"I call this memoir Off to the Side because that is the designated and comfortable position for a writer. In situations where you are inevitably the center of attention there is a feeling of restless discomfort, maybe even inappropriate behavior...This is not a plea for sympathy but a statement of the obvious, at least for those in the trade. Except with friends you make people a little nervous."
- Jim Harrison, Off to the Side
There are moments when the words of another are as your own. Such is one of the gifts of books and reading. Harrison's quote did just that for me the other day. You're reading along, being thoroughly entranced by a guy who hangs out with names such as Jack Nicholson, Tom McGuane, and Charles Bowden; a writer with the likes of Legends of the Fall and Dalva on his resume; a poet, gourmet chef, and seasoned outdoorsman and you're thinking, "Well, that'll never be me" and then he drops words like that on you and you're like that guy in scripture - "a man undone." Although a moment like that is somewhat unsettling, it is always extremely comforting because you know within your bones that someone else understands.
I live "off to the side." I have for years. Maybe forever. Yes, there are days when I find myself the center of attention; even some days when I desire that. But in those moments, I always feel like young David in Saul's armor - it just doesn't fit. There's always that "restless discomfort." Now some might immediately tell me I've got poor social skills, that's all. I'm willing to admit that. Still others might respond that I'm a strange bird and getting even stranger. I'll accept that one too. There might even be the "life'd be easier if you'd cut your hair and buy some khakis." But for those of you "in the trade" you know it's much deeper than that.
A writer's designated place is just aft of center, off to the side, in the margins, standing by the wall, and leanin' on the fence. There are things you can see and then say when you live in your designated place. You can't see them from the center, much less say them. Well, I guess you can say them but no one really hears you; they're listening for center-pieces, not side-thoughts. I remember hearing Wendell Berry say that almost all the biblical prophets came from the margins, never the Temple.
Now before you romanticize those thoughts, please recall the wardrobe of prophets (animal skins or laying naked in the middle of town), their diet (locust and wild honey or tears), and their final act (most killed; one in particular being beheaded at the request of a dancing girl). And if you want to expand your vision beyond the leather covers of the bible, which by the way is always a good thing, then you have a veritable legion of writers and poets with quirks and eccentricities ranging from living exclusively in a view with a room to the "iconography of booze" to the very non-self-pitying picture of what it looks like when someone cuts off their own ear.
And except with friends, you make people a little nervous; sometimes, even with friends. And family.
You know, the spider in Charlotte's Web is described as being a good friend and a good writer. I'd love to have that as an epitaph. But she's still a spider, just off to the side, spinning her word-webs in the shadows of the barn door, always making the centerpieces of the barn (cows, geese, horses, sheep) just a little nervous...