Until the End of the World
Writing is not what I live for, it’s how I live
Author's note: In January 2020, the poet Gail Wronsky asked me to contribute to What Falls Away Is Always: Writers Over Sixty on Writing & Death, edited by Wronsky and writer Katharine Haake and published by What Books Press. They received this essay the 6th of February, just as COVID-19 began to make us all nervy. The pandemic delayed publication until now. – Michael Ventura
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger's eye.
– Wislawa Szymborska
COCKROACHES SCURRY. A tiger lies still in tall grass for hours awaiting prey. I write. The cockroach, the tiger, and me – we do how we are made.
How, why, and for whom do I write? Well ... my mother used to say, "Why is a crooked letter." I finally believe her. "What happened?" is a better question, but it's hardly an explanation. Age 11, sometime in the sixth grade, in a working-class Brooklyn slum, the boy I was began to carry a pocket notebook in which he noted this and that; also, that boy discovered books. Either that year or the next I almost died of hunger. I don't know if my hospitalization made it into my notebook. But somewhere around then Clelia, my brilliant half-mad mother, noticed my notebook, realized the notebook had become a constant in my life, and said, out of her fog, very seriously: "Remember, words are music." I took that as seriously as she meant it.
Age 13, 14, 15, I'm telling people, "I'm a writer."
Age 74: I'm a writer.
So ... sometime around age 11 I decided I needed a notebook and a pen, in my pocket, at all times. And for all these years that notebook, in whatever form, has been the single constant of my life. More constant even than my name. (Some still live who remember me as "Speedy" or "Speed" circa ages 13 to 25.) If, on my deathbed, I can speak, I shall ask that a notebook and pen be placed within my reach – even if I can never again reach. It's how I'm made.
To accept the mystery of oneself. Period. Without question.
That's fuck-all tough – or so I've found it to be, facing and accepting the mystery of whatever self that, from my mirror or from my dreams, calls out to be lived and recognized and accepted.
But the writing self – that in me which compels this craft, all its work and pain and grace – I accepted the writing self without question when I was too young even to realize it was happening. By the time I did realize, writing was rooted too deeply in me to disentwine. And, in that sense, this writing-self is utterly nonverbal. It compels the words but is itself silent.
Took me a lifetime to grasp that. This, alone, is proof to me of the worth of growing old.
Let's clear something up right away: If there is to be such a thing as posterity – for, as you know, we may soon face the end of our species – it is an entity with which I have nothing to do. The literary world hasn't had much truck with me nor I with it. From 1974 to 2014, I wrote for – well, at first they were called "underground" papers, then "alternative," then finally only "weekly": The Austin Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press (very briefly), LA Weekly, and The Austin Chronicle. I didn't expect to become that kind of writer; I never graduated from anything, so I certainly had no credentials. I was fortunate that my first editor, Jeffrey Shero Nightbyrd, asked only one question: "Can you write?" "Yeah," I said, "I can write." So, after years as a working stiff – typesetter, transcriber, odd-jobber – for the rest of my life I've paid my rent and bought my beans with my notebook and a keyboard. The writing life.
From 1983 to 2014, with the exception of one year or so, every other week I wrote a column called "Letters at 3AM," roughly 1,400 words about anything I felt like. Often politics, often memoir, but, really, anything. I figure more than 700, but fewer than 800, columns – plus all the film criticism, features, what-all. A total of published pieces between 1,500 and 2,000? Something like that. And three published novels that passed from this world as quietly as a good death.
All those words are not words for any future I can imagine.
Most of us writers, our words don't outlive us by much – and, very often, we live longer than they do. There's nothing like tragedy in either fate. A truck driver is a truck driver only till the end of the drive.
So if it's not for posterity, why do I still write every day? For the same reason that a cockroach scurries and a tiger – one of the very few left – waits hours in the high grass to attack: It's how I'm made.
Writing is not what I live for, it's how I live.
Before my stroke I worked daily in three-hour shifts. At least two shifts, but three shifts, or four, or even five, was not unusual. Ask anyone who knows me well; I'm not exaggerating. In fact, it was a six-shift round, working 18 hours on three different projects ... that's how I stroked out six years ago. Oh, I can still wiggle my fingers and toes, and I slurred a little for a while but not anymore (usually), but ... I can't work more than two or three hours in a day, and not every day. I don't watch a clock. I don't have to: When I hit a certain unmarked limit I get dizzy and my head feels heavy and sometimes I'm not sure where I am. Time to stop. For then I know I must, must, stay kind of still, rest easy, go gently, because "old" for me was finding there's something you can't push against – not because you shouldn't, but because you cannot. That stuff you used to have, the stuff that did the pushing – it's not there anymore.
As I write this day, I am 74 – which is to say, three months and five days into my 75th year. My medical records note a stroke (age 68) and what my urologist called "a bad cancer" (age 70–71). As to that, Jazmin and I went for a second opinion; this doctor's voice was strictly matter of fact: "You have one to three years." I've beaten his verdict by six months and counting, cha-cha-cha, but, even so, my life expectancy measures in the single digits.
One year? Seven? Four?
Quickly, but not so quickly as to preclude a final sentence? Slowly, with the equally awful prospects of incapable-of-speech or talking-too-much? Or do I die faster-than-quickly, gone before I hit the ground?
If I sound flip it's because I'm desperate.
That's OK. I'm used to being desperate.
I am desperately alive. An old man, not scared most days, doing his last things.
This Christmas past, Jazmin gifted me Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, compiled by Yoel Hoffman. You might say Jaz has a challenging sense of humor; you might say she knows that, as the gospel paean says, there's no hiding place down here; you might say she daily dares herself to be brave. Also, she knows her husband – knows that the first thing that fool, being myself, will think is: If they can do it, I can try. Imagine: To have such authority with death that you know the day and even the hour, and you write the poem and do, in fact, soon after, die. Kozan Ikkyo, age 77, in the year 1360:
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Hoffman adds: "He wrote this poem on the morning of his death, put down his brush, and died sitting upright."
Every death is the end of the world because the world will never again be assembled in just the way one dying person has seen it. But since 1945 and the possibility of nuclear war, and with the ever-swelling threat of Climate Change – now the individual's death overlaps and foreshadows our species' possible death, until the end of my life and the end of the world are, together, not "two simple happenings," but an ever-present sense of abyss that steadily permeates the world. Is mine the last generation to live into old age? That question has been urgent since Nagasaki and Hiroshima; Climate Change has made it more so.
I write this in our small rented studio on a height above the Bear River. This rental has no stove – just a toaster oven and a hot plate – but Jazmin and I are content because look at what we see through our enormous window: the river, a wide swath of sky, and, between river and sky, miles of hilly forest. The Sierra Foothills. We've seen an eagle dive for fish. Bear-scat by the garbage can. (Jazmin's niece jogged a forest-trail and, on a blind turn, ran into a bear – I mean, bumped into the bear, the beast and the girl equally startled; as Ashley tells it, "They say not to run from a bear, but oh boy, I ran!") Neighbors spotted a cougar. We see, daily, incredibly white cranes, wild geese, and so many birds and plants that, to me, Bronx-born, are nameless. The closest fire was six miles north – a wind-change and all this would be ash, and us with it. I've felt the trees grieve. I know that the birds know so many of their kind disappeared last summer. My trembling is merely one reflex of a far greater trembling.
And the river I see from my decades-old typing table is always the river you can't step in twice.
Once upon a baseball season, manager Dusty Baker helmed a losing team into September. His guys were about to play a Wild Card favorite. Asked his chances, Dusty Baker smiled sort of secretly and said, "A dying animal will bite with its last breath."
I'm happy he said that. I often think of it. There's a sense in which I write now with my last breath.
As I say, I can't work for more than two or three hours, usually in the late morning and early afternoon – not the night-writing I did most of my life.
That's ok. For some of us, F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, "it is always three o'clock in the morning."
What I write depends on the day and what's coming. "The Big Book," as I call it, a thousand pages (yes, that many) of essay-type stuff to be written until I die ... I can't work on that this season, it's too demanding, and, though I have thousands of notes, so far fewer than 100 pages are done. Also, there's the monograph on silent cinema – that one is fun, I can do that in any sort of season. Also, Edendale, aka The Dragon, the novel I've worked for 12 years; it was going to be two volumes; I'm refashioning it to one because, well, I believe a double-digit life expectancy is beyond my range; but it's gotta be the right day to do that sort of work. There are various notes on the Gospels. Notes for political pieces. And there's the long poem I've been writing for half a century – finally finished the first volume; two more to go. Oh, and one other novel completed, in manuscript.
I write as I age because how would I not write? A line of Cavafy's: "I attend to my work and I love it."
In fact, Cavafy, in Rae Dalven's translations, has accompanied me since I was a kid, as in:
Give – I say – all your strength to your work,
all your care, and again – remember your work
in your time of trial, or when your hour is near.
This is the sort of thing I've tried to live up to all my life. To fail to do so now, just because I'm old, just because I'm frail'ish, would be to imprison myself. Or should I gripe and cower because human society these days seems drastically more insane than usual? Dorothy Day was fond of quoting Teresa of Avila: "All times are dangerous times."
As for the mishegas of publishing – it's fair to say that The World That Calls Itself "The World" makes me tired. Aren't roughly 2,000-ish publications enough? Rather, I prefer very much to leave these unpublished packets of pages, a little bit like leaving ghosts of myself, ghosts with their own fates, humble I'm sure, and quite apart from me.
I wake in the night – sip a whiskey – in a rocking chair! just like Fats Waller sang! – and I wonder about this and that and the other. Wondered about writing this piece ... wondered at my affinity with the cockroach and the tiger, and how we must not run from words, nor from the fates that words mark.
For me there is only one appropriate benediction and it is all I have to say to Life as I leave it: Thank you.
And ... well ... who, better than a writer, can more fully admire the breadth and height of those two so-often-typed three-letter syllables,
A Look Back at "Letters at 3AM"
Michael Ventura's "Letters at 3AM" – a reader favorite – ran in The Austin Chronicle from 1993 to 2014. From 1997 on, the biweekly column was illustrated by Jason Stout, who retired as the Chronicle's art director in 2020. We're thrilled to have them paired together in print once more. You can peruse the "Letters at 3AM" archive at austinchronicle.com/columns/letters-at-3am.