I read a piece on the author Michael Herr last night, around 1 AM, as I was lying in bed. It had been published in the LA Times, back in 1990, on the occasion of Herr having written a book about Walter Winchell, which I believe may have at one time been turned into a movie that aired on HBO. But nevertheless, he’d written this novel, his first book since Dispatches, in 1977, the Vietnam book that made him famous.
I found it hard to believe that a book could make anyone famous back then, least of all a book about war, but the American public must have been slightly obsessed with that sort of thing at one time — I mean, in the 70’s, war was like a cultural industry itself, and I think people were less inured to it then as they are now. Now, nobody knows about anything, and if they think about war, it is only for moments at a time, when they see a movie, or catch a glimpse of something on the television. On the whole, nobody gives a shit.
So, I am reading this piece on Herr, and he talks about how he began writing Dispatches in the 1970’s, but then just couldn’t do anything for a few years. There were four years, four whole years, in the 70’s, when he didn’t publish anything. This was a guy whose work was taking up whole issues of Esquire, whose — pardon the pun — dispatches, were being read the world over. And then, he returns… nothing. Couldn’t get a word out, couldn’t find a way in.
It’s interesting, thinking about that, and what age he might have been, his late twenties into early thirties, and you wonder — why couldn’t he write? I think, maybe, he was shell-shocked. He’d seen the horrors of war, and the horrors had sent him reeling. He’d returned to civilian life, and things just didn’t make sense. New York was much different in the 70’s, of course, but I think there was something about what he’d seen that made it so that he couldn’t process it, couldn’t put it down.
I often wonder, in my fits of despair, why or why not I can write certain things, and nobody ever talks about the emotional aspect of writing, how the words need to come pouring out, like water breaking through a dam. I mean, they don’t need to do that, but it’s certainly the case that sometimes they do. When they don’t, the writing feels difficult, stilted and unnatural. It feels as if you are forcing yourself to do something that the mind does not want to do.
Which is easy enough in the physical form; to get to work, you merely show up. Now, the body is there, but the mind can be elsewhere. But to sit down, consistently, and have to enter a state of consciousness in which one does not really want to be, that is tough. That is deeper than being physically present, that’s being emotionally present. And, for some people, that’s a struggle.
Herr, who died in 2016, was living in England in 1990 when the LA Times piece was published. And he seemed content to fade away, resigned to the fact that he’d done his best work already; Dispatches might be his only true work, and he was okay with that. After its publication, he helped Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now, worked on Full Metal Jacket with Stanley Kubrick, but did not aspire to write, did not write much at all, it seemed. He’d become a family man, married with children. He watched his children grow up, raised them, as it were, and maybe felt that was enough.
Like, it’s hard to find that energy in your fifties that you had in your twenties. It’s not unlike an athlete, all that talent, all that desire to prove yourself, to let everyone know you belong. But once you do, the feeling fades, and maybe the talent doesn’t, but the athleticism does, and for a writer, the athleticism isn’t in the body but the mind. The mind itself doesn’t fade, but it becomes less sharp. You think about different things, you feel different things, and thus you can no longer write the things you did, the way you did, when you were young. It happens.