Sunday, November 6, 2011


E.Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a writer know when their best days are gone?  In sports a player loses a step on the field, or discovers his arm is dead and he can't throw as hard. When might a writer decide to stop writing?  Do you see yourself reaching a point where there are no more stories in your head? Are you afraid of a sudden illness preventing you from writing?"

With great reluctance, I'm going to share with you a story I seldom tell people, though I do briefly mention it in my autobiographical essay that appears in I Call Myself An Artist: Writings By and About Charles Johnson. This story may make you laugh. It may lead you to ridicule me. Or perhaps it will just make you think, as it made me think. And it's a true story. I swear it is.
When I was an undergraduate journalism major and working as a cartoonist in 1968, I had a dormitory roommate (a really talented guitarist, who played in local bands), who came back to the room we shared one night very excited. He'd just been to a fortune-teller in southern Illinois. He raved about her and said I should visit her, too.
So I did.
I went to her house the next evening. She invited me into her parlor and we sat at a table. She said to me, "You have a mission. It involves writing. You're protected. Nothing bad can happen to you, or to anyone connected to you until this mission is over." She even predicted that I would have two kids---I wasn't even married then---predicted the death of my maternal grandmother, and said, "You'll have a lot of money, live a long time, and be well-known for what you do."
          I asked her, "When does this happen?"
          She smiled and said, "You have to wait awhile."
          I wanted to laugh out loud. 
 Writing? I was a cartoonist, a journalist, for Christ's sake. That was absolutely the farthest thing from my mind when I was 20 years old. I had no desire to be a writer. That was not in my plans at all. She might as well have told me that one day I would be on an Apollo mission to the moon. Her words blind-sided me completely. So I said to her, with a great deal of bewilderment, "What I am supposed to write about?" She was an elderly, gentle, white-haired woman. Her name was Ella Tweedy. She reached behind her to a shelf of books, pulled one down, and held it out to me. "Something like this," she said, quietly. I looked at the book. It was a book published by the Theosophical Society---a group I looked down upon at the time, because (since I was taking as many philosophy courses as ones in Journalism) in my view they were sloppily mystical and less than rigorous in their borrowings from eastern philosophies and religions. So I held my nose when she gave me that example, but she only said, "like this."
 And so my visit with Ella Tweedy ended. I had no idea of what to make of the things she told me. I set no store by them. I went on with my life. But two years after our meeting, an idea for a novel came to me, wouldn't leave me alone, and so I had to write it.
 Do I believe in fortune-tellers? Generally, no. But I've never forgotten Ella Tweedy and the uncanny ability she had to see things yet to be. She was as close to the "real deal" as I've even seen. Are there people in our world who see what the rest of us are not empowered to see? I simply don't know. And I take no position on this question, because I don't have a shred of empirical evidence to affirm or deny the matter. All I'm doing is reporting on something that happened to me. Her grandson wrote to me a few years ago (after reading my autobiographical essay that mentions her), and kindly sent me a picture of her. I'm very grateful to have this photo of a remarkable lady whose prescience defies my understanding.
 So these things you ask about, Ethelbert, are matters I've never worried about. (I do believe, though, that we live in the midst of great mysteries that outstrip our perceptions.) If I don't have a story to tell, I just don't write and do something else, like draw, or write philosophical essays, or workout with my aging kung-fu buddies, or---well, there's a world of other things to do. I'm not "attached" to being a writer, though I enjoy it, find myself spending all my time doing it and, according to Ella Tweedy, it's what I'm supposed to be doing until such time as the necessity for doing it is done. 

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