||So you have to
find a subject which is that deeply felt, which disturbs you, which
wont let you go, which demands the best of you. And youre
the only person who can discover what it is.
Filreis: We have a question from Canada, from
Ingrid Philipp [CW69]. 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
differentlybut 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
you have to find a subject which is that deeply felt, which disturbs you,
which wont let you go, which demands the best of you. And youre the
only person who can discover what it is. Sometimes you can only discover
it by many fits and starts, and if you dont have the faculty of determining
when the subject matter has backed you into a corner and when it demands
your best, then youre probably not going to be a writer. You may write,
you may publish, but youre never going to do your best work. Thats the
struggle, to find what counts for you.
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 senseit
should scare you a little. It should demand the fullest measure of your
talent. Its good to be a little bit frightenednot intimidated, but before
a game its 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 youd rather not look atyou want to
get your own life and get away from itthat 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, hes averaged 30 points a game. Hes 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 C00 (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: Ive often wondered about my mothers
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, shes always been extremely devout. I dont
share her religious framework. On the other hand, I have seen its power,
and Ive seen the kind of person it has made her, and Ive seen her ability
to hold together a family thats been distressed in many, many awful ways.
dont know anybody who deals with crisispersonal crisis, illness, illnesses
of loved ones, the incarceration of a sonI dont 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 cant dismiss it.
Religions a mystery to me. I dont understand it. But I know my moms
way at some level makes absolute sense for her, and so I guess thats
my answer to the questionthat I dont have everything sorted out, but
her path is one that continues to illuminate and fortify me, because Ive
been the beneficiary.
speaking about my mother in particular, but theres something general
about African American culture and tradition she embodies, and it is the
cultures 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
Wideman: This is kind of grimbut not really
so grim. Its about the end and this is the end of the program, so maybe
its appropriate. Ive been thinking about a basketball player who is
at the end of his career, and hes doing a kind of tour of his past and
of the game, and hes stopping in cities, but its not a triumphal tour
like Dr. Js last run or Larry Birds last runyou 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 its 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 hes lived. So
you have to think of a guy whos had that kind of life. This piece is
part of the novel-in-progress. It has never aired before, so I dont know
what its going to sound like:
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 souls passage from light to darkness to light, from
invisibility in the bodys 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 bodys end approaches,
the souls final separation begins. Perhaps that is the way the dead are
guidednot 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 well learn the others fading
voice, the others 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
Filreis: Thank you, John Wideman.