Hubert Selby, Jr. wrote two classic American novels, "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Requiem for a Dream." By any measure, Hubert had a hard life, filled with long-term disease, addiction, depression—you name it, he suffered through it. A few months ago, I happened to catch a biographical documentary, called"Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow," in which he tells the story about how he first discovered the power of writing...
Hubert spent the first part of his young adult life, in Brooklyn in the late 1940s, suffering with tuberculosis. He was in a TB ward for several years, and had surgery every three weeks; at one point, they removed part of his lung and six of his ribs. There was a Greek kid going through the same thing as Hubert in the bed next to him. Both were in constant pain, and both were doped up on heroin and painkillers nearly all of the time.
One day, the Greek kid went into surgery but didn't come back out. Everyone in the ward knew he was dead. So, while the staff was packing up the kid's things, some old guy in the ward said to Hubert, Hey, you knew this kid, you need to write a letter to his family.
Hubert could barely write, and he really didn't want to write the letter. But he did it anyway. He told the boy's parents how great their son was, what a good friend he was, how brave he had been, and the boy's parents responded with a thank you letter, saying how much comfort Hubert's letter brought to them in their time of sorrow. Hubert read their sentiments and thought: Oh boy, I think I'm on to something here.
In a very real sense, Hubert Selby Jr.'s works were all longform varieties of that same letter, written over and over again. We, his readers, humanity, are that Greek boy's parents, and Hubert is writing us letters, in novel format, telling us that, despite all the pain, despite all the suffering, despite all our failures and shortcomings, we are good, decent, courageous people worthy of love. This is probably why so many photographs you see of Hubert show him, cockatiel on shoulder, as a serene, smiling man, for he understood the true secret to life: that real happiness comes through helping and comforting others.
The Death of Personal Ambition
"We are taught in an infinite number of ways that the purpose of life is to get—and if you don't get up early and start getting, someone will get your share. Yet it is not only the seeking of this dream that is deadly; its attainment is just as fatal. So I guess it could be said that the inspiration for Requiem for a Dream is watching the American dream not only destroy so many lives in the US, but infect the rest of the world with its obsession with getting more, ignoring the deadly effect that has on the planet."—Hubert Selby, Jr.
Like Hubert, I believe that the concept of personal ambition is destroying our planet. This idea is always reflected, in some way, in the stories I write. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons Why I Write and, more importantly, how I write, heavily influenced by what Peter Brooks calls narrative desire in his seminal work, "Reading For The Plot."
(In my novel in progress, the lead character has to kill off his self-centeredness and ambition. That's the point of the story, how he works through that. And this character is none other than his royal Grecian badass Zeus, king of the Olympian pantheon.)
Political unrest, the hallmark of our age, clearly shows that people all over the world are hungry for new narratives to help shape our global society moving forward. Everyone knows the old narratives are not working. They're as dead as the cacophonous stump speeches we hear from our so-called leaders ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
We need new narratives, ones which support a spirit of community ambition—local, national, worldwide—instead of individual "making it" narratives. It's the only way we'll be able to save ourselves from the catastrophic planetary mess we've created as a species. And now's the time for writers, filmmakers, and storytellers of all stripes and varieties to step up and craft those new narratives.
Clearly, Hubert Selby Jr.'s answer to the question Why Are You Writing? is inordinately powerful. If you're not writing at the same level as he did, that's obviously understandable. He was a Titan in contemporary American fiction. But the question still remains: What is it you have to say as a writer? What kind of comfort can you offer? What kind of new narrative can you suggest for the human race? Why Are You Writing?
At the end of the day, it's important to remember your reader, the one whose pocket you're trying to pick with your clever wordsmitheeness. So open yourself up to your reader. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Be brave. Pour every bit of yourself into your characters and your work. Put your heart into every word you write. And remember from where true happiness is derived.
"I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn't be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. The thought that I would live my entire life, look at it and realize I blew it forced me to do something with my life."—Hubert Selby, Jr.
One Down, Two to Go...
Well, I've finished the first of three collage pieces I'll be submitting into ArtSpring's SURFACING: EXPLORATIONS IN TWO DIMENSIONS show here on Salt Spring Island this fall.
Unlike words on a page, or sounds from a guitar, holding something in my hands that I've created, for the simple pleasure of looking at it, is a uniquely satisfying experience. The show opens Friday October 28 and runs through Tuesday November 7. Viva la ArtSpring!