Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Euell Gibbons

How to be useful

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In his recent review in The New Yorker of a new collection of short stories by Susan Sontag, the critic Tobi Haslett quotes its author’s explanation of why she wrote her classic book Illness as Metaphor: “I wanted to be useful.” I was struck enough by this statement to look up the full version, in which Sontag explains how she approached the literary challenge of addressing her own experience with cancer:

I didn’t think it would be useful—and I wanted to be useful—to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage…though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea…And so I wrote my book, wrote it very quickly, spurred by evangelical zeal as well as anxiety about how much time I had left to do any living or writing in. My aim was to alleviate unnecessary suffering…My purpose was, above all, practical.

This is a remarkable way to look at any book, and it emerged both from Sontag’s own illness and from her awareness of her peculiar position in the culture of her time, as Haslett notes: “Slung between aesthetics and politics, beauty and justice, sensuous extravagance and leftist commitment, Sontag sometimes found herself contemplating the obliteration of her role as public advocate-cum-arbiter of taste. To be serious was to stake a belief in attention—but, in a world that demands action, could attention be enough?”

Sontag’s situation may seem remote from that of most authors, but it’s a problem that every author faces when he or she decides to tackle a book, which usually amounts to a call for attention over action. We write for all kinds of reasons, some more admirable than others, and selecting one idea or project over another comes down prioritizing such factors as our personal interests, commercial potential, and what we want to think about for a year or more of our lives. But as time goes by, I’ve found that Sontag’s test—that the work be useful—is about as sensible a criterion as any. I’ve had good and bad luck in both cases, but as a rule, whenever I’ve tried to be useful to others, I’ve done well, and whenever I haven’t, I’ve failed. Being useful doesn’t necessarily mean providing practical information or advice, although that’s a fine reason to write a book, but rather writing something that would have value even if you weren’t the one whose name was on the cover, simply because it deserves to exist. You often don’t know until long after you start if a project meets that standard, and it might even be a mistake to consciously pursue it. The best approach, in the end, might simply to develop a lot of ideas in hope that some small fraction will survive. I still frequently write just for my own pleasure, out of personal vanity, or for the desire to see something in print, but it only lasts if the result is also useful, so it’s worth at least keeping it in mind as a kind of sieve for deciding between alternatives. As Lin-Manuel Miranda once put it to Grantland, in words that have never ceased to resound in my head: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”

One of my favorite examples is the writer Euell Gibbons, who otherwise might seem less like Susan Sontag than any human being imaginable. As John McPhee writes in a short reminiscence, “The Forager,” in the New York Times:

Euell had begun learning about wild and edible vegetation when he was small boy in the Red River Valley. Later, in the dust‐bowl era, his family moved to central New Mexico. They lived in a semi‐dugout and almost starved there. His father left in a desperate search for work. The food supply diminished until all that was left were a few pinto beans and a single egg, which no one would eat. Euell, then teen‐aged and one of four children, took a knapsack one morning and left for the horizon mountains. He came hack with puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts, and fruits of the yellow prickly pear. For nearly a month, the family lived wholly on what he provided, and he saved their lives. “Wild food has meant different things to me at different times,” he said to me once. “Right then it was a means of salvation, a way to keep from dying.”

In years that followed, Euell worked as a cowboy. He pulled cotton. He was for a long time a hobo. He worked in a shipyard. He combed beaches. The longest period during which he lived almost exclusively on wild food was five years. All the while, across decades, he wished to be a writer. He produced long pieces of fiction and he had no luck…He passed the age of fifty with virtually nothing published. He saw himself as a total failure, and he had no difficulty discerning that others tended to agree.

What happened next defied all expectation. McPhee writes: “Finally, after listening to the advice of a literary agent, he sat down to try to combine his interests. He knew his subject first- and second-hand; he knew it backward to the botanies of the tribes. And now he told everybody else how to gather and prepare wild food.” The result was the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which became the first in a bestselling series. At times, Gibbons didn’t seem to know how to handle his own success, as McPhee recalls:

He would live to be widely misassessed. His books gave him all the money he would ever need. The deep poverty of his other years was not forgotten, though, and he took to going around with a minimum of $1,500 in his pocket, because with any less there, he said, he felt insecure. Whatever he felt, it was enough to cause him, in his last years, to appear on television munching Grape-Nuts—hard crumbs ground from tough bread—and, in doing so, he obscured his accomplishments behind a veil of commercial personality. He became a household figure of a cartoon sort. People laughed when they heard his name. All too suddenly, he stood for what he did not stand for.

But Gibbons also deserves to be remembered as a man who finally understood and embraced the admonition that a writer be useful. McPhee concludes: “He was a man who knew the wild in a way that no one else in this time has even marginally approached. Having brought his knowledge to print, he died the writer he wished to be.” Gibbons and Sontag might not have had much in common—it’s difficult to imagine them even having a conversation—but they both confronted the same question: “What book should I write?” And we all might have better luck with the answer if we ask ourselves instead: “What have I done to survive?”

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2017 at 8:14 am

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