Having a son was perhaps the kickstarting mortality-awareness moment of my life—the thing that made it intensely clear to me that I was going to die. And being a father is an ongoing reminder of that—that I need to live, if for nothing else than so that my son will have a father.
But as far as acute mortality-awareness goes in my daily life, nothing comes close to the prompting-power of an unfinished novel or screenplay.
Each of my word-babies is, as David Foster Wallace said (paraphrasing Don DeLillo), "hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebrospinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out." Which is to say that when I first start writing them, they're horrible monsters that I suspect deserve to die.
And like DFW I acknowledge this hideousness even as I get these tiny hints that maybe, just maybe there's a glimmer there that something in the work might be "trembling on the edge of coming together and working."
And I think, "What if I die?"
What if I die and after days and months and even years of work, this love-baby of mine has no one to nurture it into the mature, working adulthood that I just know (or at least, desperately hope) it has the capacity to attain.
If I die, my book dies. My screenplay dies. And no readers will ever resuscitate them by taking them in hand to read. No film-makers will bring them to life, nor film-viewers watch them into being.
One of the best book-existence-stories ever is about the novel "A Confederacy of Dunces," which was written by John Kennedy Toole and didn't appear in print until ten years after he died, when his dear old mum had the audacity to approach the towering literary figure Walker Percy with her son's tattered manuscript and insist he simply had to read it. He did, and loved it, and pushed it into print, where it went on to critical and mainstream success. Like, win-a-Pulitzer type success.
There's that hope, of course, that if I died before my work found a home, someone would come along to push it out into the public eye (and give the royalties to my son).
But of course, I'm no John Kennedy Toole.
And my word-babies are no Pulitzer-worthy masterpieces, I think. At least, not now. Now that they're these nasty, wrinkled, snot-covered abominations. I can't die... they need me.
So I grind away at them, scraping off the unnecessary words. And at the end of every day I email the newest version to myself, to put into a gmail folder under "scriptdrafts" (Take note, posthumous publishers!). I work my eight, nine, fifteen-hour days and hope for another. For one more day and then another so that I can finally finish.
So that my babies can live, even though I die.
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