About Your Writing: Your One Wild and Precious Life

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.

 

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

The first week of April, John Prine died at age 73 from COVID-19. Those of you who know his music understand what a force he was, this common looking guy with a ragged, nasal, country voice. A mailman for five years, he wrote and sang songs as a hobby until he was “discovered.” His first album, John Prine, released in 1971, is as good and complete an album as any American songwriter ever made. It alone was enough for a major career, but no, he had more songs to write.

Because of circumstances in this world, a lot of us right now are doing some introspection, and I’m no different. I had a whole other column ready to go that was just on an aspect of writing, but the timing felt off. And then Prine died, and I knew I needed to take this another direction. I’m a Texan, and I have roots in the deep south. Though in high school I planned to be a singer-songwriter myself, I ran from who I was and what I was and where I was from. I didn’t want to be some hick from a suburb of Dallas who people assumed voted right wing because of the way I talked. I didn’t want to be grouped into an amorphous blob of southern straight white males. Stupidly I refused to learn country and western dancing, eschewed country music, and even affected a bit of an English accent. But how can you ever be anything other than what you are? You can use your culture, your land, and the people you come from as a springboard to other lands, to other people. But if you don’t know and accept yourself and who you come from, you won’t be able to move far, or with any depth. You’ll just be another tourist wherever you go, and maybe even once you return home. You’ll be a kind of ghost.

So. John Prine. The mailman who liked to write songs as a hobby. I finally heard his self-titled album some years after he made it. Here was a country guy in 1971 writing songs about coal companies ravaging Kentucky (“Paradise”), creating female personas and singing from their point of view (“Angel from Montgomery”), and telling tales of drug-addicted Vietnam War vets with his song, “Sam Stone” (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”). And the concerns of the America he sang about were the concerns I was reaching toward, but he showed me I didn’t need to reach, or change, or be something “better.” I needed to accept myself, and then go truly and honestly into the source material I’d been standing on top of, or been a part of, all along. I guess my point is, he helped me be myself, by being himself. By saying that this thing you are, this thing I am, it doesn’t have to be dumb. It can be deep.

The older I get and the more I’m around publishing and the world of art, the more I see that major success takes a lot of luck no matter how good you or your work is. There’s so much involved that is random and completely out of anyone’s control, though people like to pretend different. Prine was lucky to be so gifted, but also lucky to be coming of age during those particular years. But for a few breaks and a lot of good timing he could’ve easily retired a mailman. And I think he would’ve been fine with that. Playing songs for friends. Making his art. Doing that work.

If that were the case, and I was a kid in the neighborhood, I could’ve easily been at his house at a party when someone pulled out a guitar and people started singing songs and Prine began taking requests. And I could’ve had the exact same experience in a living room of a dozen people where nobody was famous or acknowledged as I had when I listened to his first album and realized I didn’t have to be ashamed of my background. That in fact, there was meaning in it. There was gold.

I’m saying this because I think right now our culture is becoming conscious of the importance of art possibly more than ever before in our lifetimes. We’re missing the live music and the plays, and the dancing and the flash mobs, the art exhibits and readings. Just like we’re missing shaking a hand with a stranger or giving someone we haven’t seen for awhile a hug. We’re missing that contact on a community level, are hungry for it.

Our culture was moving really fast before this thing hit us, but now, except for those on the front lines, we’ve had to slow down, almost stop. Now a lot of us are looking around, maybe seeing things we weren’t seeing before. Such as how the colors of green on that tree outside the window shift when the wind moves through. How young sparrows behave differently than adult sparrows when you’re trying to feed them bread. Seeing like this means more than just observing and noting phenomenon. It means witnessing, and I’d even say participating, in a rhythm of life that is beyond you unless you’ve slowed down enough. That’s also a helpful state to be able to access when you’re writing a song or a poem, or making any kind of art, really.

John Prine will likely be forgotten someday, as will the poet Mary Oliver, but that won’t change the fact that they were able to spend their lives making art and participating in the world in that slowed-down, deep, and full way. And those of us who are not famous? We get that life too, if it’s what we want. Time committed to, and spent, creating. That time is there, that material is there, and it’ll be there when the world speeds up again. You just have to choose it. I’m convinced moving through this world in such manner is the one true reward of being an artist. The rest is just shiny objects. Rough as life and our lives can be, would you really want a different one?

Even if we’re only a mailman who sings a song for friends on random Saturday nights, we can change lives without knowing it. I hope your art career goes well for you, but in the end you probably won’t even know where, or to whom, your work travels. Nor should you. So do your best to stop worrying over things that are out of your hands and settle in for the work, which is your blessing.

Just as I like to picture John Prine as a retired postman singing for friends, I like to picture Mary Oliver. Not Mary Oliver the beloved literary figure, but a woman most people would walk by without noticing, one who would be satisfied with only sitting in the grass watching a grasshopper eat sugar in her hand. And maybe later she’d write some lines down, and how could that not be enough?

“The Summer Day”

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

One response to “About Your Writing: Your One Wild and Precious Life

  1. “So what in the world’s come over us.” This post is a good timely post. There is a lot John Prine and Mary Oliver have left for us to think about.

    I’ve heard John Prine a dozen times in small venues from his earliest days in Chicago and later in New York City, Washington and San Francisco. When it was time for the show to begin he would saunter to the stage, looking like a stage hand, pause and pick up a guitar and start strumming the strings, looking around for something. Maybe he was remembering how he sorted mail for delivery. Prine recently revealed that he didn’t know how to tune a guitar so he fiddled with various strings until it sounded in tune and then he was ready to sing his stories. Like the mailman he was, delivering other peoples’ stories, he was now ready to deliver the stories he had written about them.

    Until Steve Adams repeated Prine’s history as as a mailman, it did not occur to me that Prine was always a mailman, he was always delivering something. I regularly watch mailmen as they pause at the end of the street and look through their bag of deliverables to double-check, to make sure the songs he has are are the right ones for this street. I bet as a postman Prine saw the post marks and imagined peoples’ lives in those cities and towns and then he just told their stories. Now we know what happened in Montgomery, Mulhlenberg County and Minneapolis.

    What we need now is a John Prine postage stamp to remind us. We could make October 10 National John Prine Day and put a stamp on our wive’s or mate’s forehead in his honor.

    Like

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