When I lived in Miami I was alone a lot. There were few people, no traffic, and open vistas with nothing but sky and land as far as you can see.
That would be Miami, Texas, by the way.
I filled my alone with bicycle rides several times a week. There was a small hill you crested leaving town, then a few miles of dead-straight, bitter headwind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of dead-straight, bitter crosswind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of holy tailwind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of shelter in a valley, then I’d be home.
There was never any prospect of meeting another cyclist. If you weren’t up for a couple of hours of wind and heat, or wind and cold, or wind and rain, or wind and snow, or wind and wind, well, this wasn’t going to be much of a riding terrain for you. I enjoyed the alone, punctuated occasionally by a pickup whose driver always raised an index finger about half an inch off the wheel in greeting. Everybody in the county knew the guy on the bicycle.
The other way I filled up my alone was with reading. Most of what I read was about the west, that is, white man’s science fiction. But there was a shelf of books about the west that contained big chunks of true. I had all those books.
In my job I drove a lot, from one end of a very big state to the other, in fact. And one of the towns I drove through one day was Archer. You may know Archer. It’s the home of Larry McMurtry and what was then the world’s greatest bookstore in the world’s most nondescript, forgettably dust-blown town. I think the phrase that comes to mind is “shot with a shit pistol.”
The only book of his I’ve ever read is the first installment of Lonesome Dove. There’s nothing much to say about it other than it is the epitome of what a novel should be: A good yarn that draws you in and holds you there until the very last page.
But his other great books I never read because, jealous. You see, in Lonesome Dove I could track every one of those books that I’d read about the west that weren’t science fiction. It was all there, from J. Frank Dobie’s “The Longhorns” to the historical accounts of the chases and skirmishes that finally broke the Plains Indians in Texas. And it was beautifully dressed up in a magnificent tale.
“Hell,” I thought after finishing Lonesome Dove. “I could’ve written that.”
But what endeared McMurtry to me wasn’t his storytelling, which was great, and which, I promise, will someday soon cause me to read “Horseman, Pass By,” but rather it was his writing habits.
You see, he gets up every day and first thing he dashes off five or six pages.
What does he do after that? No idea. And it really doesn’t matter because he’s a writer, and after he’s written for the day, well, he’s done all that he’s obligated to do per the terms of his contract with himself. Maybe he works in his dust garden or goes back to bed or plays Donkey Kong. Whatever he does after the writing, though, doesn’t matter because he done wrote.
I have poorly adhered to that habit in all things, by which I mean when I’m in a cyclist phase I get up and knock out the ride no matter what, and when I’m in a blogger phase I get up and knock out the blog no matter what, and when I’m in a Chinese phase I get up and knock out the Chinese no matter what, and now, as I’m in a Chaucer phase, I start my day at 4:00 AM with a hot cup of coffee in a Yeti mug and burn another 10-12 lines of Middle English into my aging, thickening, hardening brain.
None of it means anything if you’re of the bent from Ecclesiastes 1, “All is vanity.” To edit the words of a friend describing my Chaucer ambitions, life itself is a vanity project.
But if some of it means something, and if in addition to the vanity project life is going to at least scatter some crumbs for those who come nibbling after you’re gone, well, a good way to approach it is with the solid workmanship of McMurtry. Ring in the day with the thing that matters. The rest?
It’ll take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, I guess there’s always Donkey Kong.
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