Garrison Keillor of Lake Woebegone and Prairie Home Companion fame, wrote a short article entitled “Of Vice and Men,” a memoir about his younger days of striving to be a writer. Guided by the belief that ,” A true artists must engage with dark forces,” (The Week, 10/3/12, pg. 40) he recounts how his early life was guided by his literary heroes, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner and Carver, all two- fisted, pugilistic men who spent a good deal of their time assuaging their private demons with quantities of cigarettes and liquor. Being young, he imagined that the outer trappings of a writer might lead to becoming one and so he worked at developing his “writer’s persona.” (Ibid pg. 40). He took up smoking, achieving an impressive habit of 4 packs a day and gave up beer for the hard stuff — all hoping to provide sufficient drama for a young man who a few years earlier had been a YMCA camp counselor.
I don’t know to what extent Keillor exaggerated about his habits, but I suspect he did. Like any writer of wit and imagination, a little exaggeration wouldn’t be amiss. What is true is that Keillor is a master of good tales, gifts he disperses with regularity to an adoring audience, me among them.
Wherever the truth lies, he admits having repented his wicked ways, his concessions to age and fashion. He’s given up smoking and hard liquor and laments the early deaths of his friends who failed to share his hardy DNA. Still, the idea that an artist should live by “dancing with death,” (Ibid pg. 41.) continues to entice him. Keillor admits that if he had 6 months to live, he’d court his former vices and hope that his sodden body might be found crumpled upon a bar stool.
His confession makes me pause to wonder, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?” The Brontes, Jane Austin, Edith Wharton lived quiet, sedate lives and yet were capable of epic novels. And those who wrestled with their demons and lost, like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, went away quietly without rages and bar fights. Woolf walked into the River Ouse, her pockets weighted with rocks. Plath simply turned on the gas oven. The comparison of men and women authors shows, as Keillor well knows, that writing isn’t about how you live but how you think.
(Garrison Keillor courtesy of www.mlive.com)