I think you might find one or two tiny things to think about, listening to old bumbling shaggy me up on this stage. You might be moved a little, or at least giggle, or hear something you open up shyly later and ponder for yourself. Maybe not. I make no promises…”
by brian doyle
Best questions I have been asked? As a writer? (This obviates all the wild questions I have been asked by my children, many of them cast in the most rude and vulgar terms imaginable, and the startling questions I have often been asked by my lovely bride, and even the questions the house wolf asks me with his ears, although those questions are generally straight- forward ones like can I eat this cat, or is that frowned upon socially?)
The best ever: Is that your real nose? Asked of me by a moppet in kindergarten, where I was, no kidding, a visiting writer for a day, because the kids had had my novel read to them over the course of a year! Every day for half an hour in Story Time! Isn’t that the most amazing and moving thing ever? I said yes, it was my real nose, why did she ask? And she said Because it’s really big, and there’s a bend or hump or something in it, and I explained that the Coherent Mercy had granted me many brothers in this wild and lovely life, which explained what happened to my nose.
Next best: Why in all of your work is there no mention whatsoever of the radical lesbian community in Australia? Asked of me by a woman in Australia, who was sitting in the front row and glaring at me with a ferocious and inarguable glare. For an instant I thought of making some snide comic retort, like well, there are no sun bears or hockey players in my work either, but then I snapped awake and felt a hint of her pain, and a shred, perhaps, of the bruised life she had lived, being sneered at by society because of the gender of the people she loved. Who cares about the gender of the people you love? Isn’t loving and being loved the point? Isn’t that what we talk about when we talk about religion and community? I didn’t answer her question. I felt helpless and sad and there wasn’t anything to say so I didn’t say anything and then someone asked me about my hilarious headlong serpentine riverine sinuous sprinting prose style, and the conversation went in a different direction. I still think about that woman, though, and hope she found some sort of peace in her life. Rage burns you out.
Next best, asked of me recently by a high-school girl so far in the back of the dark auditorium that I could not see her but only heard her voice emerging from the dark like a sudden nighthawk: How do you retain your dignity when you know and we know that most of the kids in this auditorium are not paying any attention to what you are saying at all? This one I hit out of the park. This one I was ready for. This one I have been waiting to be asked for years. First of all, I said, I have three children, and they are teenagers, so I am very familiar and comfortable with not being listened to. Second, I was a teenager once, and believe me I was more sneery and rude and dismissive and snotty than any ten of you collectively, so I know how you feel. Third, and not to be rude, but I don’t care if you have the guts to drop your masks and listen to what I have to say. You want to hide behind the wall of ostensible cool, be my guest. You want to live in the world of pretend where you perform some role all day rather than try to dig other people’s joy and pain and courage, swell. Best of luck.
Not me. It took me the longest damned time to come out from behind my masks, it took me deep into my twenties, and if you want to be as stupid as me, swell. It’s your life you are wasting. Too bad. Me, personally, I think you might find one or two tiny things to think about, listening to old bumbling shaggy me up on this stage. You might be moved a little, or at least giggle, or hear something you open up shyly later and ponder for yourself. Maybe not. I make no promises. I am just an aging idiot addicted to stories, because stories matter, my friend, and if you do not catch and share stories that matter, you will have nothing but lies and sales pitches in your life, and shame on you if that’s the case. But it’s your life. One thing I have learned as a dad and a husband is that no one listens to me, and they ought not to, either. You ought to listen to your own true self. I can maybe help you tiptoe a little closer to that self by sharing stories that matter, but if you are too cool to play today, swell. Me, personally, I can tell you that either you eventually take those masks off or they will damn well be kicked off by life, but I suspect that’s a lesson you have to learn for yourself. Me, I suggest that the sooner you wake up and get it that there actually is a wild grace and defiant courage in people, and there actually are stories that save and change lives, and that there is a lot more going on here than we can ever find words for, and that love and attentiveness and creativity are real and wild and immanent, the cooler and wilder a life you will enjoy while you have such a priceless and inexplicable thing as a life, which goes by awfully fast, my friend. Believe me, I know. Does that answer your question at all?
Yes, sir, she said. Yes, sir, it surely does.
(Is That Your Real Nose? is excerpted with permission from the posthumous collection Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, a collection of essays that Brian curated himself and which was published by Franciscan Media on September 1, 2017)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.