Issue Twenty-Seven - Winter 2016

To Do Is To Be

By Jeremiah O’Hagan

If I have any advice, it’s to never write an intro like this at New Years.

First, intros are predisposed to summarize.

Second, New Years is downright freighted with reflections and expectations and resolutions and dejections and yearnings and lessons and dreams and hopes and failures and sins and second chances and the need to somehow box up all this, label it “last year,” and forge madly ahead.

When I agreed to co-edit SHARK REEF prose submissions, it was going to be for one issue. Three years have passed, and I am sitting in my office at the newspaper, writing a seventh intro and wondering, frankly, why I’m still doing this.

When I began, I was fresh with an MFA and lots of time on my hands. I was stuffed with ideals and opinions, and I was giddy, frankly, at the thought of accepting work rather than waiting for mine to be accepted. I would be, as David Wagoner refers to editors, an “arbiter of taste.”

I sat in my apartment that first time and labored over every one of the 60-odd submissions, writing notes and keeping track of the ones I liked, abhorred or could handle. It was serious business, selecting.

Now. Well. I work two jobs — teaching at an alternative high school and writing for a newspaper — and I have a son who is 2. My ideals have become muscle memory. This journal is still serious business, but I cannot tell you why. I simply feel it. So, bear with me while I try to figure it out.

Remember Looking For Alaska by John Green? Miles (Pudge), the main guy, collects the last words of dying people throughout history. The book hinges on two final quotations: “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” by Simon Bolivar, and “I go to seek a Great Perhaps” by Francois Rabelais.

I do not collect people’s last words. I collect authors’ reasons for writing. Some I like:

• “I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them in the air like confetti and then running under them.” — Ray Bradbury

• “That is the job of a journalist, to upset your morning.”— Stanley Greene

• “Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance.” — Richard Hugo

• “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” — James Salter

• “As to why I write, the gist is this: One day I am going to die.” — Amy Tan

I heard Amy Tan a few years ago in Seattle by accident. I was supposed to hear Joan Didion, on whom I have a ferocious literary crush, but Didion didn’t make it and Amy Tan filled her spot.

I will only speak for myself, but I think Didion was gorgeous when she was young. Even at 80-odd years old, she is stately. She has grace. More gorgeous are her strings of words. Her latest book, Blue Nights (2011), was sharp. The title of one of her definitive nonfiction collections is itself a reason for writing: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

Just before Christmas break, I read “Goodbye to All That” with my students. I first read it when I was 28, and wished I’d read it sooner. I figured I’d give them Didion when they are young. She writes, “… one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

She also writes that because she only intended to stay in New York for a six-month internship, so leaving was always just around the corner, life felt suspended. Unreal. “I could make promises to myself and to other people and there would be all the time in the world to keep them. I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none of them would count,” she writes.

I like Didion set against Tan. There is not all the time in the world. We will die. And that gives us the desperate insensibility to believe that our experiences are unique, and brand new, and so we write them. As record and witness and preservation and warnings and prophecies. We write in order to live because if we don’t capture it, it’s a dream.

We write to be real. To get out of the labyrinth. To seek the Great Perhaps, or pin down something that isn’t a perhaps.

Tacked above my coworker’s desk at the newspaper is a quotation: “To do is to be.” I don’t know who said it, but I like it. We write to be writers. We witness to be witnesses. We preserve to be preserved.

Editor Lorna Reese and I picked nine pieces for this issue of Shark Reef. Poetry co-editors Gayle Kaune and Richard Widerkehr selected eight poems. We chose pieces that made us feel real.

That is why I still do this. To feel alive in words. Steeped in other people’s truths. To live as much as possible before I’m gone.

One thing of note in this issue: It features art by the editors. You will see our other work, the things we do without words. But, look. See that we are still telling stories. We tell stories to be storytellers.

I want to be a storyteller. That is why I’m here.

Copyright O’Hagan 2016