James Salter: Why I Write
An American Master on the Origins of His Craft
“To write! What a marvelous thing!” When he was old and forgotten, living in a rundown house in the dreary suburbs of Paris, Léautaud wrote these lines. He was unmarried, childless, alone. The world of the theater in which he had worked as a critic for years was now dark for him, but from the ruins of his life these words rose. To write!
One thinks of many writers who might have said this, Anne Sexton, even though she committed suicide, or Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, who both did also, or Faulkner, scorned in his rural town, or the wreckage that was Fitzgerald in the end. The thing that is marvelous is literature, which is like the sea, and the exaltation of being near it, whether you are a powerful swimmer or wading by the shore. The act of writing, though often tedious, can still provide extraordinary pleasure. For me that comes line by line at the tip of a pen, which is what I like to write with, and the page on which the lines are written, the pages, can be the most valuable thing I will ever own.
The cynics say that if you do not write for money you are a dabbler or a fool, but this is not true. To see one’s work in print is the real desire, to have it read. The remuneration is of less importance; no one was paid for the samizdats. Money is but one form of approval.
It is such a long time that I have been writing that I don’t remember the beginning. It was not a matter of doing what my father knew how to do. He had gone to Rutgers, West Point, and then MIT, and I don’t think in my lifetime I ever saw him reading a novel. He read newspapers, the Sun, the World-Telegram, there were at least a dozen in New York in those days. His task was laid out for him: to rise in the world.
Nor was my mother an avid reader. She read to me as a child, of course, and in time I read the books that were published in popular series, The Hardy Boys and Bomba, the Jungle Boy. I recall little about them. I did not read Ivanhoe, Treasure Island, Kim, or The Scottish Chiefs, though two or three of them were given to me. I had six volumes of a collection called My Bookhouse, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, whose name is not to be found among the various Millers—Mrs. Alice, Henry, Joaquin, Joe—in The Reader’s Encyclopedia, but who was responsible for what knowledge I had of Cervantes, Dickens, Tolstoy, Homer, and the others whose work was excerpted. The contents also included folktales, fairy tales, parts of the Bible, and more. When I read of writers who when young were given the freedom of their fathers’ or friends’ libraries, I think of Bookhouse, which was that for me. It was not an education but the introduction to one. There were also poems, and in grammar school we had to memorize and then stand up and recite well-known poems. Many of these I still know, including Kipling’s “If,” which my father paid me a dollar to learn. Language is acquired, like other things, through the act of imitating, and rhythm and elegance may come in part from poems.
I could draw quite well as a boy and even, though uninstructed, paint. What impulse made me do this, and where the ability came from—although my father could draw a little—I cannot say. My desire to write, apparent at the age of seven or eight, likely came from the same source. I made crude books, as many children do, with awkward printing and drawings, from small sheets of paper, folded and sewn together.
In prep school we were poets, at least many of my friends and I were, ardent and profound. There were elegies but no love poems—those came later. I had some early success. In a national poetry contest I won honorable mention, and sold two poems to Poetry magazine.
All this was a phase, in nearly every case to be soon outgrown. In 1939 the war had broken out, and by 1941 we were in it. I ended up at West Point. The old life vanished; the new one had little use for poetry. I did read, and as an upperclassman wrote a few short stories. I had seen some in the Academy magazine and felt I could do better, and after the first one, the editor asked for more. When I became an officer there was, at first, no time for writing, nor was there the privacy. Beyond that was a greater inhibition: it was alien to the life. I had been commissioned in the Army Air Force and in the early days was a transport pilot, later switching into fighters. With that I felt I had found my role.
Stationed in Florida in about 1950, I happened to see in a bookshop window in Pensacola a boldly displayed novel called The Town and The City by John Kerouac. The name. There had been a Jack Kerouac at prep school, and he had written some stories. On the back of the jacket was a photograph, a gentle, almost yearning face with eyes cast downward. I recognized it instantly. I remember a feeling of envy. Kerouac was only a few years older than I was. Somehow he had written this impressive-looking novel. I bought the book and eagerly read it. It owed a lot to Thomas Wolfe—Look Homeward, Angel and others—who was a major figure then, but still it was an achievement. I took it as a mark of what might be done.
I had gotten married, and in the embrace of a more orderly life, on occasional weekends or in the evenings, I began to write again. The Korean War broke out. When I was sent over I took a small typewriter with me, thinking that if I was killed, the pages I had been writing would be a memorial. They were immature pages, to say the least. A few years later, the novel they were part of was rejected by the publishers, but one of them suggested that if I were to write another novel they would be interested in seeing it. Another novel. That might be years.
I had a journal I had kept while flying combat missions. It contained some description, but there was little shape to it. The war had the central role. One afternoon, in Florida again—I was there on temporary duty—I came back from the flight line, sat down on my cot, and began to hurriedly write out a page or so of outline that had suddenly occurred to me. It would be a novel about idealism, the true and the untrue, spare and in authentic prose. What had been missing but was missing no longer was the plot.“Latent in me, I suppose, there was always the belief that writing was greater than other things, or at least would prove to be greater in the end.”
Why was I writing? It was not for glory; I had seen what I took to be real glory. It was not for acclaim. I knew that if the book was published, it would have to be under a pseudonym; I did not want to jeopardize a career by becoming known as a writer. I had heard the derisive references to “God-Is-My-Copilot” Scott. The ethic of fighter squadrons was drink and daring; anything else was suspect. Still, I thought of myself as more than just a pilot and imagined a book that would be in every way admirable. It would be evident that someone among the ranks of pilots had written it, an exceptional figure, unknown, but I would have the satisfaction of knowing who it was.
I wrote when I could find time. Some of the book was written at a fighter base on Long Island, the rest of it in Europe, when I was stationed in Germany. A lieutenant in my squadron who lived in the apartment adjoining ours could hear the typewriter late at night through the bedroom wall. “What are you doing,” he asked one day, “writing a book?” It was meant as a joke. Nothing could be more unlikely. I was the experienced operations officer. Next step was squadron commander.
The Hunters was published by Harper and Brothers in late 1956. A section of the book appeared first in Collier’s. Word of it spread immediately. With the rest I sat speculating as to who the writer might be, someone who had served in Korea, with the Fourth Group, probably.
The reviews were good. I was 32 years old, the father of a child, with my wife expecting another. I had been flying fighters for seven years. I decided I had had enough. The childhood urge to write had never died, in fact, it had proven itself. I discussed it with my wife, who, with only a partial understanding of what was involved, did not attempt to change my mind. Upon leaving Europe, I resigned my commission with the aim of becoming a writer.
It was the most difficult act of my life. Latent in me, I suppose, there was always the belief that writing was greater than other things, or at least would prove to be greater in the end. Call it a delusion if you like, but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been. There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.
Of the actual hard business of writing I knew very little. The first book had been a gift. I missed the active life terribly, and after a long struggle a second book was completed. It was a failure. Jean Stafford, one of the judges for a prize for which it had been routinely submitted, left the manuscript on an airplane. The book made no sense to her, she said. But there was no turning back.
A Sport and a Pastime was published six years later. It, too, did not sell. A few thousand copies, that was all. It stayed in print, however, and one by one, slowly, foreign publishers bought it. Finally, Modern Library.
The use of literature, Emerson wrote, is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it. Perhaps this is true, but I would claim something broader. Literature is the river of civilization, its Tigris and Nile. Those who follow it, and I am inclined to say those only, pass by the glories.
Over the years I have been a writer for a succession of reasons. In the beginning, as I have said, I wrote to be admired, even if not known. Once I had decided to be a writer, I wrote hoping for acceptance, approval.
Gertrude Stein, when asked why she wrote, replied, “For praise.” Lorca said he wrote to be loved. Faulkner said a writer wrote for glory. I may at times have written for those reasons, it’s hard to know. Overall I write because I see the world in a certain way that no dialogue or series of them can begin to describe, that no book can fully render, though the greatest books thrill in their attempt.
A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility, and it is thinking of that that one writes. In short, to achieve. The rest takes care of itself, and so much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it.
In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.
From Don’t Save Anything: The Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles of James Salter, by James Salter, courtesy of Counterpoint Press.