Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yield not to Evil.

    Friday was a busy day. It dawned rainy, which for a moment I hoped would free me from the obligation of attending Northwestern University's 160th commencement—a relief, since commencements are long and windy enough as it is, without adding actual wind, and rain, and cold.
   But no sooner had that emotion registered than I realized, to my surprise, that I didn't want commencement to be washed out. This was a celebration for thousands of people, including myself, my wife and son, and they we had all earned this ceremony. I wanted to go and, the deciding factor, my kid wanted to go. So we dressed in layers, brought garbage bags to sit on, and headed to Ryan Field.
     It was not that bad—not too cold, with a flannel shirt and a fleece and a rain jacket. And not too wet, tucked high under the lip of the stadium. NU president Mort Schapiro was funny as ever, and kept the thing moving, shortening where he could. The music stirred. Opera star Renee Fleming delivered a light, funny, truly inspirational address, urging students to "Find Your Voice," a talk that I thought of summarizing, but instead decided to just encourage you to watch here. 
    After the degrees were conferred and "Alma Mater" sung, lines of graduates tossing their arms around each other and swaying, touchingly, we headed outside of Ryan Field, found our very wet, cold and happy boy, hurried to his apartment for dry clothes, then off to his favorite place to eat—Todoroki on Davis. We lingered and laughed and sushi-loaded, then he peeled off to watch the World Cup, we went home to nap.
    Waking up, I took the dog on her late afternoon stroll, I thought about this post. I could write about a commencement speech, a subject I already touched upon Thursday ... or ... it is end of June; June 22, to be exact. As it happens, the paperback publication date of "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," by Sara Bader and me, the book that the University of Chicago Press published in hardback in September, 2016.
    That was a big deal, with a launch party at the Poetry Foundation and notice in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and lots of publicity. The book ripped through six printings and rose to No. 36 on the Amazon national bestseller list.
The new paperback edition was published Friday.
    A paperback publication ... well, not so big. In fact, it only manifested itself with an oblong cardboard box the U of C Press sent me a month or two ago containing a huge stack of business cards, carrying part of one quote from the book, "YIELD NOT TO EVIL" — Virgil, from "The Aeneid" — on one side, against a pleasing sky blue background. On the other side, the cover of the book—which, if you are unfamiliar, walks readers through recovery from alcoholism or addiction, using literary quotes. The cover is quite tiny, almost illegible. There is a blurb from the New York Journal of Books, "A vivid and accessible panoply of literary and philosophical wisdom" and a promo code to get 20 percent off the paperback.
     Not exactly a full-page ad in the Times. I've wondered whether a passerby, finding this card, would have an idea what it is hawking, particularly without resorting to a magnifying glass. 
    But something. A charmingly low tech bit of ballyhoo. They didn't tell me what to do with the cards. I've been leaving them in public spaces, at airports, in doctor's offices, on the seat of buses and above, at a bus stop on Madison Street, just west of Racine, where it has sat for weeks, waiting for somebody to notice.
    I know the feeling.
    I'm not sure if that's good (it's still there, available to be found) or bad (nobody has yet taken it).  But that kind of ambivalence comes with the bush leagues of publishing. I'd never say I'm glad to be obscure—that would be a lie. But I can say obscurity has a value. I have a number of friends who have had huge, best-selling books. And it distorts them, and forevermore they want huge, best-selling books ,and just regular selling books are a disappointment. Fame is an addiction like any other. You taste it, you crave more.
    Not me. I'm well along the process of getting a deal for my ninth book, another small affair at a small publisher that will cast out a ripple and no more. I'd be an idiot to expect anything beyond that at this point. Yet lack of expectation has not rendered me hopeless. Just the opposite. The mid-list melancholy has fallen away, replaced with a sort of gritty determination, almost a zeal. I'm writing the book because I like the topic. It's interesting and I enjoy doing it, just as I like setting these little cards carefully in public places, my little protest against the cosmos, my tiny manifestation of self. I don't have to worry about being brought down to size; I already am down to size. This is the place where I live, writing my odd little books, giving away essays every goddamn day here, carefully setting these little cards, and I do with almost a cleric's devotion, lighting the candle, saying the prayer. Maybe God hears. Maybe He doesn't. No matter, the prayer get said anyway.
    Work can be like a prayer, if you love it. The doing of it, your success. All the success I'm going to get, anyway. And if a little money comes, that's a small bonus, a consolation prize for participating. Hardly relevant, as the satisfaction wasn't because of a line of zeroes. I loved writing that book. Now out in paperback. I had to plug it here, well, because, as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your work, then nobody will. Which sounds grim, and sometimes is. But sometimes if you care, that's enough.


  1. And that love comes through in your writing which makes you a joy to read. Thanks

  2. Looking forward to seeing that ninth book in the stores. It'll be one-stop shopping for Christmas presents for all of my family and friends!

  3. Renee Fleming and the NU chorus were terrific. Must have been quite an experience to have been there in the rain.


  4. Ms. Fleming went way up in my estimation. Much more than just a pretty voice.

    Two literary takes on plugging your work.
    "None but a blockhead would write except to be paid for it." Dr. Johnson

    "And I dream of the days when work was scrappy,

    And rare in our packets was the mark of the mint,

    When we were angry and poor and happy,
    And proud of seeing our names in print." G.K. Chesterton


  5. I have absolutely loathed every graduation ceremony I have attended including all of my own ( college and law school and all before) and all of those for my kids (all their Jr high high school and for one of the 2 college to go). They always seem to not focus on the comfort of those attending instead treating you like some criminal in for a minor offense,.,walk now, stand now, sit's cold or rainy...too bad for you. They seem wayyyy more focused on the presenters than those they are supposedly there for ( the students). I absolutely dread the next one we have to attend.

    1. Wow, I'm sorry you've had such negative experiences. The graduations I've attended have been very different, especially the college ones. In fact, my husband and I recently traveled you the east coast to attend one, completely voluntarily, for a young man not even related to us.

      I don't know if it's the luck of the draw in the ceremonies or a difference of attitude going in our some other factor. Hope the final one breaks the streak!


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