The Anchovy’s Rules of Goodwill & Good Work
Recently a famous, award-winning author invited some literary cronies and I to visit him at his rural getaway. “C’mon over,” he said. “There’ll be lots of people, good food, and conversation.”
The invitation seemed providential. My four fellow scribblers and I had housed ourselves in the remote Northwest for a three-day writers’ group, and this famous author’s summer digs happened to lie twenty-odd miles from our spot. Normally a bit reclusive, the author (call him Churchill) opens his thirty-acre home for one weekend a year. It so happened that we’d come to his neck of the woods on that very weekend. Providence indeed.
Churchill is a sort of living legend (when I say award-winning I mean major awards). We’d be crazy to miss out on hanging with such an eminent elder.
Here is where this becomes a cautionary tale about opportunity, and what to do (or not to do) when it arrives. The invitation was for Sunday evening. We spent Friday and Saturday anxiously awaiting it. Then Sunday came and I realized, with a gulp, that I didn’t want to go. It had suddenly occurred to me that the whole scenario was a bit weird. I mean, there were five of us, but only one of us, Bob, had actually met Churchill (Bob had secured the invitation). What business, really, did the rest of us — a vanload of literary anchovy — have diving into this Great White’s waters?
I’m not one for what they call “schmoozing.” And I get anxious around famous authors because I always fear my motives are in question. I don’t want a writer I especially admire — or anybody else — to think I’m angling for a connection, favor, or whatever.
So I’d asked myself, Why do I want to go to Churchill’s? To gawk at fame? to worship at a shrine? to sniff around for “connections”? None of those, truly. More, I just hoped to glean a little inspiration from the presence of an inspired and accomplished writer.
But imagining the evening, I just got embarrassed. As a self-respecting author, I didn’t want to give off the slightest glister of an inspiration leech. At best, I realized, I would feel like a paparazzo.
“I’m not going,” I told the group.
They looked at me like I’d put my pants on backwards. “What!?”
They asked me if I wanted them to check my head. But then a silence descended and everybody started to brood. I’d made a point, and it had given them all reservations. That was Sunday morning and, long story short, by Sunday afternoon all of us but Bob had cold feet.
“It won’t be weird,” Bob reassured. “It’s loose. Churchill expects strangers to be there.”
But we’d talked ourselves out of the expedition already. Nah, we’d feel better not going, we said.
Still, we kept brooding about it. Writers excel at over-thinking.
Long story short again, by 5:30 that evening we were all packed in the van and on our way to Churchill’s. “We’re not slimy,” we were telling ourselves. “He invited us. It would be rude not to show.”
And we really weren’t slimy, just writers eager to shake a master’s hand. But secretly I already felt, and knew I would feel all evening, like a star-worshiping dufus — and what a demeaning feeling. Where had the self-respecting author in me gone?
Churchill’s wife, a true sweetheart, welcomed us one by one, and moments later we were shaking Churchill’s God-graced hand, introducing ourselves.
It was a little weird. Hi, I’m Nobody. Thanks for inviting me from my Nowhere to your Genius-gilded, Prize-heaped Somewhere. But before we knew it we were filing through the potluck line amidst thirty or forty other guests.
We found a table and sat to eat, chatting with Mrs. Churchill when she joined us. Her kindness made abundantly clear that she didn’t think our presence strange at all. Churchill ate at a separate table with five or six of the other guests. Some of those people must have been famous too, we thought.
When we’d finished eating we didn’t know what to do. For some reason, we got up en masse and loitered near the edge of the author’s table. It seemed to have an impenetrable fame-bubble around it. I felt every bit the dufus.
We retreated to the potluck table and stood around. Then Bob saved us by proposing that we all take a walk up the wooded hill behind the house. He’d heard Churchill was building a writing shack in the cedars up there. Like a flock we wheeled in that direction.
We murmured amongst ourselves as we went. “Yeah, it’s a little weird after all. Not as weird as we thought, but weird. Let’s stay an hour or so, then say thanks and split.”
Before we reached the writing shack we heard something rumbling behind us.
“It’s Churchill,” one of us said.
The author overtook us in a brown pickup. “Hop in,” he said. Apparently, he’d left his dinner group down at the house so he could show us around personally.
For the next half-hour he carted the five of us here and there about the property, pointing out things and telling us stories. He showed us the writing shack, the creek, an old totem pole. He was a really nice guy.
I realized, ashamed, that in all my worrying and speculating about this evening, I’d completely failed to allow for the possibility of Churchill’s goodwill. But here he was, giving five young writers his special welcome, no questions asked — and no suspicions about why we’d accepted his invitation. He’d invited us, it was that simple.
In that half-hour I learned what Tim, in his book The Swordless Samurai, articulates with the elegant phrase:
To gain trust, give it.
This lesson alone would have made the evening valuable. Because I’d failed to have faith in others’ goodwill, I’d nearly talked myself out of accepting Churchill’s invitation. And if I hadn’t met Churchill I would have missed what happened next — the night’s second most valuable moment. (And here is where this becomes a story about inspiration and its unexpected forms.)
Churchill had brought us down to a pond at the bottom of his property. He gestured to a boathouse at its edge. “That’s my writing office. Here, I’ll show you.”
We followed him into a dim, disorderly, book-cluttered room. His desk, small and shabby, stood beneath a window. This lauded author works in that lonely, musty space. Why did I feel surprised? My own writing office, while roomy and bright, is no Homes & Gardens centerfold. Had I expected to find glamour in his? Did I believe literary achievement led to material luster?
A piece of paper was tacked above the window. In penned block letters it said:
If it takes 2,000 pages and 200 years, so be it.
Truth hit me like a hard slap on the back. Prize-winner or not, living legend or not, that’s how a novelist must approach his work, in the spirit of those words. No tricks, no shortcuts — and a glitzy office certainly won’t help either.
So be it.
We left the party a little later, after a bit of dessert. As our van bore along the dark forest roads, I no longer wondered why I’d gone to Churchill’s house in the wilderness, or what I’d been meant to see there.
I wanted to get back to my own humble desk.
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