Brian Doyle, Part One of Two
I wasn’t real friends with Brian Doyle. I had an active correspondence with him, but then, I bet a lot of writers did. Our e-mails stretched back maybe a decade. We met in person only once. Because Brian was so present in his writing, that didn’t seem to matter.
Brian’s writing reminded me of a golden retriever. It was friendly and exuberant, playful and sunny, and it bounded across the page. It jumped into the lap of a reader and would not leave that reader alone. His prose packed the concentrated wallop of a poem.
He and I also shared a worldview, which I heard him describe as “joy and pain are identical twins,” and that the world is basically a pretty good place.
So yes, I admired Brian’s writing; I responded best to his shorter essays. But I also admired Brian as a person, and found it hard to separate the two, in the way it often happens with art I love and the artists who make it. I admired Brian’s prolificacy. He did not seem to fear releasing his work to the world. Even if, as he cheerfully said, the draft he was writing went straight to the dogs.
Truth is, sometimes I found his work uneven. I do not say this to find fault. Because Brian’s best essays were nothing short of freaking brilliant, and the uneven work only reinforces for me why those brilliant essays are just that.
Successful creative people let themselves have lots of ideas.
Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are full of thousands of pages’ worth, some of which are centuries ahead of their time (helicopters, parachutes); others (shoes that walk on water?), not so much. Over 2,500 paintings and sketches are attributed to Claude Monet, but he is known to have burned stacks more in his gardens at night, when he was feeling discouraged.
I am a writer who holds her feelings and work close to her vest, and has trouble letting anything go into the world until I feel sure of it. I don’t know whether Brian abandoned or destroyed work — he must have, right? I sometimes do.
Brian’s journalism background freed him, I think. I am married to a former journalist, and I have a minor in journalism. Our house is a journalist magnet. Unlike fine-arts writers, journalists do not seem to suffer from the idea that words are precious commodities. Without fanfare, journalists produce.
I’m a creative writer, but my most freeing college writing experience was a news journalism course. We turned in ten practice stories, twice a week. Our professor was among the very first generation of women allowed in a newsroom, and she was very tough. Don’t tell me you’re in this business because you like people; I got a dog who likes people, she would say.
Our stories had to be accurate, on time, and well-done, but not great. It was in her class that I finally became comfortable with writing. There, done was better than perfect, and I learned that a great piece was made in the act of writing, not in its conception. Every piece of writing is perfect in your head.
I do kind of think of Brian as a dog who liked people. Things he said that stick with me: that our greatest privilege is to be witnesses to the human story. That stories are the carriers of the miracle.
This he didn’t actually say, but was as important: know who you are as a writer, and don’t apologize for it. Brian was unapologetically Catholic, and made no secret of the fact that he published in both religious and secular publications. He loved narrative at a time that many editors consider it a bit of a no-no. He liked language that was earthy and human, unpretentious and delicious.