Wideman on Campus, continued

“So you have to find a subject which is that deeply felt, which disturbs you, which won’t let you go, which demands the best of you. And you’re the only person who can discover what it is.”

Filreis: We have a question from Canada, from Ingrid Philipp [CW’69]. She writes: “Dear John, as a late-life beginning writer, I have several unborn stories fighting to come out. Any advice on how to pick the book or the story to write?”

Wideman: One of the most difficult things for any writer is to find the proper subject, and by proper subject I mean a subject about which you can only write at your best, a subject that does not allow you to compromise or be dishonest or do a half-assed job. Basketball was like that for me. I could not go on the basketball court and give a sort of semi-effort. I would rather just not play. My coaches might tell you
differently—but most of the time I was giving it my best, and I really felt awful if I came out of a game and felt I did not bring my best to it.

    So you have to find a subject which is that deeply felt, which disturbs you, which won’t let you go, which demands the best of you. And you’re the only person who can discover what it is. Sometimes you can only discover it by many fits and starts, and if you don’t have the faculty of determining when the subject matter has backed you into a corner and when it demands your best, then you’re probably not going to be a writer. You may write, you may publish, but you’re never going to do your best work. That’s the struggle, to find what counts for you.
    I keep going back to sport metaphors because sports are so much a part of me, but I think a good player always plays best against the best competition. You have to find a subject that is a good competitor in that sense—it should scare you a little. It should demand the fullest measure of your talent. It’s good to be a little bit frightened—not intimidated, but before a game it’s not bad to have an edge of fear, a fine layer of sweat. You can get in trouble with that edge of fear, and it can keep you from writing the subject you want to write about. If you know your relationship with your mom has always been something you’d rather not look at—you want to get your own life and get away from it—that little edge of fear can keep you from going there for a long time. But the little edge of fear also ought to be enticing: “OK, he’s averaged 30 points a game. He’s All-American. Where is he playing this Saturday? I want to go out to his playground. Guard him. I want to play with the big boy, the biggest boys.”

Paul Vinelli C’00 (in audience): I was wondering if you have a sense of fear in approaching the sacred and the spiritual, and, if so, how do you deal with that?

Wideman: I’ve often wondered about my mother’s religious faith, which in some senses is a very traditional faith: She believes in God, she goes to church every Sunday, she studies the Bible. As far back as I remember, she’s always been extremely devout. I don’t share her religious framework. On the other hand, I have seen its power, and I’ve seen the kind of person it has made her, and I’ve seen her ability to hold together a family that’s been distressed in many, many awful ways.
    I don’t know anybody who deals with crisis—personal crisis, illness, illnesses of loved ones, the incarceration of a son—I don’t know anybody who brings more strength and intelligence to those kinds of situations than my mother. I respect her profoundly, and I know her strength has a lot to do with her religious faith, so, no matter my view of religion, I cannot treat it lightly, I cannot be silly about it. I certainly can’t dismiss it. Religion’s a mystery to me. I don’t understand it. But I know my mom’s way at some level makes absolute sense for her, and so I guess that’s my answer to the question—that I don’t have everything sorted out, but her path is one that continues to illuminate and fortify me, because I’ve been the beneficiary.
    I’m speaking about my mother in particular, but there’s something general about African American culture and tradition she embodies, and it is the culture’s intimacy with a non-material, spiritually rich reality. There is something beyond what we can count and touch and smell and see which exerts a powerful force on what it means to be human and, like my mom, I want to honor, or try to understand a little better, those forces.

Cary: You have a piece of paper there with some stuff written on it. Is there anything we should hear before we close this?

Wideman: This is kind of grim—but not really so grim. It’s about the end and this is the end of the program, so maybe it’s appropriate. I’ve been thinking about a basketball player who is at the end of his career, and he’s doing a kind of tour of his past and of the game, and he’s stopping in cities, but it’s not a triumphal tour like Dr. J’s last run or Larry Bird’s last run—you know, where they have these celebrations at the stadium and people give them Broncos and stuff like that. My guy played at a lower level of the game, and the novel, if it’s going to be a novel, will be about the end of his playing days, about how things end in general for all of us. The narrative will follow his final road trip through America, going from city to city as an itinerant basketball player, trying to make sense of the life that he’s lived. So you have to think of a guy who’s had that kind of life. This piece is part of the novel-in-progress. It has never aired before, so I don’t know what it’s going to sound like:
“Lately, someone has begun whispering in my ear. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead they say gentle whisperers guide the soul on its last journey, spirit voices assisting the naked soul’s passage from light to darkness to light, from invisibility in the body’s cave to visibility as the soul returns to the eternal shining forth that all things are. Calm, certain voices like pole stars in the black night the frightened soul must navigate. I take some consolation from the rumor that such whisperers may exist, but the voice in my ear does not confide helpful or calming things. It seems as lost, as haunted as I am, unable to speak above the muted, breathless murmur of someone in pain, someone deeply unsure, puzzled by the nature of a world, a leavetaking more not less confusing as the body’s end approaches, the soul’s final separation begins. Perhaps that is the way the dead are guided—not by anyone with answers or knowledge of the shifting terrain but by another like them. Is it possible that even in this last formless wandering we may not be alone, that we still hunger for our kind, though what that kind might be eludes us still? Perhaps the unseen companion attaching itself to me seeks nothing from me, understands nothing of my presence, except as we vanish together we’ll learn the other’s fading voice, the other’s doubts. Will they become a source of comfort. Who is this companion, this exhausted being from an exhausted star who has traveled vast distances, a great, incomprehensible life, a muffled sighing I can barely hear.”

Filreis: Thank you, John Wideman.

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