When I was a very young man I savored the rhythms of Ernest Hemingway’s luscious sentences in The Sun Also Rises while I tried to make sense of the Hemingway Code — the life rules the writer and his characters strove to embody.
Somewhat self consciously, I tried to tell the truth because that was one of the prime tenets of the Code and it seemed more manageable to me than rushing into war or hunting for elephants, other endeavors the great man advocated.
Hemingway struggled to write true sentences. Whenever a line read false, he crossed it out. I was deeply influenced by this simple idea, building a house of art with small radiant bricks of truth. I still try to work this way and become irritated whenever a false note slips into a paragraph.
As a young man, the connection between truth and art was electric and seemed to shine a light in the direction I wanted to go. Hemingway, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Mailer, Anais Nin: all of them wrote from the heart, thumbing their noses at conventional mores. The writers I admired most rushed into the fire exploring their madness or admitting unspeakable sexual impulses or even murderous fantasies. Or worse. Norman Mailer stabbed his second wife Adele in the heart (she survived), and later turned this blasphemy into art when he wrote An American Dream. My hunch is that soon after he plunged in the blade, Mailer envisioned art pouring from this grotesque wound. A great writer doesn’t easily forgo such provocative material. And if he does, he suffers greatly for missed opportunity.
My own early writing was dark and confessional, perhaps too dark and too confessional; but to the point of this little essay, in my twenties, when I was still thinking and talking about writing more than doing it, my social life was informed by raw impulses that I admired in literature.
In my circle of friends — some of them shy boys — confessional conversation quickly became our religion. We smoked weed and listened to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Billy Holiday, Janis Joplin. Their hurting music spurred shared intimacies, pulled us together and made life seem urgent and mysterious.
There was no subject off limits. Telling the truth was challenging, provocative, painful, sexy, informing, noble. Shame became art in the alchemy of our talks, or so it seemed. We never knew where the night would lead. When we weren’t talking until dawn — admitting, confessing, sometimes criticizing one another to the core — life felt flat and without purpose.
Skipping ahead decades. Okay, I’m trying to tell the truth here without hurting anyone’s feelings. I used to say everything to the people I cared about most. Now I watch my words.
I was recently having a discussion with a friend, one of the old crew. We were talking about theatre, books, grandchildren, sports, carefully avoiding health issues and his son’s drug problem, and then we turned to politics. His conservative point of view suddenly infuriated me. What about the poor and hungry? While he spoke about his clever investment strategy and the fortune he would leave to his family, my mind flashed to a Viet Nam vet who sits in a wheelchair on my street corner 12 months a year. I couldn’t wrest my eyes from the image of him without a leg, in filthy clothes, sitting out his remaining days. We should give some of the fortune to him, so he can survive decently. That’s all I could think of. I was about to leap at my friend’s throat (and would have years ago) when the ardor just emptied out of me. He is a dear man. Who am I to challenge the pillars of his life, the dream of leaving his family living on Easy Street?
It is easy to forget that grown children have their own dreams and priorities, and that their own wives and children and the passage of years have taken a toll on our shared passions. Candor with grown children should be carefully considered. Their tears are like mortal wounds. So when my kids bring their families to Martha’s Vineyard this summer, swallow your critiques, Waitzkin.
What I cannot mention looms much larger in my consciousness than what I can say. I need to use euphemisms all the time as if learning to use my left hand to eat or throw a ball. I am still drawn to the bliss of empathic conversation, but now I weigh it carefully against remorse. I’ve become adroit at making narrative and thematic revisions to match my audience and the ever-shifting herd of elephants in the room. For example, it is often better to leave ugly wounds from the past out of enthusiastic lunch conversation. I’ve even learned to enjoy doing this, like revising paragraphs in my office. Such flexibility would have been an appalling notion years ago.
Still, it is very easy to mess up horribly and let the truth slip out. About six months ago, I told the truth to a friend without holding back. He was devastated and I didn’t know what to say after that.
Years ago when I occasionally wrote book reviews for The New York Times, I was scrupulously honest as if I’d been sanctioned to make the Lord’s literary decisions about immortality. I spelled out strengths and weaknesses as I saw them, although like many reviewers I felt the temptation to take out my blade and cut deeply into the failures. These days when writers give me manuscripts to critique, I often tell lies. Of course I try to be helpful, but also I try to feel warmly about work and say something positive and encouraging even if I think it’s awful. I don’t want to break any more hearts.
I try to remain honest on the page. At least this sanctuary remains. Except, recently I wrote an essay called A War in the Family about an unpleasant incident that took place over the holidays. I think it was an honest piece of writing that wrestles with questions of self-delusion and hidden restive violence that resides in all of us. And to me it seems particularly relevant today while neighbors are butchering one another all over the planet. But I didn’t send it off to my editors. My children felt the essay would hurt the feelings of people that we love. This was a close call, but I think my kids were right.
Fred Waitzkin is the author of four books, including Searching for Bobby Fischer. His most recent novel is The Dream Merchant. Fred and his wife Bonnie live in New York city and West Tisbury.