaping, mad with sex and desire, salty and driven by wind, they come into the channel and then down the channel, and past the tavern right here, and they go around to Hole-in-the-Wall and then up the river.”

“I can’t see any fish,” Rick cried now in anguish.

“Close your eyes,” Gordy said. “Forget about now. Time goes forward and backward just like the tide. There was lots of salmon back then. Turn your head back one hundred years. Can you see the salmon now?”

“Yes,” Rick said, “I see them leaping!”

Jimmy Schermerhorn walked in to the bar, saw Gordy and Rick and came by to say Hey. Jimmy didn’t drink anymore, he just came in to use the men’s room, but he pulled up a chair for the moment. “Hey, Rick, how did you like the poetry festival?”

Rick said, “It was awesome. The poets chanted and we could see the salmon leaping.”

Later, Rick drove back to his home in Mount Vernon and Gordy went back to his bar stool. He asked the waitress, "Who was that guy I was talking to?”

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Fred Owens
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