One of these days I was going to write a serious essay about what I call the strangers we know. Those are the people we often see around our neighborhoods or offices, but never say hello to, much less learn the names of or get to be friendly with.
Deep, existential stuff, clearly Pulitzer material. Through the miracle of literary alchemy, I was going to turn ordinary everyday specifics into profound universal lessons.
Those stories might have turned out okay, too. But I decided against pursuing either one. Just ditched the concepts cold. And I may never change my mind either.
So it’s gone in my 38-year career as a professional writer. I’ll dream up an idea and get all giddy about carrying it out, only to see a “Stop” sign in my head and opt out instead.
History is strewn with examples of poets, playwrights, memoirists, essayists and short story writers pulling the plug. The list of authors who abandoned novels alone is notably long: John Updike, Stephen King, Truman Capote, Junot Diaz, Evelyn Waugh, Michael Chabon, Harper Lee, Richard Price, Saul Bellow, and Nikolai Gogol, among others. Works that never materialized could likely fill the Library of Congress.
By the way, FYI, I was always going to get around to writing some funny pieces, too. For example, an imaginary conversation between Chicken Little and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. They were going to be playing one-upmanship in the suspicion and paranoia departments.
I also felt destined, in due course, to do a satirical take on a distinguished U.S. senator who had long kept a dirty secret. He would decide to announce, after years of living in the closet and feeling abnormal and ashamed about his true identity, that he’s finally coming out as bipartisan.
Truly hysterical material, the kind guaranteed to make Mark Twain envious. But no. I elected to nix those little conceits, too.
We writers have to go through this drastic weeding-out process, even if it means saying yes to an idea, then no and feeling as if we’re two-timing ourselves. When it comes to excuses, otherwise known as explanations, we’ve got a million.
Maybe we’ve forgotten what originally infatuated us about it. Or suddenly doubt we can do justice to it. Or lack the time and energy needed. Or have higher priorities, such as eating and sleeping. After all, nobody can write everything.
In my case, the list of all the pieces I’ve decided against writing gets longer every decade. With the New Year here, let me now perform a sort of last rites.
I’m never going to write about all the major events that happened to take place in the world on the day I was born, or about how life is going for all the other guys out there also named Bob Brody, or about the inventor of the sound bite (who would turn out to be surprisingly long-winded), or about little-known voicemails in history (such as Romeo repeatedly leaving messages for Juliet). And that’s just for starters.
Now, no doubt you’ve participated in brainstorms governed by the operating principle that no idea is a bad idea. That idea may in and of itself be the single worst idea of all time. Make no mistake: Bad ideas exist. Bad ideas abound. Bad ideas should be left to die aborning.
The trick, of course, is telling which ideas are which.
The upshot is this: No matter how much we expect to accomplish with our lives, however high we aim, it inevitably dawns on us that we’re each given just so much time. So, if only in the interest of survival if not sanity, we must negotiate with ourselves, scale back our ambitions, accept our limitations and, yes, find peace. For a writer, this is no more and no less true than it is for anyone else.
And that’s okay. Leaving certain business unfinished creates room for other, perhaps more promising projects. It’s taken me a long time to learn this—that sometimes the best course of action is inaction, that even the best-intentioned projects can be misguided, and that a life well lived sometimes consists of mistakes you never gave yourself a chance to make.
So when you get right down to it, I’m probably never going to write all those pieces I just mentioned, as well as numerous others unmentioned.
Unless, of course, I should.
In which case, come to think of it, maybe I will.