Feb. 11, 2011
The Best Thing I Did
The best thing I did
for my mother
was to outlive her
for which I deserve
though it makes me glad
that she didn't have
to see me die
Like most people
I feel I should
have done more
I wasn't such a bad son
I would have wanted
to have loved her as much
as she loved me
but I couldn't
I had a life a son of my own
a wife and my youth that kept going on
maybe too long
And now I love her more
so that perhaps
when I die
our love will be the same
though I seriously doubt
my heart can ever be
as big as hers
She did an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was enthralled with Flannery O'Connor. Then she moved to Florida, did research for a U.S. Navy marine laboratory on a barrier island off the central western coast of Florida, and lived alone in a trailer, surrounded by swamps and alligators and snakes. She said: "I was miserable, of course. But it was all very good for my writing. It's good to be miserable and a little off-balance."
It was there that she wrote her first novel, State of Grace (1973), which was published when she was age 29. It received glowing reviews and was nominated for the National Book Award. But her second novel, The Changling (1978), received a lot of really bad reviews, and she was so devastated she took a break from novel-writing.
She wrote a guidebook to the Florida Keys instead. Random House, in the mid-1980s, had decided to put out a small series of guidebooks, and asked her to write one about the Keys. She explored the waters, streets, bars, gardens, and Key West Library, where she "discovered terrible things about John James Audubon — a mass murderer if ever there were one. He found it an unhappy day in Florida if he didn't shoot at least a hundred birds." She said that her editor thought her writing was far too "environmental" for a guidebook, but didn't rally try to make Williams change things. The proposed series of guidebooks never took off, but William's own research did. Her research went on for years. She produced 10 editions of The Florida Keys: A History and Guide. She said, "Each edition got gloomier and wilder until I stopped 'updating' it and wrote a terminating afterword." She also said, "Writing about the keys taught me to be scrappy and irreverent and ecologically educated."
She's written many essays about the environment, some of which are collected in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals (2001). She also returned to writing fiction, publishing the short-story collection Taking Care (1982), Escapes (1990), and Honored Guest (2004), as well as the novels Breaking and Entering (1988) and The Quick and the Dead (2000), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
She lives mostly in Key West, Florida, and Tucson, Arizona, but in the past few decades has also been a visiting professor in Houston, Irvine, Iowa, Ithaca, Montana, Austin, St. Louis, and at the University of Wyoming. She said: "Many writers today are wanderers. There is not only an unhousedness in language — how to convey, to say nothing of converge — but an unhousedness of place."
She said, "Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader's face. Whenever the writer writes, it's always three or four or five o'clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer's days and nights when he is writing."
And, "The writer doesn't trust his enemies, of course, who are wrong about his writing, but he doesn't trust his friends, either, who he hopes are right. The writer trusts nothing he writes — it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of his control. It should want to live itself somehow."
In her book Ill Nature (2001), Joy Williams writes:
"I don't want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately — that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much. You just want and want and want. You believe in yourself excessively. You don't believe in Nature anymore. It's too isolated from you. You've abstracted it. It's so messy and damaged and sad. Your eyes glaze as you travel life's highway past all the crushed animals and the Big Gulp cups. ... You must change."
From the archives:
It's the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio (1847). He eventually amassed 1,093 patents, the most patents ever issued to a single person in American history. Among his greatest inventions: the phonograph, the light bulb, and the movie camera.
It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer, (books by this author) born to Indian parents in Oxford, England (1957). He once described himself as "a global village on two legs." After college, he spent a year working in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S., disguising himself as a Mexican. Then he and a friend went on a trip from California through Central America to Bolivia. He later said: "It's a great thing to take a journey like that when you're seventeen or eighteen because you're relatively reckless and you don't really know what the dangers are. And then once you've done it, anything seems possible."
He went to graduate school at Harvard, and during the summers he got a job writing for a budget travel guidebook. He traveled around England, France, Italy and Greece, living on almost no money and sleeping in the gutters and under bridges. He covered a different town each day, walking its streets and taking notes in the morning and afternoon and writing it up in the evening.
After graduating, he got a job working for Time magazine. He sat in a cubicle all day and wrote articles about places like the Philippine jungles and the Andes Mountains, from reports he got from other writers. He finally got fed up with office work and took a vacation to Southeast Asia. He fell in love with the place and decided to take a six-month leave of absence. He spent the first three months traveling through 10 Southeast Asian countries and the next three months writing the draft of his first book, Video Nights in Katmandu (1988). He's since published several more books, including the novel Abandon: A Romance (2003).
Pico Iyer said: "The less conscious one is of being 'a writer,' the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing should ... be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent ... and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."
And, "Home is whatever you can rebel against."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®