The Fuel that Runs It

Who will help?
(Image by Lukas Rychvalsky, via Unsplash)

My writing group was talking about the inherent difficulty of the first chapter of a novel. You can’t put everything first, so you have to help people be reassured that the things they don’t know yet will ultimately be revealed. And Nathan said something interesting, something that feels true: “The first chapter of a book teaches you how to read the book.”

Our neighbors lent me a copy of a book, Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I read it on New Year’s Eve afternoon, picking up speed the whole way through. Indeed, the first thirty pages or so of that book taught me how to read the book. It’s a book about stupid, belligerent people. It’s a book about being the victim of stupid, belligerent people. It’s about a young boy who learns over the next decades to repeat every single one of his stupid, belligerent father’s failings. The first thirty pages set that tone perfectly, so that all I had to do thereafter was skip twenty pages forward, read half a page to determine that indeed everyone was still stupid and belligerent, skip forward another twenty, confirm once again, and so on to the end. The first thirty or forty pages took an hour; the subsequent 450 about the same.

I got two emails yesterday, from two different friends who don’t know one another at all. One of them had just finished reading my book Leopard, and called it a “wonderful, loving story.” The other had read a recent pair of blog posts, and said “Thank you for all that you give to us with such generosity!”

Nora and I were talking yesterday morning about a piece of music I shared with her, a duet by the guitarist Ross Traut and bassist Steve Rodby. Rodby’s been the bass player with Pat Metheny for decades, and has a substantial career as a music producer and sideman, but I knew almost nothing about Ross Traut. I mean, the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and he’s a hell of a player. So I googled “Ross Traut guitar,” and found that he has a gallery of Navajo arts in New York City. His homepage says I’ve been playing guitar since the beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in ’64, starting with air guitar and moving on from there. I’ve had a good run as a professional guitar player for the last 40 years and there is nothing that beats playing. However, looking at Navajo rugs is like listening to music. I imagine the creation of a Navajo weaving like a jazz improvisation only a lot slower. 

Anyway, we looked at Google Streetscapes to see the building he’s in, one of those Manhattan midrises filled with unknowable lives. And Nora said, “I wish you’d go back to that book you were working on about all the tenants of the office building. I know it didn’t exactly float your boat, but it’s such an interesting idea.” (Of course, we’re both academically trained in a field that collects and displays stories about people in their places.)

So after dinner last night, I went back and read the 93 pages that exist of the novel The Story Box. And that opener, which has done the work of teaching us how to read the book, showed itself to me in a completely new light. Cassie, the lead character, is an interesting person with an interesting array of problems. I can easily imagine spending time trying to figure out more about her. The other characters in the other office suites are compelling, all of them coming to terms with some major thing in their lives. And the idea of seeing the stories inside all of these cubes of leased space remains interesting.

What’s missing is the fuel of generosity. What’s missing is a character who’s vulnerable enough to admit what they need, and a character who hears that need and does her or his best to address it. In fact, the commercial worlds portrayed in the story have systematically trimmed away everyone’s opportunities for generosity, have pruned each of the four main characters back to their root. Maybe they’ll be able to flower again some day, but I’m not seeing it.

And that realization became two realizations. One is that generosity is indeed the fuel that has powered all of my stories, that we become greater through our work on behalf of others. But the other is that in almost every case, that generosity had to be exercised through something other than the character’s workplace. They all have jobs, of course, some of them pretty interesting jobs. But mostly, those jobs had to be overcome in order to do the real work of loving their friends.

How many of us are fortunate enough to be able to exercise generosity through our work? The notion of profit is not a generous notion. The forces of standardization and compliance are not generous forces. The drive to self-interest is not a generous drive. If we are generous people, that generosity may seep through gaps in the foundation, but the foundation itself is designed to be anti-generous, to be rapacious or defensive, each for ourselves against all others.

And in fact, as I was writing that last paragraph, a message came in, forwarded from a friend:

So, as we begin a new year, I’ll invite you to do a little meditation on the notion of generosity. What would it mean to truly see others, to be invested in their well-being, to help them to thrive? What opportunities do each of us have to do those things? And what stands in our way?

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