Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Third admonishment: avoid the Great American Lobotomy Machine

Apologies to my late environmentalist friend, Ed Abbey, for the title of this little granule of literary advice.

The icepick lobotomy was a poignant harbinger of America's free-market free-for-all medical system. Dr. Freeman (sic), the procedure's founder, was a showman with entrepreneurial spirit. He made a great splash scrambling thousands of brains. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't...oh well, he profited from the practice. Kind of reminds you of the approach taken by the big drug firms these days, don't it? "Everbody's got to die sometimes," or so goes a line in my compadre Steve Earle's song about privatized medicine.

But there exists a more effective scrambler of brains than the famous icepick of old. It is known as the tee vee. I've read that the average American adult drools for twenty-five hours each week in front of the flickering tube. Even my literary friends are drawn to it more and more lately. But don't buy into this myth of "haute television," those programmes one finds on the non-network channels including "Sopranos" and that series about the funeral parlor. I've seen none of these, but you won't get me to believe for a moment that just because they're "racy," display the occasional boob or bared buttock, and incorporate taboo phrases (pee pee, doo doo, crimeny, crapola, darn, &c, &c) into their dialog that they've strayed far from the fifteen-or-so plot formulae recycled since the dawn of the serial drama.

And so my advice to anyone serious about the art of fiction is to chuck the flickering square beast out the window. As a writer, words are your commissary, and none exist in TV land. Fiction is about following image to story, not formula. Reading requires that you bring your brain to the table, while tee vee is spoon feeding.

I did the math. At twenty-five hours per week, writing at the pitch I attained when producing my three most successful novels, one could pen a long novel every two years. What's more, there still would be enough time left over to pick up a new language every five years (mine include German, into which I was born, plus conversational Spanish, Italian; workable French, Quechua and Tzeltal), learn a half-dozen classical studies on the guitar annually, and read a difficult novel every two months. This on top of your subscription to The Economist or the Guardian Weekly, and the essential daily Lorca, Whitman, Kooser, etc.

Of course the above schedule would require a healthy amount of self-discipline, of which I have little. I'm slovenly and slothful and given to month-long fishing tangents and culinary projects that can consume days, if not weeks. If I'd turned on the tee vee for anything other than the occasional football match on a Sunday afternoon (the closest I come to practicing a traditional religion), I'd have much less to show for my life than my few, meager literary achievements.

You can salvage absolutely nothing from an hour wasted in front of the boobie tubie. The occasional rented film is fine relaxation, at times verging on thoughtful art, but every additional hour you spend on the couch is an hour stolen from your literary life. Food, fishing, walking, reading, sex, and travel, on the other hand, are all pursuits that have relevance and tend to inform your craft. Given my faulty ticker, wasted time is much on my mind of late. Avoid the lobotomy machine, aspiring writers, and the odds that you will finish a novel or two during the course of your tenure on Mamma Earth will greatly improve.

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