“Good writers make you want to read,” writes Matt Labash, “but great writers make you want to write. To ride the whirlwind, pin it down, then to try and make some sense of it. They can make you want to do what they do, or to die trying and failing.”
It’s true. But is that a good thing? Back in my misspent youth, for instance, I worked (with only a modicum of success) as a professional musician. And I blame everyone I saw live—Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, the Grateful Dead, Mike Stern, Dizzy Gillespie, Michael Hedges, Chick Corea…hell, even the Philadelphia Orchestra—for making me think I could do what they do. Because ultimately, unless you’re really, really good, disappointment awaits. (There’s a joke we used to tell: What’s the difference between a Spokane jazz musician and an extra-large pizza? An extra-large pizza can actually feed a family of four.)
It’s the same with writing: Every time I read Marilynn Robinson or Thomas Merton or Christian Wiman I’m reminded how much I suck and how little I know. And that my grasp of our language is tenuous at best.
The only real difference, I suppose, is that I’ve managed to make a living as a writer. Maybe it’s a function of the marketplace—after all, do we really need another jazz musician?—or maybe it’s because that’s what I should have been doing all along.