When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart. (From “Seymour: An Introduction”)
Today, J.D. Salinger died. Was he busy writing his heart out? One can only assume that yes, he was. Even if the pen was set down and the body was still, he was writing, writing, writing. Much like Franny’s Jesus Prayer, after a time, you are praying without ceasing. Writing becomes an unconscious act, like a heartbeat, internalized in our very being. Salinger may have withdrawn from public life and ceased publishing, but as the accounts go, he never stopped writing. He called publication “a damned interruption.” For him, writing was holy. A prayer to be uttered without ceasing. It was so holy, in fact, that he built his own monastery and shut himself inside.
I forget exactly how I became such a huge fan of Salinger’s work, but I know it wasn’t due to “The Catcher in the Rye,” which has had to grow on me over the years. Rather, it was his short stories, especially the works about the Glass family. What J.D. Salinger did so well was create compelling characters — flawed, complex, at times annoying, but always mesmerizing. It was as if they spoke in their own voice, not a voice an author assigned to them — that is how real they are. They pop off the page. I’ve read “Franny and Zooey” so many times and have such clear pictures of those two main characters in my mind, I could swear up and down I’ve seen them in a movie, or shared an Upper East Side walk-up with them for a year.
In truth, I’m grateful to Salinger for creating not just characters, but people. In the people he introduced to us, and that we got to know, so many readers found sides of themselves. Whether it was Franny’s religious crisis, Holden’s struggle to understand why people were the way they were or Buddy’s insecurity as a writer, I know I did. As Lee Anne said, he wrote “in a way that made sense and [told] stories that people are still afraid to tell, but can almost always relate to.” What Salinger did was write them them real — perhaps outlandishly so, but real nonetheless. And being real is scary. Salinger, thankfully, was unafraid.
In the same letter, Seymour offered Buddy this advice:
Give me a story that just makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.
Tonight, all of Salinger’s stars are out. And we are standing vigil.