published in Volume 5, Issue 3 on September 1st, 1998When I was much younger, I wanted to be an oceanographer. Actually, that was what I told adults who asked me what I wanted to be. Although I had no idea what an oceanographer actually does, it seemed to put an adult name on what I wanted to do. If an adult had taken the time to probe, theyd have found that I just wanted to be a scuba diver, a guy that put on the wet suit and went down into the water. Lots of people do that that arent oceanographers.
I was fascinated by the sea, or more specifically by anything under the water. I watched any show, true or fiction where men went under the water. I loved to look at pictures of men going down into the sea in ships and in suits. What I most enjoyed was seeing men diving in scenic places like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. And I didnt take the sea on its own terms, either. Like most folks of this part of the century, I picked and chose the parts of the world that I would endure. For instance, even here in Nebraska the thought of being out in the rough waters of the north Atlantic where the depths plunge you far from the sun makes me shiver, and I wanted little to do with those terrible dark canyons miles under the waves.
Yes, I had a lot of books about the ocean, and I picked up quite a bit from the photographs that I loved so much. Therefore, when the novel, Jaws came out, I knew a little more than most folks about sharks. I enjoyed the book. It was one of those that, "you cant put down." And somewhere in that excitement that fills me when I read something, or see something creative, I wanted to join in. Around the time of the movie, I had an idea: what if Carcharodon megalodon (the prehistoric ancestor of the Great White Shark) appeared in the modern world? I can still see an artists rendering of such a gigantic beast drawn to scale with two divers in the foreground for comparison. My mind ran away with a story and I started to write such a tale.
I never finished it. I was distracted by all the stuff that grabs a sixteen-year-old and moves his head around preventing focus in any one direction. Nor could I make a case that my telling was very good. At sixteen I was a very poor writer in many respects.
So, a year or so ago, Im browsing at a Waldens books and I notice a novel called Meg. Something about the catch phrase, "A novel of deep terror" got my attention (somebody in PR earned his dime) and I stopped to read the jacket flap. It was a novel about Carcharodon megalodon, the ancient great white. Twenty years after I had the idea someone finished the job. Two weeks ago, I saw the paperback edition of Meg at Borders and bought it.
Im still reading it, and I must say, I dont think its very good. Before you think Im bitter or jealous, let me assure you Im not. I respect people who put their backs into any worthy effort, even if Im not fond of the final result. As Truman Capote once wrote, "It takes as much energy to write a bad novel as it does a good one." Nor do I think Meg is a numbingly bad book--its not--it just reads very unevenly, with phrases and images that are so deeply buried in our experience that the author probably doesnt realize how trite he is being. Anyone who writes a lot can read something and tell where pieces have been stitched in, where phrases have been dropped or revised (read John Grishams A Time to Kill to see a very obvious first novela good one, but a Frankenstein of patched together paragraphs in some spots). What really matters here is, the author of Meg did the work, I didnt. Whatever I say about the novel (the cover listed great reviews), the man did what he set out to do. I let the idea go. When I didnt follow the idea to whatever place my resources would have taken me, it went back to whatever place ideas wait for us, and waited for someone more worthy--someone who would do the work.
This isnt the first time. I have lots of ideas, some of them are pretty good, and some probably arent. Many years ago I had an idea about a hit man who goes to his high school reunion. Instead of working on that idea, I concentrated on paying the bills, but I also watched too much television. Because of those priorities, someone wrote an excellent movie called Gross Point Blank and I didnt. None of this is intended to state categorically that just because I had the same idea as someone else, or in some cases had it first, that I would have carried it off as well. A good idea still needs lots of work before it is a good story, poem or picture, but it all starts with an idea.
Even today I find lots of excuses to not do the work. This column was put off in favor of writing letters, spending time with my girlfriend, reading lots of technical crap for work, watching way too much t.v. , all the distractions that grab my almost-forty head and shake it about, inhibiting focus. I say inhibit, because Im not sixteen anymore and the agency that prevents me from doing anything is my own self. I run my life. I choose where I spend my time. For every good choice like spending time with my love, I sometimes make inferior choices like watching Embrace of the Vampire on "Monstervision."
I now understand more clearly that I will die someday and that each day I dont spend writing is a day I will never get back. My days are much shorter now than when I was sixteen and quite a spendthrift with my time. I didnt know how quickly the days fade, and I wish that I had a few thousand of those hours back.
Amy, my girl, says that my stories all have morals, and shes right. Heres the moral for this column: Ideas only belong to us for a short time, then they move on. If you have an idea, work on it. If you dont, someone willI guarantee it.