As I have written elsewhere in this irregular account of The Writing Life (a.k.a. Thoughts No One Else Would Publish), I have suspicions about the value of meeting a writer in real life and the apparently normal and widespread desire to do so. I myself have these desires, and am most suspicious of them in myself. Last week, I had a refresher course on how valuable it can be, when one of my writerly heroes, Lawrence Weschler, came to Fayetteville. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why I felt so invigorated by the contact with him. Perhaps it wasn’t even the contact with him, but the fact that I spent all week rereading and thinking about his work, in concert with hearing him talk about his methods. Perhaps it was the current inspiration I take from him: I am working on a nonfiction book in which I must take a role, and all Weschler’s work is journalism in which he allows himself—his eye, his observations, his foibles and bits of his life—to frame the subject. Not a ponderous frame, not one of those thick wooden frames where the writer becomes much more important than the subject, but a slight, unconventional filigreed frame, where the focus is on the subject and yet we are aware that no one but Weschler could tell this story this way. It is a huge part of what distinguishes his work from much of journalism: he is not at the center of his stories, but neither is he absent the way a journalist typically is.
So why did he have to come all the way to Arkansas? Because to meet him was to be reminded of the process and the person behind what comes, on paper, to be genius. I don’t think (I could well be wrong) that Weschler is a genius. I think he is an extraordinarily nimble intelligence at play without embarrassment in the world. This week of meditating on his subjects and methods brought me to realize that no other contemporary nonfiction writer has influenced me as much.
And so perhaps it was reassuring to see that he occasionally misspeaks, that he repeats himself—not over the course of an evening, but over the course of a lifetime. (Perhaps only the geeks like me caught the times he quoted his own writing last week, but he also republishes his essays, sometimes several times.) Also, he doesn’t ‘shamelessly’ self-promote; he graciously self-promotes. How? First, since because he writes about others, his ‘self-promotion’ is the promotion of their talents and personalities. Secondly, he appears to have real modesty but no false modesty. His best books and essays are capital-G Great, and all his work bears multiple re-readings.