Inspired by a Living Writer

Leah Feldman

I started reading Richard Rodriguez’s work about two weeks ago, just a few of his essays from his most recent publication entitled “Darling; A Spiritual Autobiography.” My first reaction was that the book was mistitled; it was neither an autobiography in any real sense, nor was it particularly spiritual. It did reflect aspects of the author’s own life and experience and did explore some aspects of spirituality, but I was generally confused by it. The writing itself – the diction used in each essay and the topics they covered – was spellbinding, mostly because of the amount of Rodriguez’s personality you can get from the work.

I knew he was an interesting guy, even before meeting him. He is a journalist, sort of, but now considers himself more a “public intellectual.” He worked as an international journalist for many years for Harper’s Magazine and a few other publications and an educational consultant, among other sort of vague titles. He’s a religious activist (Roman Catholic) as well as an openly gay and from a very conservative Mexican family. His book referenced all of these aspects of his life: his experience with loss during the AIDS epidemic, his relationship with the Catholic Church and his distance from his roots.

The book, as I learned while he lectured to my class on Thursday, is a 10-year reaction to 9/11. He is interested in the fact that, as an article in the Los Angeles Times says, “The action of the terrorists was a human action, conceived in error – a benighted act. And yet I worship the same God as they, so I stand in some relation to those men.” For him, this is a key point: that the Christian, Jewish and Muslim God (“the desert God,” he calls it) is one and the same. If “The Muslim claims Abraham as father, as does the Jew, as do I,” then we are all siblings under the skin.

So, yes, both he and his book are very interesting and it is obvious that he is quite successful. What was really striking about all of this, however, was being able to hear him defend his ideas and explain himself to us in person. He is articulate and he is able to talk about his work and writing in a way I had never before experienced. The Richard Rodriguez that stood before me was the man whose voice I heard when reading his work. As a student in the Living Writers course, it may seem strange that his visit would stick out to me in particular, as writers come to speak about the works they had written every week. But, with Zadie Smith, Peter Carey or Kay Ryan, I felt like I was meeting a regular person, flesh and blood, who was merely associated with their work. They were PR agents for their books, people who knew their work quite well and could answer questions about where it came from or what it meant, but they were not the voices in my head as I read. Rodriguez was. He was the living, breathing presentation of his concepts and he could give them life and voice in a way which simply astounded me. I could have listened to this man talk forever.

When I am reading prose or poetry, or even listening to people speak, every once in a while I will read or hear something that I have known all along, but have been unable to articulate myself. This is what writers do, I think; they put words and meaning to moments in life that normal people – lay people – cannot express on their own. I know that poetry does this.

Fiction, too. Unfortunately, this experience is less frequent when engaged in conversation or listening to a lecture. Listening to Rodriguez, however, I felt this way about almost everything he said. He seemed to be a Writer with a capital “W;” someone capable of speaking eight words in twenty seconds with a particularity and enlightenment that I could not imitate even if given two weeks. Everything he said could have been – SHOULD have been! –  crafted weeks before he said it, but there he was, just spewing out this solid gold, far faster than I could hope to write any of it down.

I left the lecture feeling like my soul was on fire – that I had met someone that could change everything, simply because he was so alive and correct and meaningful. I very much encourage you to read some of his work.

He’s a cancer survivor, too, and I shudder to think what would’ve become of me if he had gone before I had met him.

Contact Leah Feldman at [email protected]