If, in your rare buoyant or less rare unassured moments you fancy yourself a fine writer, you regard other fine writers, especially the ones you know, with a complex gumbo of admiration, envy, respect, jealousy, mystery, yearning, studiousness, fondness, and recognition.
Brian Doyle, who died Saturday from what brain cancer does to the body, would have written the latter part of that sentence more like “with a complex dark astringent wild gumbo of admiration and envy and respect and jealousy and a deep mystery and a human yearning and studiousness and fondness and recognition” because more than anything else he was exuberant with words, a wild and reverent and irreverent and exalted word-drunk scribbler who could deeply move me one moment and piss me off the next. Writers who can do that are the real thing. They write like they mean it. They knock a wobble into our stride, an essential forced veer from the witless path we are on, the one that leads to our fearful and semi-blind and smug and sketchy “grasp” of life.
I knew Brian for more than 20 years. Our friendship most often consisted of brisk emails, his invariably signed “bd.” I paid close attention to his unique university magazine, Portland, and he paid attention to mine. We’d bitch about things, share a discrete derisory chuckle about some new folly of our academic milieu or publishing niche, and on those rarest occasions when we found ourselves in the same city, have lunch. He had an assurance about his judgement that lived on the fringes of arrogance. William Blake was the English language’s greatest visionary poet and that’s all there is to it, Van Morrison had no equal as a singer and songwriter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Plutarch were without peer, the serial comma was essential. He once argued strenuously with the Dalai Lama about which was the greatest sport, basketball or soccer. He never made Van Morrison listenable for me, but to several classrooms of undergraduates I taught his roisterous exemplary essay on Van the Man, published by The American Scholar, one of Brian’s regular launchpads. I thought that sometimes he worked too hard casting himself as another in the ancient line of voluble Irish bards, and I may have been the only person in the room who cringed when he induced a rapt audience at the CASE Editors Forum to sing “Amazing Grace.” Can’t say why, I just did. Then I’d read something new from his pen and think goddam that boy can write, and understand all over again that he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent. Now and then I got a note from him praising something I’d written and I’d think, Well, there’s something.
I think he was a serious Catholic and reverent about many things, but he could be gleefully irreverent and obscene. As I’ve said, he wasn’t much for commas, especially not commas impeding the cascade of adjectives he might fling into a single sentence, and I remember him telling me about going over an edit of one of his essays. The copyeditor, following her stylebook or Strunk & White or whatever her source for grammatical edicts, had doggedly injected commas into Brian’s prose. No no no. He began marking them for excision one by one—stet, stet, stet—countermanding the editor, who perhaps had edited with her brain and memory for rules instead of her ear. After a dozen individual annotations, a dozen stipulations that he did not want a comma there or there or there, he lost his patience and scrawled on the manuscript “STET FUCKING STET!!!” He cackled with joy when he told me this story.
In a 2007 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Brian wrote this:
…At age 50 I conclude that I was born and made for stories; I am a storyman. I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken. Without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die. We are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.
…I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter, stories about who we are at our best, who we might be still, because without stories we are only mammals with weapons. I am here to point at shards of holiness. That’s all. That’s enough.
I now have, above my work desk, a small slip of paper taped to the cabinet. It reads “RBD/DIN.” Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now. The “do it now” part refers to those creative projects I want to do but keep putting off; I often have trouble starting, trouble with that first step. Brian did not appear to have that problem, editing his magazine, raising three kids, being a good husband, and writing eight or nine books. I doubt Brian expected to be dead at 60. Were I to die tomorrow at age 63, I’d have a much shorter list of accomplishments because, in part, I always think I’ll have time. I don’t feel that way now.
So those of you with creative projects with some vague deadline in the future? Things you want to accomplish for your magazine? Things you want to do with your life? Tomorrow, or today, in the next hour, take a first step. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Just take a step. then take another one tomorrow. Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now.