Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail. I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

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


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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