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Original Essays

Writer's Luck

by Alan Cheuse
  1. To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming
    $10.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A]mbitious....[T]he narrative brims with keen insight." Publishers Weekly

    "Vivid and poignant....Cheuse's ambitious historical novel illuminates one man's heroic obsession and the perpetual dichotomies of duty and dream, discovery and loss." Booklist

  2. The Fires
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Fires

    Alan Cheuse
    "Mr. Cheuse is a superb storyteller whose quiet, clear writing style smoothly imparts deep meanings." Dallas Morning News
It's so much better to be a reader than a writer.

That's how I always feel when I've finished a new novel, and this time around, as I send To Catch the Lightning out onto the waters, it's no different.

Ten years since I began the project in earnest. Months in libraries and museums. Traveling thousands of miles. Reading everything I could get my hands on by Edward Curtis and everything that I could get my hands on about Edward Curtis. And everything about the locations where he worked, and the biographies of the people he knew. And then I wrote draft after draft after draft trying to get the book right.

(My dear, late friend John Gardner once opened the front hall closet of his last place of residence, a mouldering old farmhouse in the haunted mountains of north-central New York State, and showed me his drafts of Mickelsson's Ghosts, which would sadly turn out to be his final novel. The stacked pages reached from the floor to the top of the shelf above the coat hooks.)

I first saw Curtis's photographs of American Indians in the lobby of the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was 18 years old and visiting a friend at Harvard. I've long forgotten that fellow's name, but the images on the walls of that impromptu gallery stayed with me. Scene after scene in near-ghostly sepia-near-gold that might have come out of a righteous American's dream of the last line of the frontier, that line that divided the vision-world of the old days from the quickly ravaged and capitalized land west of the Rockies.

Things happen quickly in American history. The transformation of the native Old West to the settled New West took place in the blink of an historian's eye. Customs that native peoples had practiced since Neolithic times sputtered out like a match in the wind. The cold-hearted, ruthless American entrepreneurs, whether after beaver skins or gold in bulk, didn't care. People like that usually don't.

Though as with the preservation work of a few Spanish priests who accompanied the conquistadors on the destructive trek through the lands of the Mayans in Mexico, there were a few North Americans who felt that disruptive wind blowing and wanted to save what they could of the old ways. In the case of Edward S. Curtis, Midwestern-born Northwestern transplant, the man chose to use his best skills, which had made him into one of the most successful portrait photographers of his time, to create a record of what was quickly blowing away, or sputtering out, on the wind of what most of his contemporaries called progress.

It's the quest that caught me. Having written novels about some other Americans who, in their heroism and self-disregard, had made something out of life in our country that would not have otherwise come to life — journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and painter Georgia O'Keeffe — I found myself following Curtis around in the field, the field where he met and lived with and recorded the lives and customs of hundreds of western tribes, and the field of my dreams.

It's a tricky business, writing about figures out of history. You don't want to betray any of the known truth about them, but at the same time you know, from living your own life, that so much of the deepest truths about life stay hidden from the eyes of researchers and historians and even friends, even wives and children. It's that part of the life of the actual figure that you can build fiction upon, based on what you know about what they have written, or painted, or photographed, and what they said on the record about such matters. And in the blank spaces that make up the majority of the space even in the most public of lives — call it life's dark matter? — you can, given what you learn about them, imagine what should have or what, as the first critic, Aristotle, said about the difference between history and poetry, should have happened.

So research is not all you need to know, though it helps.

When I told a novelist friend of mine — this would have been in the early 1980s after having been fired from a teaching job at Bennington College after nearly a decade of teaching there (not for any cause except that I had come there as a "critic" and had, after a short while, made the writers and poets Nicholas Delbanco, Bernard Malamud, Stephen Sandy, Michael Browne, and John Gardner my friends, which among the emotionally impoverished literary theorists in residence smacked of treason) — that I had decided to write a novel about John Reed and Louise Bryant, he said, "You're lucky! All you have to do is do the research and you'll have it. I have to make things up!"

Yes, I said to myself, not knowing anything much about writing novels, I am lucky. But then you do the research and you discover that, out of a million facts, you had better find the right ones that will give shape and form to your story. Some tough drafts later, I had to admit that I wasn't any luckier than any other novelist who made things up out of his or her own life and observations about the life everyone else was living.

A number of novels and short story collections later, I recall that moment when I understood that I was not so lucky. As I once heard Robert Penn Warren say when he was in his early 80s, every morning I wake up still trying to be a writer.

That's an important kind of luck. To know how little you know and how hard you have to work to know something.

Once when I was 18, I had that lucky hour when I walked into the lobby of the Brattle Theatre. And decades and decades and decades later, I had the luck to try to write about the man who made those photographs. The rest has been the hardest work, but also the most rewarding I've ever done.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alan Cheuse is a fiction writer, a long-time critic, and the book commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He is the author of eight books, including The Grandmothers' Club, The Light Possessed, The Tennessee Waltz and Other Stories, and the memoir Fall Out of Heaven. He has written for many national publications and has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, among other places. He currently serves as a member of the writing program at George Mason University. spacer

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