I just read a story in The Atlantic Monthly about a man, my age, rediscovering something about himself and about life. I could identify with him and his discoveryóand the doubts and fears and incredulityóbut what stuck me more was the way the author used words. A little bit like the time I read Vladimir Nabokovís Lolita and was entranced by the flow and roundness of his sentences, barely noticing the story itself, which was considered scandalous in those days. No, not noticing wasnít scandalous. Forbidden sex was, but that particular fantasy didnít catch my own secret undercurrents.
Nabokov inspired me. I wasnít doing much writing those days, being too busy raising a family and tending to my career to think about what was inside of me trying to get out. I still thought of myself, somehow, as a writer. Maybe a latent writer. I had indulged that passion earlier, before the family and the career, and it was stuffed into a box somewhere, typed laboriously on erasable bond (I was never a good typist), double-spaced, two hundred fifty words to the page, nothing longer than fifteen or twenty pages. The "writer hat" was there, too, collecting dust along with my vocabulary, lost in the clutter of production and management techniques and planning next summerís vacation with the family. Nabokov loosened something, lifted a rock from the mud someplace, made me think about who I was, really.
This Atlantic story did some of that to me this morning. I make the excuse that, well, after all, this is The Atlantic Monthly, the cream of the civilized world. The writer (I donít even know who it is) has no doubt been writing for forty years, after getting a degree in English composition from Oberlin College or someplace like that. Heís been immersed in the English language all his life, and speaks in complete sentences, and reads whole books without once having to look up a word. Bill Roorbach, it turns out (I had to stop and look him up), teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Ohio State, and has won awards for his short fiction. As I thought.
The difference between reading Nabokov and reading Roorbach is the difference between my being in my late thirties, with eons of time ahead of me to learn how to "really" write, and being in my early seventies, with the end of life staring me in the face. Iíll never write so that the words roll around in the mind the way an expensive Sauterne rolls around, like marbles, in the mouth. Like the other fantasies of my life: the great, breathless hiking adventure into the mountains or flying a floatplane up to a remote Canadian lake for a month of my own Walden Pond experience, writing really well is something I have to let go of. This is me, with my warts and flabby muscles and flabbier mind.
Iíve spent my life fiddling with machinery instead of conjugating verbs. I know the basic structure of a computer, but I donít know the subtleties of my own language. I can take a kitchen timer apart and put it back together so that it runs again, but I canít find the words to express the yearnings of my own soul.
I suppose thatís it, actually. Forty years ago it was important to me to be able to take a machine apart and understand how it worked. Today itís important to me to look into my mind and my heart and understand how they work. Trouble is, itís nearly the end of the semester, and it feels as though my whole grade depends upon my final paper, and I havenít a clue to how to write it. I canít even persuade my own children to read what Iíve written. Nabokov wouldnít read past the first page. Roorbach would use my work in his first-year composition classes to teach the kids how not to write.
Itís not the way my fantasy went.
Donald Skiff, March 1, 2001