My father used to tell me, when I was a small boy who liked to think he knew a thing or two about a thing or two, “You’re just talking to hear yourself roar.” Or sometimes he’d use a variation, “You’re just talking to hear your head rattle.” I’m remembering these sayings here at the end of another semester of teaching as well at a time later in my life than makes me comfortable to consider. It’s a time when I watch another group of my students entering their adult lives. It’s a time when I begin to wonder just how many more books I may have the good fortune to write. Don’t get me wrong. Here at age 64, I still feel young—too young, my wife Cathy would tell you in those moments when I let the twelve year-old boy I carry inside me express himself with corny jokes and downright silliness. All that said, the writer in me who’s always believed in realism knows the years are dwindling and thinks about how he wants to spend the writing time he has left.
Which leads me to this question: Are you writing the things that really matter to you, or are you merely moving words about on the page? Are you writing that which is complex, or are you settling for the simple? Are you writing about what makes you uncomfortable, or are you merely writing to entertain yourself? Are you facing the mysteries of what it is to be human, or are you avoiding that in favor of the familiar, the cheap, the plain? What does your writing cost you?
I think of the late Kent Haruf who finished the revisions for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, just before he died. Ill with advanced lung cancer, he’d promised his wife he’d finish this book before he had to leave her, and that’s exactly what he did. In the final scene of that novel, the aged lovers, Addie and Louis, separated now—she in Denver, and he in Holt County, Colorado—because of a fall that broke her hip and led her son to move her closer to him, speak on the telephone. Addie tells Louis she doesn’t want him to call her because she’s afraid someone will be in the room with her and she won’t be able to hide the fact it’s he who has called. “It’s like when we started,” Louis says, referring to the way their romance started one evening when Addie walked across the street to Louis’s house and said to him, “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” She makes it clear she’s not talking about sex. She says, “We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.” So here at the end of the novel are some of the last, if not the last, words Haruf would write:
It’s like when we started. Like we’re started out new again. With you being the one to begin it again. Except that we’re careful now.
But we’re continuing too. Aren’t we, she said. We’re still talking. For as long as we can. For as long as it lasts.
What do you want to talk about tonight?
She looked out the window. She could see her reflection in the glass. And the dark behind it.
Dear, is it cold there tonight?
Imagine a writer who knows his death is imminent typing those words. What words, out of the thousands Kent Haruf must have written, could possibly matter more? Here, as we move closer to the end of another year, we should all ask ourselves—Are we writing words like that?