We Can Be Heroes

When I was 18 my favorite song in the whole wide world was David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes.” According to Bowie, he saw two teenagers in West Berlin kissing by the Berlin wall and was drawn to the juxtaposition of desperate love against this dark symbol of the cold war. It included the lines: “I can remember/standing by the wall/and the guns shot above our heads/and we kissed as though nothing could fall.”

He portrayed the lovers as heroes, which I found profoundly moving. I still do, 28 jaded years later. I thought of this when I interviewed the wise and compassionate Karl Marlantes, and this decorated Vietnam War Veteran said of killing another man, “The adrenaline’s going like mad – I never had a second thought about it. This guy’s gotta go.”

I would never ask the soldiers and firefighters and police officers, men and women who chose jobs that by definition put one in death’s path, to relinquish their heroic title and hand it to the two closest teenagers stealing a kiss. We will always be moved when people choose to act against their own self-preservation to help another, even if that other is thousands of miles away with no meaningful tie to the one risking his life other than a shared nationality.

But Marlantes would go on to say, “Whoever you just killed probably had a sister and a mother, and that starts to hit you. It might hit you a week after you do the killing or it might hit you 20 years after you do the killing—but when it hits you it’s devastating.”

Death always challenges us, whether we face it daily in our lives or not. Gifted as we are with our powerful imaginations, we all understand, theoretically at least, that one day this body we call ours will no longer walk, talk, or eat pancakes. And so this thing we call Death seems to be forever asking of us: Do I, Death, really matter as much as I seem to?

The soldiers, firefighters, and police officers would seem to say, “No,” in their own way, for if it did matter so, why risk it? Why risk the worst thing possible unless there was something greater at stake? Which is perhaps why Karl Marlantes thought of the sisters and the mothers of the men he’d killed.

It is hard to answer death with either more death or your own mere survival. It is hard to answer a thing with itself. Every day of one’s life, soldier or student, cop or criminal, we have but two choices before us—which why all heroes must choose love, as it is the only thing worth living for.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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False Limitation

When I was a young writer, I did what a lot of other young writers do and looked to those writers I most admired to guide me to where I wanted to go. That was the theory, anyway, but mostly I just imitated. This is somewhat useful to learn about form, but only for a short time. Eventually, both in the kind of stories you tell and how you tell them, you have to go your own way, and the sooner you do so the better.

I reached a point, in fact, where I simply stopped reading other fiction writers. If a writer had a distinctive and compelling voice I inevitably found myself parroting him or her when I set to my own work. The result was some Frankenstein amalgamation of our voices, as clumsy and unattractive as the monster himself.

Because of this job I am reading fiction again, and I happy to report I seem to have inoculated myself against the affects other voices.  More to the point, I am now able to learn from these writers. For instance, at the time I was reading Karl Marlantes’s debut masterpiece Matterhorn, I was finishing the last draft of m own novel. Matterhorn follows a platoon of American soldiers through the jungles of Viet Nam. Marlantes did as good a job as I have ever encountered of rendering the relentless physical discomfort of the soldiers. The rain, the heat, and the humidity became like a musical score against which the action was played out.

My novel wasn’t set in Viet Nam, but my characters were out of doors and they were travelling.  That it was cold in my book instead of hot as it was in his didn’t matter. What he showed me was not how to render cold or hot, but that if you do so thoughtfully and purposefully the results can be effective. Until reading Matterhorn, I avoided this sort of description in my fiction because I thought it simply bogged down the story as the writer constantly reminded the reader where the characters were standing. I don’t think that anymore.

Marlantes was like a track athlete who cracked some time barrier that I, at least, had never broken. I do not need to study his training regimen or copy his running style to reach that time myself—that it can be done is enough. This is all humans have ever needed. Once the dike of limitation is breached, we flood through in masses.

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Your Life’s Work

It took Karl Marlantes over thirty years to see his debut novel Matterhorn published. The publishing world is filled with awards, but a new one should be christened to commemorate this triumph of patience and determination.

Of course, Marlantes would be the first to admit he wasn’t always patient. In fact, he very much wanted to publish Matterhorn in 1977, the first time he “finished” the novel. In those days, it was 1,600 pages long, as opposed to the slim 600-page volume he eventually did publish. He also wanted it published in the 80’s, when publishers said no one wanted to read about Viet Nam, and he wanted it published in the 90’s and early 00’s, when publishers wanted to move the story to Iraq or Afghanistan.

But he published Matterhorn in 2010, nearly 40 years after he began writing it. A lot of writers will probably think, “Hey, isn’t it that great? Now please, God, never let that happen to me.” Not to worry, it probably won’t. The moral of Marlantes’s story is not that you must be willing to wait thirty years to publish a novel. But Marlantes made the point in our interview that had the book been published in 1977 it probably would have come and gone very quickly and been forgotten.

Matterhorn represents a kind of literary life’s work for Karl Marlantes, and so is definitely a special case. But in another way, his story is everyone’s story. Had he not believed in the value of the story he wanted to tell, he certainly would have given up long ago—most likely in 1977. That his story remained the same story is what makes Matterhorn unique. For most of us, that which we wish to share with the world will be spread out over many stories, but the challenge remains the same.

The only thing that will sustain you through the dry years, if indeed you encounter any, is a fundamental belief in what you have to share—not your talent, not your desire for approval and money. It doesn’t matter whether what you want to share are stories of young women falling in love or a First Lieutenant’s struggle to find courage in the jungles of Viet Nam, the current of interest that drew you to your stories must remain unassailable. Patience will bring the story to its desired form and audience, whether in three months or thirty years.

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