I first read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by kerosene lantern light in a cabin in the wilds of northern Michigan. The lantern sat in the middle of the kitchen table and my brothers read ‘Sports Afield’ and ‘Outdoor’ magazines and as we read shadows played upon the dark walls. The cabin itself was made from sections of an old army barracks that my father and I had hauled up one weekend on a flat trailer pulled behind a borrowed truck. Outside in the dark as we read the wind blew acorns down onto the roof with a nobly sound and it was then, somehow drawing a connection between the tall dark forest of the north and the infinite deep waters of the Gulf Stream, that I knew I would be a writer.
Santiago, the old man of the story, had gone eighty four days without taking a fish. Many years have passed for me since first reading that opening line. And, like the old man, I have had little luck. A couple of minor works were published, but that was long ago, and the two good things I have written now go begging for a publisher. But, also like the old man, I would rather hone my skills than depend upon luck. In that way when the big one comes along, I will be in the place to hook it.
It has come along and I have hooked it and now, like old Santiago, I know I will suffer for it and pay my life into it and struggle with it until the greatness has been landed. Nothing else, now, is of any significance. Even to write here, now, would be a waste of time if I was not also thinking through what I will do with the greatest story I have ever been given; and the greatest story I ever will be given.
In college my professor predicted I would be a great writer and I have spent much time since then trying to live up to the promise, with little material success. But now that I too am growing old I know that material success has little meaning in itself and that once his fish was landed and he had paid the price for it, it would all be stripped away and he would be left with nothing but a bare backbone that would lie awash in the water along the beach, and the tourists would identify it with a very different fish. It would be tempting to shrug and say fatalistically, “such is life,” and give up on the whole mess.
And I would give up, too, if it were not for the greatness that is calling from the deep waters too far out from land. I, like Santiago, know that I will go there and bring in the big fish, no matter what the cost.