Why I Write: A Memento Mori

By Evan Guilford-Blake

Photography by Jesse Ryan Brown

Every night, my wife and I listen to an old time radio program. In the dozen years we’ve been doing it, we’ve heard everything from the Jack Benny Show (all 19 years) to every episode of Johnny Dollar, Dragnet and countless more.

Just now, we’re nearing the end of X Minus 1, an anthology science fiction series broadcast by NBC during the mid-1950s, and co-presented by Galaxy Magazine, one of the genre’s premier publications. The stories (which first appeared in Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction) were adapted to radio theatre; they are by many of the shining stars of the fantastic, names oh-so well known to me. I grew up devouring the paperbacks and pulps of the era: Clifford Simak, Frederick Brown, Ray Bradbury, among (so) many others.

But some I don’t know at all, and they’re by authors whose names I don’t recall ever seeing in print, either: Frank Quattrocchi’s Sea Legs, for example, and Jack McKenty’s A Thousand Dollars a Plate. Also among (so) many others.

The surprise in all this is how few of the stories I can find in print, anywhere. Most of them, from the astounding to the yawn-inducing, have simply disappeared, like the Western tales of the late 1800s and the war stories that abounded for a decade after World War II.

I’m sure there are treasured copies tucked away in the archives of rare magazine aficionados. But I’ve looked for Sea Legs and A Thousand Dollars a Plate, in libraries on- and off-line and all over the Internet. They’re not there.

They’ve vanished.

I’m a writer. I write prose and stageplays. Influenced by my mother, who wrote radio plays and short stories (and was, like me, an avid reader) I started writing when I was five: Mom sent off a poem I’d written to a children’s magazine that actually published it. Paid me five bucks, too. I was astonished and exhilarated. I’ve been writing ever since. I still get exhilarated when a publisher says “Yes!”

I dabbled for a long time but I came to writing as a raison d’être later in life. I’m fortunate: I’ve had some success and, because my wife makes a good living (and loves that I write), I can spend three, five, seven hours a day doing it, despite the distractions and obligations that make up my day (as they make up the days of most writers). I had my first trade paperback (a play) published in 2009, three novels and a short story collection since, and I have manuscripts galore floating about the universe like bond-paper fairies in search of someone (else) to believe in them.

In the process, I’ve come to terms with a fact of literary life: If I’m lucky, I’ll make a little money, but, alas, I’m not gonna get rich. Nor will my name become a household word.

So, then, why (other than for love) do I bother?

For many years, I said I wrote because I could. Later, my rationale was that, like breathing, it was easier for me to write than it was not to write.

Now, however, I’ve come to realize the reality: I write because it’s my way to be remembered. I’m striving for immortality.

Most of what I write these days is what’s classified as “literary fiction”: short stories about Things That Matter, written in a relatively dense style that creates demands on the reader. In other words, I try to write things that mean something now, and will retain meaning for generations to come. Deathless prose. Literature.

Which brings me back to X Minus 1.

Galaxy and ASF, for all their merits as entertainment, along with so many magazines of the last hundred years (the list is endless: It includes everything from Collier’s and The Smart Set to Argosy and Soldier of Fortune) published work that, for the most part, can be classified as “disposable art”: works written for the moment and the readership of that moment. (Many of the X Minus 1 tales, written in the decade following World War II, deal with apocalyptic themes and are often set in a barren, post-nuclear-war world; they’re frequently less fantasy than cautionary.) That’s not a qualitative assessment: Popular fiction can be literary. (Le Guin, for example, is among the finest writers of all time; her work is just less demanding than, say, Nabokov’s or Woolf’s.) But, so much of the time, popfic, even good popfic, is forgotten as soon as one generation is supplanted by the next.

That makes me sad. Robert Simak and Zenna Henderson and Frederick Brown, and the million other authors who wrote for Galaxy and its brethren (and those who write for them now) also must, at one time or another, have been striving for immortality. My best guess is that each time they sat down, pen in hand or before the typewriter or, nowadays, at the computer, they thought: This time, this time, I’m going to write a story that will place my name in Authorial Valhalla, alongside Shakespeare and Austen and Goethe and Langston Hughes. I can’t imagine Frederick Brown ever thinking: Okay, they need something that’s 4000 words about space travel, and I’ve got three days, so… (All right: I’m sure they did that, too, on occasion.)

So. Tomorrow, again, I’ll get up, do the Things That Are Necessary to help pay the bills and then I’ll turn to those Things That Matter. I’ll spend a few more hours of the dwindling number I have still available, striving to write something that, a millennium or ten millennia from now, some twenty or sixty or two hundred year old human, or other species currently unknown to this small planet, will know about because it’s still spoken of with reverence and exists in ready form, on paper, or Kindle or microscopic plastic lens that can be popped in and out of the eye.

Immortality.

’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

(Perhaps not the) End?

~~~

Evan Guilford-Blake writes plays, prose and poetry. His work has appeared in more than 100 journals and anthologies, winning 27 awards. His scripts have won 46 competitions. Thirty-eight are published. His published long-form prose includes the novels Animation, The Bluebird Prince, and the award-winning story collection American Blues all available on Amazon. His comic mystery novel, Noir(ish), will be published next summer by Black Opal Press. Evan and his wife (and inspiration) Roxanna, a talented jewelry designer and business writer, live in the Southeastern U.S. Find Evan on Twitter @EJBplaywright.