The last stages of any writing project, and particularly the book I am writing with Mark, involve a shift from the solitude of writing and editing to the idea that this project will be public, that other people will read it and have opinions, and will be affected. This means I have to learn a new way of engaging even casual conversations. For instance:
I met a woman last week, an assistant in an oral surgeon’s office. She looked to be in her 40s, so a generation younger than me. She asked what I did. I said I was a writer and mentioned I was going to Vietnam in November.
“Why are you going there?” she asked, carefully but with alarm.
I smiled at her, unsure of her reaction, and said I had been there twice and was organizing a group to go again. “Want to come?” I asked.
She turned away from me to get … something from a shelf.
“No!” she said.
This is where I am learning new habits. I seize these chances now, thinking that the work this book will do is going to happen not in some big conference setting or formal talk, but in moments such as these.
I said it gently. Something was going on with her and I didn’t want to frighten her off.
She turned back toward me but stayed busy with whatever she had in her hands.
“I’m scared,” she said.
I had only seconds to make a decision and I was already talking while my mind reminded me I am supposed to be developing my thoughts about audience and marketing.
“But it’s a beautiful country!” I began, like an over-enthusiastic cruise director. She was in no mood to go along.
“Wait,” I said, changing my tone. “Why are you scared?”
She came close enough to confide.
“I’ve read about the history,” she said and then, “and I guess I’ve seen too many movies about the guys going over there and coming back with so many problems.”
In the seconds of silence that followed I remembered the way Michael Herr ends Dispatches: “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam. We’ve all been there.”
This place that all of us have been – in body, in family, in memory, in imagination, in movies – does not physically exist today, but fear keeps it alive. It is the monster under the bed and we don’t know how to outgrow it. A fear like hers is not rational but it is not trivial either and she is not alone. I have heard people my age who have never traveled to Vietnam say, “I don’t want to go back there.”
“Tell you what,” I said in my follow-me-I’m-going-to-get-us-out-of-here voice. “You help me get over my fear of oral surgery and I will help you get over your fear of Vietnam.”
She looked unconvinced.
“You don’t have to actually go there,” I said.
One step at a time.
“I can read your book,” she said, satisfied.
Mark has his own audience – the men he served with, his family and friends, other servicemen who will recognize his tales of the 1st Air Cav, and more. This woman and all the others like her are my audience.