I had always swung for the fences.
Swinging for the fences means doing the absolute best job I could, every day. That meant spending four to six hours a day at the keyboard, trying and retrying, phrasing and rephrasing, searching for the right answer, looking for at least one bright linguistic spot, one trope that would make the column ring, that would elevate it above the dross and sloppy speech of daily journalism, one more cut, one more comma that would make the difference. This meant allowing images to come into mind and following them and seeing where they led, often abandoning them as they turned out to be wrongheaded projections of the ego or of frustration, or random shots fired hoping that they would pan out, or blind alleys run down in the hope that at the end there would be a prize, or a note, or a sculpture, but often there was nothing at the end of the alley, and so another alley had to be run down, and another and another until something clicked, until a feeling of magic occurred, and I sensed that I had hit on something genuine. This was what I did, day after day, for 12 years.
Then, after a year of writing the column intermittently on the carytennis.com site I needed to step back. I needed to reassess. So I slowed down on the column. I only wanted to do it if I was on fire to do it. No half-measures. No phoning it in. I had never phoned it in. I had always swung for the fences. I didn’t want to get into a habit of doing it half-assed. That was a danger. My resentment about doing it for free was leading toward a half-assed attitude.
Writing the column once a week for free on my own site I feared that I wasn’t giving it the same deep, soulful devotion I had in the past when I was doing it five days a week for a salary. I wasn’t sure. So I stopped doing it altogether for a few weeks, to assess. What did I want to do? What kind of literary artist did I want to be? What was my purpose and my place?
In doing this I had to answer many questions. Some of these were about business.
I finally decided, today, out of the depths of a crushing despair and doubt, standing at the sink in my bathroom, that what I have been doing for these 12 years is a cultural activity that should not stop simply because someone stopped paying me for it. It may have started as a job but it became a vital cultural activity that millions of people shared in. They expect it. It was a part of their lives. I thought of how I felt about Herb Caen, whose daily column gave lightness and gaiety and substance to my daily life in San Francisco. I thought about the delight I felt reading various columns over the years — brilliant columns in unexpected places, such as the Stanely Bing column in Fortune magazine when I was toiling away at Chevron, John Leonard’s writing about television and movies for the Village Voice, Katy St. Clair’s bar columns for the San Francisco Weekly, and many thousands of other pieces of writing that over the years gave me what I needed, slaked my thirst, made it possible to go on another day without feeling that life was an endless charade, a pointless joke.
So then I thought, what the fuck, I am the luckiest man in the world to have built up this correspondence, this dialog with the world, and I have loved doing it, and I don’t know how I will make a living but that doesn’t matter. It is the cultural activity that matters. The rest will have to work itself out. So I am going to throw my self back into writing the column and doing the workshop and all the other things that I have done as cultural activities, things that I believe in, things that seem right to me.
The problem is that these things which began as cultural activities eventually had to be monetized to justify themselves. It is so expensive to live today! Every activity has to make money somehow! That is a terrible state! But that is the state we find ourselves in, living in San Francisco.
So maybe San Francisco will have to go. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is on the table.
I can’t think about that right now. I feel a need to simply throw myself into the work. The finances, the logistics, the administration, the sales and marketing and accounting, these things are all beyond me. To hell with all that. I am going to go back to just being a writer and workshop leader and see how that goes. That’s what I’m here fore. I’m here to continue the romance of words, the thing begun with Dylan Thomas at Nova High School, in the swelter of Lauderdale, in the heat of the Everglades, in the pounding glare of subtropic sun, in the restive doubt and tremor of junior high, in the terror of war and the disheartening fury of redneck deans, in the cooling night air like a blessing coming rarely over the shallows from Nassau and Bimini, from the hazy night sky, from the crackling radio of the soul. I’m here to carry out that first instruction, that initial impulse, to be true to something, to cut through the bullshit, to do the next right thing.
Who knows what will happen in the future. For now, I am back writing the column, embracing people and their problems, trying to do some small good in the world with this small gift I have, the gift of words.
Tomorrow I’m back with a new column. My first one for a while. We’ll see how often I can do it. I’m fired up to do it but there are other fences to deal with, real fences in the backyard that require mending with real nails.