My intermittent perusal of Wendell Berry recently resulted in this nugget: grumping about students of writing who don’t want to read for fear of losing their own ‘voice’, the Big Guy zings, “…but their writing sounds like a cigarette commercial.”
Ouch, and touche. We’ve all got our influences, right. I’d better get back to reading.
With this in mind, I’ve continued to follow the vein of gold that is Thomas Lynch, the funeral director/poet/essayist from Michigan/County Clare, Ireland. One thing I love about him is his chosen form, and his mastery of it. Collections of essays appeal to me inherently, perhaps because of my short attention span, or maybe because of the alternation between breezy familiarity and sharp focus that such books bring. In them, writers like Berry and Lynch can change subjects regularly, so that they can explore various facets of their interests, and also apply a bit of wit. All of which stimulates my thinking and provides some substantial refreshment.
But on the writing front, I’m afraid that reading this stuff is anything but refreshing. Such masters are simply overwhelming. I find myself pulled along by their words, until I come to myself and realize just how powerful their words are. Their skills are so strong that they quickly become a discouragement to those of lesser talents.
This effect reminds me of a friend’s telling of a concert where he went to hear a jazz trio. Masters of their craft, these musicians attracted a huge audience of rabid fans. During a section of solos, the bass player was doing his thing, enrapturing the crowd until someone broke the spell, yelling, “F**k You!!”. Not as an insult, of course. No, everyone understood the feeling of inspiration that quickly becomes aggravation. One minute, you’re feeling like going home to dust off your guitar and finally apply yourself to it, and the next minute you decide you’ll just set it out in the trash.
Lynch’s essays are powerful because they are so balanced. Rich and descriptive, detailed and evocative. But somehow at the same time they are sparse, and even a little dry. Understated, reserved, and funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny like Bill Bryson or Anne Lamott, but witty nonetheless. One reads, and can almost see Lynch flashing a wry smile across the page. This power of revealing humor without pointing directly to it, and with describing a scene vividly but still allowing space for the reader to step into it is truly breathtaking.
And if I ever meet Tom Lynch, I’m going to poke him in the eye.