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I just finished Nathanael West's novel about Hollywood in the 1930's, The Day of the Locust. It's a remarkable book, full of brilliant descriptions, (the protagonist's walk to the battle of Waterloo through the sets on the backlots) and memorable grotesques (A wooden cowboy, a belligerent dwarf). The novel ends rather abruptly and unexpectedly, without tying up all the loose ends. Which is not to say it is unrealistic. Life is like that. Nathanael West died at the age of forty, in an automobile accident while on the way back from a vacation to attend F. Scott Fitzgerald's funeral.

What else would he have written if he had lived? For that matter, how much more would Fitzgerald have produced if he hadn't died prematurely at forty-four himself?

Fortunately, neither author took forever to learn his craft. The Day of the Locust was published when West was thirty-six about five years after his first novel appeared. He wasn't as quick off the mark as Fitzgerald who published This Side of Paradise at twenty-four and The Great Gatsby at twenty-nine.

That authors must serve a long apprenticeship is, I think, something those of us with a few decent ideas and a smidgeon of talent tell ourselves so as to feel better. Writers with great ideas and great talent don't need to crank out millions of words or mature for decades before they can write. They manage to learn all the techniques that are supposed to be so difficult to master by their mid-twenties or before.

Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel was published when he was twenty-nine. Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage came out when he was twenty-four. And just as well since those authors died at the ages of thirty-seven and twenty-eight respectively.

The idea that writing a book is hard, in the sense that it is a difficult task to bring off properly, is true only for writers who are less skilled. Like anything else -- from juggling to chess -- writing is easy for those who are particularly good at it and hard, or impossible, for those who are not. Which is fortunate considering the many authors who died young and would never have produced their great works if they had had to spend long apprenticeships.

As for myself, I try to keep my modest writing career in perspective. It isn't that I have achieved remarkable things, or am ever likely to pen The Great American Novel, but I take pride in having managed to succeed beyond my talent.

I do at times think it would be a fine thing to be possessed of a great talent. Most of us have proably thought that. A friend of mine used to insist that he would rather live forty years as Elvis than eighty or ninety as himself. It was all theoretical because he clearly wasn't Elvis. He wasn't even Jim Morrison, whose gestures he liked to practice in the bathroom mirror, and who died at twenty-seven. My friend never reckoned he would have preferred to be born as Morrison. Whether it was because twenty-seven, as opposed to forty, was just too young to die no matter who you were, or whether he didn't rate being Morrison as highly as being Elvis, or at what age he would have been willing to die to be Morrison, I can't say.

Unfortunately, I wasn't born with the ability to write books as well as Nathanael West but I guess I am lucky to be still be around at fifty-nine to keep trying.

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