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On reading Saint-Exupery

Some writers awe me and make me wonder if my piddly scribblings are worth the time.

It’s not uncommon for me to be in more than one book at a time. I get in the mood for one tome and start. My mood changes and I get into another. There have been times when I was fiddling around in upwards of seven books at a time. I read them all. It just takes a little time.

At the moment, I’m reading three books. Two of them show me the places I want to go as a writer. The first is Barbara Feinman Todd’s Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp. The story doesn’t impress me. It reads like a celebrity memoir, probably because Feinman Todd ghosted for people like Bob Woodward and Hillary Clinton. It’s the story of how she wound up as a ghost and the vagaries of writing for big personalities.

But the writing in Pretend impresses me. It’s bright and crisp. The images are sharp and the feelings impactful. I want what Feinman Todd has—an audience and a distinctive voice. While the story doesn’t intrigue me, the writing is what keeps me going. It’s no trick to knock down 20 to 30 pages in the minutes before I go to sleep at night. I want that for my own writing.

Much more intimidating for me is Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Flight to Arras. The story is of French pilots at the start of World War II. As Germany invades France, the pilots fly reconnaissance for an army in retreat. All around him, the world falls apart, the once great Republic collapsing at the advance of a superior army. The pilots, navigators, and tail gunners know that every trip might be their last. They also know that the base they took off from in the morning may not be there when they return. Yet, they keep flying, doing their jobs, keeping their place in a faltering mechanism whose only reason for being is the duty to keep working in the face of failure.

There’s a reason Saint-Exupery’s a French national hero. He’s best known for his work The Little Prince—a children’s book for adults. But he was a trailblazer in commercial aviation, and in aviation itself. He was also one of the best authors this world has ever seen. The power of contemplation permeates Flight to Arras, as it does all of Saint-Exupery’s writing. He touches on human universals: love, duty, and responsibility. He writes with lyricism I know I can never achieve. The heights of beauty infects his treatment of ordinary events, such as making of dinner, feeding livestock, and getting kids off to school.

I read Flight to Arras in the afternoon before my daily appointment with the mattress. Since I take a nap every day, I have been with Saint-Exupery every afternoon for the last two weeks. Even as my eyes begin to waver and cross, I keep reading. One sentence leads to another in a progression I hope will never end. This is a book I want to read every day for the foreseeable future.

It’s not my first reading of Flight to Arras. I’ve read it twice before, and like Heller’s Catch-22 and Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, it will be a book I read many times again. It’s one of three Saint-E books that are often published together, the others are Airman’s Odyssey and Wind, Sand, and Stars. Fortunately, I have all three on my Kindle and when I get finished with my present read, I will move on to the other books.

I read along and think, will I ever be able to write like this? I don’t know that my writing is as seamless and cadenced as Saint-Exupery’s. Who can stand next to an international great whose writing is an achievement all its own? Unfortunately, there’s not enough Saint-Exupery writing. He died at the age of 44 on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944 after flying over Marseilles. Explorers and interested parties have searched for the wreckage and his remains for decades. So much effort for a man chiefly known for his writing.

While I don’t ever expect to achieve the heights of success and acceptance that Saint-Exupery did, I dream of one day becoming a minor literary luminary. Just getting published these days is a herculean task. Hundreds of rejections await the writer who doesn’t have a “platform” that will automatically translate into book sales. Publishers, not ever known for their bravery, are even more conservative today than ever. It’s about making money. Even if you have the Great American Book, chance of it being published without a blog that gets 25,000 hits a week, a Facebook following of several thousands, or a spate of TED talks.

I have none of those things and don’t really know how to do it. I do my best and keep at it, hoping someday to have a platform that automatically engenders demand for my books. Until then, I can only keep practicing and getting better.

The other book I read as I go through the books of these two master writers is my own Canoeing the Great Plains. I have to know what’s in that thing for my book club, members of which are reading the book for our next meeting. One would think that with writes and rewrites, the pouring over galleys, and final edits, I would already know what’s in that book. But it’s a story of memory, and memory shifts and changes over time. What I need to know are the memories as I wrote them several years ago. I want to know how to answer the questions and related the material when those sharp people at my book club examine me about the text.

What strikes me is that I am, at least, at the level of Feinman Todd. I can write like that. I can see it. I would never be a good celebrity ghost. That’s not something I can do. I’m too much the artiste and way to cowardly to take on the task.

But there’s no way I can write like Saint-Exupery. Not that I want to imitate him. My writing, voice, and tone will be my own. I want to be transcendent. He achieved transcendence. It’s in his story, the way he tells it, the way he writes it. His writing intimidates me and gives me doubt. If I cannot get by with good writing and decent stories, and I don’t have the wherewithal to build a platform, then I am destined to write good books that stay in my computer. Friends and family will read them.

That should be enough. I should be happy to write good books, regardless of who reads them. I will write those good books. My family will read them. But I’m no J.D. Salinger. I need an audience. I have to get the information out. I want the adulation, but that is the least of it. Part of being a writer for me is reaching the hearts of others, to be of service, and, perhaps, one day, to make a living writing. I’d like for it to happen before I die.

My friend Eddy L. Harris, the author of important books that changed my life, tells me to write my book and nobody else’s. I can do that. I have to have faith in that.

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