Years ago, I made the acquaintance of a man who wrote on occasion. Beyond the ambition of the Big Score that busted-out writers and horse players dream of, he had none. His main occupation at that time was swilling vodka, browbeating his fellow barflies, and bemoaning what might have been. Then, toward the end of the evening, or more accurately, the approaching dawn, he would begin to rhapsodize about the Brooklyn Dodgers he had worshipped as a boy.
His main obstacles besides the booze: He had inhaled too dangerously the acrid aroma of minor Hollywood success. But worse, an “inheritance” idled in his background, an inheritance, alas, not bound by the ancient tradition of primogeniture: It went to his father’s second wife and her children, and, since he was not one of them, his total haul from the will, after probate, amounted to next to nothing.
And then, amid the hurly-burly of the vodka swilling and the rhapsodizing, an ill wind lifted a literary opportunity over his transom, a story of nearness to riches and fame that featured one of the 20th-century’s cultural icons, about whom he knew little and cared less; but the Hollywood olfactory was reactivated, and he made a deal to write the book. A movie would be sure to follow, or even, God and the right sort of powerhouse connections willing, precede its publication.
Heady, heady days indeed.
The man devoted the next decade, ten full years, or one-eighth of a generous expectancy of life on this planet, to creating something for which he had almost no affinity. In a career distinguished by losing photo finishes and awful choices, I consider this squandering of time and talent to be the main tragedy of his life. He may see it differently. I don’t know. He is elderly now, and much diminished. I haven’t talked to him in a long time. I’m going to call him today, and I’m not going to ask about the book. Because, in the end, the bemoaning of things that might have been found a permanent home in the failure of this project (and the 23-year-old Oberlin graduates who had understandably stopped taking his calls at the skid row publisher that brought it out).
The book isn’t terrible. Really. It did what almost all books of its kind do, that is, attracted a certain amount of publicity due to the reeking fame of its subject, in whom, all these years later, interest remains high. The publication of same earned the man a minor sum, which was not earmarked for escapes to Capri or the foundation of a real estate empire; no, the money went to creditors who were dunning him for what he owed, and he was able to send them enough so that the amount would shut them up for at least a month.
Please don’t think the purpose of this anecdote is to suggest that the successful man learns from the mistakes of others, although that is true. I haven’t done much better than this guy, if at all, but I have drawn my lessons as I sat elbow to crooked elbow with this sad figure, lessons it took me far too long to apprehend.
The most gruesome cliché in the writing racket is “write about what you know.” Like all cliches this one is rooted in truth. Witness the avalanche of tepid memoirs that publishing companies churn out by the dozens, heartrending tales of overcoming adversity: the Myanmarese slave who sloughs off his thrall, graduates from Stanford, and lands a juicy gig at some Wall Street shop. Now that, my friends, is a Big Score. But note how little this has to do with writing, even though these authors were surely writing about what they knew, or what they thought they knew: themselves.
That which is not known, that is, if we’re not talking about nuclear physics, or the composition of a symphony, can be learned in a relatively short period of time. Whether or not you’ve developed any feel for what you’ve learned, any touch, well, I’m afraid that’s anyone’s guess.
And so, the moral of the story appears to be this: Write about what you love. I love life, although it demands an unearthly amount of perseverance and courage to live abundantly. I love people and I love families. That’s what I’m going to write about. And I’m going to write about horse racing because the sport, and the game—they are distinct—have consumed far too much of my attention, too exorbitant a number of hours, to justify not writing about it, despite the breakdowns, the drugged animals, the near misses, the wagers that finish in the back of the pack. I looked on in horror as a first-time starter, a 3-year-old filly I bet, was euthanized near the starting gate.
The turf analyst and bettor Andrew Beyer, whose sardonic realism is an antidote to my dreamy romanticism (the horses are my Brooklyn Dodgers) and whose sorely needed influence can be detected in my thinking, put it most poetically—I mean, for a hard-nosed gambler. Amid an especially nasty losing streak, Beyer was forced to confront the reason he returned again and again to the racetrack. Perhaps at a loss for words, he reached out for a line attributed to another 20th-century icon, George Patton, who may or may not have said what the movie quoted him as saying, but it’s good enough for me. Recalling George C. Scott’s portrayal in the award-winning biopic, as the general wades through a battlefield strewn with his dead and wounded soldiers, he intones these ominous words: “I love it. God help me, but I do love it so.”