She said her goodbyes and left the room, and I was left there with Brendan, waiting for his family to come along. I had about an hour or so. So I just went over to the coffin and I picked up Ulysses, and I began to read to him. The first section I read him was from “Cyclops,” but mostly I read to him Molly Bloom’s soliloquy—in other words, I read all the dirty parts. All the peach-eating parts, you might say.
The other person “A Meeting” reminds me of is my father. He died three years ago, the year after Brendan. He was in Dublin and he was a gardener. He grew roses, he was a good fan of Wendell Berry’s. I’m sure my dad is somewhere among the mighty fine trees, too.
I love the way the poem makes the personal eternal—how a friend’s face, his voice, can be summoned up after many years, how even the delight one felt at eating a summer peach will somehow never fully perish. That, I think, is similar to what literature does. The deep enduring value of literature is that it lays down a marker. You are speaking with a voice that will never go silent.
That’s why you have to achieve your very, very best at any particular moment, because the book you write will, like the friend in the poem, be there forever. That’s why I push my students hard. A lot of people say your ideal reader is an idealized stranger, or a friend, but I tell them, Your ideal reader is yourself, 20 years from now. I ask them: If you were able to read you work 20 years from now, would you still be proud of it? Did you hurt somebody? Did you try to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes, or even your own eyes? Were you being entirely honest? How true does the work happen to be?
You have to imagine yourself, 20 years on, coming back to take a look at your work. And when that future self looks back, it should see you put your best self down on the page. You hope that in those 20 years from now, you still recognize your best self and are not embarrassed by what you wrote.
That’s a lot of pressure, obviously. A paralyzing amount of pressure sometimes. But you can’t paralyze yourself into silence. That’s the most important thing: You can’t overthink this. (As I say somewhere in the book: “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life is a scary proposition too.”) You shouldn’t over-examine these things, but at the same time, you must do your very, very, very best. That becomes a tightrope of sorts. You have to learn how to walk the tightrope. That’s the great creative tension that makes good work.
Of course, the great joy about writing is you’re not on a literal tightrope. If you fall, you only hit your office floor.
One of the main things I try to convince my students is that, very simply, the art of writing is putting your arse in the chair. That’s it. When it’s going well, you can get up out of your chair. You can walk around. You can do the dishes. You can do whatever you want to do. But when it’s going badly, you must sit, and you must fight it, face the blank page. It takes a lot of stamina, but it’s the only way that work gets done.