The Writer in the Woods
“I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts
I watched a documentary last week about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive genius behind The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger might be the most famous author in American history yet this was the only novel he ever published. It is is a book that has inspired millions around the world, one that gave voice to a sentiment felt by many but spoken by few, a cathartic experience for young people trying to find their way in the world and a sobering look in the mirror for those already entrenched in the grind of phoniness.
sign posted in front of Salinger's NH house | photo by Edmund Fountain/Valley News
I first read The Catcher in the Rye while I was an unemployed law school graduate looking for work anywhere I could find it because I had student loans and bar loans and there were way more lawyers than there were law jobs. I read it and I enjoyed it but then I poured everything I had into finding this elusive, magical job, securing my chain to the conveyer belt that was moving forward, progressing aggressively toward advancement and elevation so that maybe one day, if I worked hard enough, I could actually enjoy my life for a few years before I died.
Having unclipped myself from this conveyer belt a couple years ago to raise my kids and write a book, I was inspired by Salinger’s ambition and persistence, two qualities essential to succeeding as a writer and really at anything. I was astounded by the number of rejections he received from The New Yorker before one of his short stories was finally accepted. I was impressed by his dedication to the craft of writing itself, the pursuit and creation of truthful characters and settings and stories that people can identify with and have empathy and compassion for.
I was intrigued by his rejection of fame.
As a new and unknown writer, I often daydream about fame and recognition and look forward to that day that I can enjoy that private fist bump, that “yes! I fucking did it!” feeling that accompanies some external recognition that what I am doing is in fact significant and worthwhile and valued. I imagine delivering the “I told you sos” to all the haters and doubters in spirited and colorful ways. I visualize accepting an award and looking in the camera with tears streaming down my face and saying “dreams really do come true.” I daydream about it and know I will find some ego-level satisfaction from success in the form of fame and fortune, but this is not why I write.
I write to speak truth.
Salinger holed himself up in his writing studio for decades meditating and churning out stories and novels and ruminations on Buddhism and Vedanta. When he finished a manuscript he just put it in his safe. He did not publish anything. He could have typed the word apple 90,000 times and it would have been a bestseller the next day. He wrote diligently and profusely and published nothing for forty-five years and then he died.
These works will be published according to his trust in a staggered fashion beginning in 2015 and for the next several decades. He was reportedly moved by the notion advanced in the Bhagavad-GitaThis is something I believe. In fact, I tweeted it over a year ago.
Salinger didn’t tweet it, he lived it. Unlike him, I have yet to write a world-changing, generation defining novel that can bankroll me for the rest of my life. Well maybe I have, but I’m working on it still. But seeing this legend, this icon, this superstar reach the pinnacle of writing success then abandon it and write only for the sake of writing, without attachment, knowing that it will only touch the souls of readers when he was removed from the situation as an ego, as an anointed and unwilling spokesperson for a generation, this was inspiring to me.
It was a powerful illustration of why we ought to create art.