Saturday, April 23, 2011


A couple of years after I started teaching at the University of Washington, I received a letter from a young woman in Chicago. She'd been given a copy of my novel Faith and the Good Thing by one of my former students at SUNY-Stony Brook. She told me she'd read it without it having much impact on her. She said she was an artist or perhaps an aspiring writer, I don't remember which. I do remember that in her letter she told me that one night she decided to kill herself. She was laying out the instrument for this---the razor to slash her wrists---when she decided to take another look at Faith. On that second reading, in her darkened state of mind, she said she finally "got it." That is, the meaning of the story, which is life-affirmative for the protagonist Faith Cross after she suffers a novel's worth of grief. The letter-writer told me she just wanted to say "Thanks."  

I read and re-read her letter several times. The next day I sent her flowers. And I thought (and still think) of how what she said shores up John Gardner's statement in The Art of Fiction, a book I made my students read every academic quarter for more than thirty years "To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one's work may be dying, or have loved ones dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs...every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death...The true artist is never so lost in his imaginary world that he forgets the real world, where teen-agers have a chemical propensity toward anguish, people between their thirties and forties have a tendency to get divorced, and people in their seventies have a tendency toward loneliness, poverty, self-pity, and sometimes anger. The true artist chooses never to be a bad physician." 

This sense of art as potentially life-saving was heavily on my mind when I wrote "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In that tale, art is magic. Art is life-giving.
And the young apprentice sorcerer in the story, Allan Jackson, has dedicated himself to healing others through magic. But the problem is that he wants too badly to heal, to do good, and to serve. He is attached to the desire to do good. After a successful, even stunning, conjuration that relieves the suffering of a black seamstress in South Carolina and formally brings his apprenticeship to an end, Allan feels he must be able to heal like that all the time, that the techniques he has learned from the elder sorcerer Rubin Bailey should never fail him. But they do---they fail him spectacularly one night, and with his beloved father in the room as a witness. The pressure on Allan's ego, his sense of self, is tremendous. He is brought to the brink of suicide.

It is only his awareness of how he will spiritually and psychologically destroy his own father if he kills himself that finally draws Allan back from the edge of self-annihilation and, by doing that, he unconsciously heals his father of a life-time of wounds inflicted by the racist South. In a Buddhist sense, Allan learns to "let go;" to live, if need be, without magic (the pride he felt at being a sorcerer) or to patiently wait for its reappearance.
The lesson he has learned is simple but hard: "The charm that cured the seamstress had whipped through him like wind through a reedpipe, or---more exactly, like music struggling to break free, liberate its volume and immensity from the confines of wood and brass. It made him feel unessential, anonymous, like a tool in which the spell sang itself, briefly borrowing his throat, then tossed him, Allan, aside when the miracle ended...God or Creation, or the universe---it had several names---had to seize you, use you, as the Sorcerer said, because it needed a womb, shake you down, speak through you until the pain pearled into a beautiful spell that snapped the world back together."

At the end, Allan understands that he cannot egoistically claim the magic, the healing, the art. As Reb the Coffinmaker says in Oxherding Tale when the narrator praises his work, "I didn't do anythin'. Things are done, that's all."

And Reb's statement should be compared to my fictional Martin Luther King Jr. in Dreamer, when during his Kitchen Conversion, he felt "he was traveling light again, for the long, lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness, the very belief in an 'I' that suffered and strained to affect the world, dissolved, and for the first time he felt like a dreamer gently roused from sleep and forgetfulness. Awake, he saw he was not the doer. How could he have ever believed otherwise? That which he'd thought practiced virtue, surrendered to vice, held degrees, opinions and elaborated theories, and traveled toward a goal was spun from a spiderweb of words, no more real than the cantels of the erstwhile cup before him."

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