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Long Work, Short Life

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Bernard Malamud, who died two years ago last Friday, gave this talk at Bennington College on Oct. 30, 1984, as part of the Ben Belitt Lectureship Series. A longer version of his remarks was printed last year in The Michigan Quarterly.

I Intend to say something about my life as a writer. Since I shan't go into a formal replay of the life, this will read more like a selective short memoir.

The beginning was slow, and perhaps not quite a beginning. Some beginnings promise a start that may take years to induce a commencement. Before the first word strikes the page, or the first decent idea occurs, there is the complicated matter of breaking the silence. Some throw up before they can breathe. Not all can run to the door at the knock of announcement - granted one hears it. Not all know what it means. Simply, not always is the gift of talent given free and clear. Some who are marvelously passionate to write may have to spend half their lives learning what their proper subject matter may be.

I began to write at an early age, yet it took me years actually to begin writing. Much diverted me. As a child I told stories for praise. I went for inspiration to the movies. I remember my mother delivering me, against her will, on a wet Sunday, to a movie house to see Charlie Chaplin, whose comedy haunted my soul. After being at the pictures I recounted their plots to school friends who would listen at dreadfully long length as I retold them. The pleasure, in the beginning, was in retelling the impossible tale.

When I overcontrived or otherwise spoiled a plot, I would substitute another of my own. I could on occasion be a good little liar who sometimes found it a burden to tell the truth. Once my father called me a bluffer, enraging me because I had meant to tell him a simple story, not one that had elaborated itself into a lie.

In grammar school, where I lived in a state of self-enhancing discovery, I turned school assignments into stories. Once I married off Roger Williams of Rhode Island to an Indian maiden, mainly because I had worked up an early feeling for the romantic. When I was 10, I wrote a story about a ship lost in the Sargasso Sea. The vessel appeared in dreams, about to undertake a long voyage in stagnant seas. This sort of thing, to begin with, was the nature of my ''gift'' as a child, that I had awakened to one day, and it remained with me many years before I began to use it well. Throughout my life I struggled to define it, and to write with originality. However, once it had pointed at me and signaled the way, it kept me going even when I wasn't writing. For years it was a blessing that could bleed as a wound. Thus began an era of long waiting. I had hoped to start writing short stories after graduation from City College during the Depression, but they were long in coming. I had ideas and felt I was on the verge of sustained work. But at that time I had no regular means of earning a living; and as the son of a poor man, a poor grocer, I could not stand the thought of living off him, a generous and self-denying person. However, I thought the writing would take care of itself once I found steady work. I needed decent clothes; I would dream of new suits. Any work I found would make life different, I thought, and I could begin writing day or night. Yet I adamantly would not consider applying, in excess of pride, to the W.P.A. Years later, I judged that to have been a foolish act, or non-act.

Recently I was reading Ernst Pawel's book of the life of Kafka, and the author speaks of Kafka's ''all-encompassing goal in which the writer searches for his own truth.'' Truth or no truth, I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.

By now I had registered at Columbia University for an M.A. in English, on a government loan. The work was not demanding. I told myself what I was doing was worthwhile; for no one who spends his nights and days devoted to great works of literature will be wasting his time as a writer, if he is passionate to write. But when did I expect to begin writing? My answer was unchanged: when I found a job that would support my habit: the self's enduring needs. I registered for a teacher's examination and afterwards worked a year at $4.50 a day as a teacher-in-training in a high school in Brooklyn. I was also applying for, and took, several civil service examinations, including those leading to jobs of postal clerk and letter carrier. This is mad, I thought, or I am. Yet I told myself the kind of work I might get didn't matter so long as I was working for time to write. Throughout these unsatisfying years, writing was still my gift and persuasion.

It was now four years after my graduation from college, but the four felt like 50 when I was counting. However, in the spring of 1940 I was offered work in Washington, as a clerk in the Census Bureau. I accepted at once though I soon realized the ''work'' was a laugh. All morning I conscientiously checked estimates of drainage ditch statistics, as they appeared in various counties of the United States. Although the job hardly thrilled me, I worked diligently and was promoted, at the end of three months, to receive a salary of $1,800 per annum. That, in those times, was ''good money.'' What was better was that I had begun to write seriously on company time. No one seemed to care what I was doing so long as the record showed I had finished a full day's work; therefore after lunchtime I kept my head bent low while I was writing short stories at my desk.

One night, after laboring in vain for hours attempting to bring a short story to life, I sat up in bed at an open window looking at the stars after a rainfall. Then I experienced a wave of feeling, of heartfelt emotion bespeaking commitment to life and art, so deeply it brought tears to my eyes. For the hundredth time I promised myself that I would someday be a very good writer. This renewal, and others like it, kept me alive in art years from fulfillment. I must have been about 25 then, and was still waiting, in my fashion, for the true writing life to begin. I'm reminded of Kafka's remark in his mid-20's: ''God doesn't want me to write, but I must write.''

There were other matters to consider. What about marriage - should I, shouldn't I? I sometimes felt that the young writers I knew were too much concerned with staying out of marriage, whereas they might have used it, among other things, to order their lives and get on



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