Speaking of Myself on the Subject of Richard
by Diana Dawson Plattner
Turn-of-the-century author Anatole France wrote, “There is no such thing as objective art…. The truth is that one never gets out of oneself. That is one of our greatest miseries. We are locked into our persons as into a lasting prison. The best we can do, it seems to me, is to gracefully recognize this terrible situation and to admit that we speak of ourselves every time that we have not the strength to be silent.” He added, “To be quite frank, the writer ought to say, ‘Gentlemen, I am going to talk about myself on the subject of Shakespeare, or Racine, or Pascal, or Goethe — subjects that offer me a beautiful opportunity.’” *
So when I say I would like to write about a gentleman named Richard, I’d be more honest to say, “I would now like to talk about myself on the subject of Richard, who gives me an excellent opportunity.”
Richard is his given name, but not the one he goes by; I won’t embarrass him by using his familiar name here. And he’s not a personal friend; he’s a friend of a friend, a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. A former Marine captain, he now flies various important people from one place to another on a contract basis. Richard and I crossed paths as I was editing a book about the U.S. military. The book was meant to be equal parts narrative, photography, and personal stories. Unfortunately for the publisher (my employer), people who’ve recently been on active duty in the Middle East are not in a hurry to talk about it, especially to a stranger, most especially so a stranger can publish a book and make money. It takes time or a particular writerly knack (or both) to distance oneself from the deeply personal nature of such an experience. (It’s true; ask Hemingway.)
As it happens, Richard embodies both of those qualities. He’s no longer an active-duty soldier. He is in the midst of the war, but he is no longer of the war, and so has the advantages of age and perspective. Most important of all, he likes to write, and he has a flair for it. His essays are many drafts away from being fully realized, but you can feel the heat from them. That’s an expression my former and beloved creative-writing professor used to use, when I was struggling with an unwieldy torrent of pages that felt like so much empty wind. Set it aside for a while, he’d say, then come back and re-read it. Run your hands over it to feel where the heat is and discard the rest.**
The nine essays Richard submitted were alive with love for the world and affection for its workings. He wrote of a young Afghan Kuchi dog (a fierce, loyal sort bred by nomads to guard their caravans, families and livestock). The dog became the camp mascot at a forward operating base, bonding with the soldiers; when some rough-housing got out of hand, it bit one of them and had to be destroyed. Richard wrote about recognizing the sound of Medevac helicopters in the dark of night; about the temporary nature of an army camp juxtaposed against an ancient citadel of Alexander the great; about flying to a base to deliver the mail at Christmas, and observing the military helicoptors stitching back and forth over the desert in response to some unknown disturbance. He was — is — deeply interested in the people around him, military, civilian, Afghani, American, everyone he encounters.
I chose the essay most suited to the book, and after a few drafts it was ready for publication. I encouraged Richard to continue writing; a few months ago, he emailed me and asked whether I might give him some further guidance in his work.
It’s hard to describe how touched I was by this. My editorial position takes me far from literary narratives. For the most part, I labor over the words of non-writers — subject-matter experts who are under contract to produce reference books. I’ve enjoyed working with each author as a person, but I never serve as more than a manuscript editor. We make our technical exchanges; they move on to the next thing; I move on to the next manuscript. The opportunity to work with someone who likes to write for its own sake is an unexpected gift.
I intended to write back to Richard; I was brimming with ideas for how he might proceed. But soon after he emailed, my world received a good hard shake. Three-fourths of the editors I supervise (after a fashion) were laid off, along with a flotilla of graphic designers. My workload backed up accordingly, and worse, my confidence that I had something to offer a beginning writer turned to dust. In short, my good intentions joined the bricks that pave a very well-known road.
Then, this morning, I stumbled across Richard’s essays in my email, and something in the ashes of my confidence flared up. It lasted just a moment, but I think I’ll stay here near the fire-pit. If continue to hold my hands over it, I know I’ll feel where the heat is.
* I have edited these quotes slightly; he was referring to the work of the critic, but made it clear his words applied to both art and criticism. Google “The Adventures of the Soul” for the full and accurate text.
** In later years I worked in a greenhouse, and I remember the mountains of peat moss, cushy, velvet-brown, fragrant-earthy. They always gave off heat, in all weather, the rich ferment of millions upon millions of bacteria digesting the organic matter. On a bitter, ice-crusted day you could lie down on the slope of peat and be warmed to the core; if you put your bare arm deep into the pile, it would become almost too hot to bear.