At one time in my life, not a brief time, I tried to write like James McConkey. I had written a few short stories and more than a few personal essays, and here was a writer who, it seemed to me, had combined the two forms to create something distinctive. (I’m thinking of the nonfiction short stories collected in his 1983 book, Court of Memory.) Making short stories directly out of my own experience would solve one of my fatal shortcomings as a fiction writer, an inability to create good plots. Despite this flaw I had managed to publish several stories, and I had had pretty good luck placing the essays. But my McConkeyesque amalgams were flops. Editors, not an adventurous class of person, seemed to want fish or fowl, fiction or nonfiction. Combining the two just didn’t fly—or swim. Now that some years have passed, several lessons occur to me. First, don’t ever tell editors what you think you’re doing. Second, don’t try to write like someone else. Third, if you do, pick less masterly masters. (I also tried to write fictional short stories like those of my teacher Peter Taylor. Another big mistake.) Finally, I realize that McConkey’s work is not just distinctive, it is sui generis. Only he can do it.
I bring this up by way of offering you a new example of what inspired my writerly devotion. His essay in this issue, “What Kind of Father Am I?” is just as deeply felt and intricately constructed, as quietly beautiful and unobtrusively wise as the best pieces in Court of Memory. And it is, he claims, the last piece he’ll ever write. I don’t take this threat too seriously, even if he is 86 and has earned a rest if he wants one. He has said this before, after finishing each of the essays he’s published lately in these pages. Why would anyone capable of writing an essay this McConkeyesque ever stop?
TWO OTHER WRITERS who have long inspired me, although I would never attempt to write like either of them, also appear in this issue. Edward Hoagland, the acclaimed essayist and travel writer, applies prose to the page, it seems to me, in much the same way a painter uses a palette knife. He does not aim for a smooth surface but a three-dimensionality, a texture that befits the accretive quality of his thought. His short essay here about the poet Robinson Jeffers, “The Broken Balance,” embraces themes of environmental warning and even despair that Jeffers sounded many decades ago and Hoagland has long since made his own. Garry Wills—classicist, historian, journalist, critic, theologian—might be the nation’s most visible public polymath. In “Rome’s Gossip Columnist,” he writes about the poet Martial and translates the Latin himself. If I lack the erudition ever to try to write like him, I did once try, as an editor, to rewrite him. Yet another big mistake.
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