ON a late afternoon subway ride, where even wisdom has a right to bloom, I heard a man say he was the oldest man in the world. A lie, of course. He was dewy eyed in his mid-20s. The subway was crowded - packed, in fact - and he was morose over the heaviness of his day. We were standing so close he was talking near my ear to a friend, equally young. ``I should have been a writer,'' he said. Instantly I guffawed followed by industrial-strength embarrassment. This agile young squirt was apparently equating a writer's life to one of ease. If only he were a writer, he seemed to suggest, then daily burdens and any conflicts would either be lighter, or worse - nonexistent. Or he just wanted all the easy money writers earn.
He turned and scowled at me. I wished for a fairy godmother to arrange my disappearance. Despite my embarrassment, I couldn't help thinking suddenly of the little town of Bergen-Enkheim near Frankfurt, West Germany. Each year this town selects a Stadtschreiber or ``town writer'' to be part of the community. The writer is given a monthly payment and a house to live in for a year.
What the town says it wants is an accessible writer, one who is social, talkative, and filled with uncommon insights about the common. Talk to us, don't write too much. The town would like new meanings shared and ideas revealed that break the back of dullness. Isn't this what a full-time writer is for?
But it hasn't worked that way in Bergen-Enkeim.
What the town gets is a chance to see the Stadtschrieber now and then, like a new fire engine adding security and stature to the community. Since the first Stadtschreiber was selected in 1974, all the writers except one have taken the money, stayed at home, and made token appearances in the town. The town doesn't really mind. The point is to encourage a specific writer, regardless of eccentricities like wanting to write in a familiar place. Reluctantly, the town endorses the writer unequivocally like a priest.
My guess is that the young man on the subway didn't know it, but he wanted to be like the Bergen-Enkeim perception of a Stadschreiber. This is the mythical pure-artist concept, the rumpled and lovable writer who is separate from others and who doesn't sweat, rewrite, or can't be imagined ever saying anything as mundane as, ``Please pass the salt.''
The novelist Lawrence Durrell debunks the old myth when he writes, ``It doesn't really matter whether you're first rate, second rate, or third rate, but it's of vital importance that the water finds its own level and that you do the very best you can with the powers you are given. It's idle to strive for things out of your reach, just as it's utterly immoral to be slothful about qualities you have. You see, I'm not fundamentally interested in the artist. I use him to try to become a happy man, which is a good deal harder for me. I find art easy. I find life difficult.''
Writing is cheap, too; a pencil and paper, your thoughts in words. The Mass Observation Archive in England has capitalized on this wonderful cheapness. Since 1937 the archive has been collecting the personal observations and reflections of ordinary people.
The project was started by people who did not believe that the press accurately portrayed how people lived and what they believed. Says the archivist of the collection today, ``We challenge the notion that you have to be a professional to be an acute observer of life.''
The truth is that writing is rebellion against the notion that you can't know yourself. There are all kinds of writers, all of whom learn that the fundamental benefit of writing over a period of time is that it ought to reveal one to one's self: The engagement is a sort of anthropology of self right before your eyes.
Any other alleged benefit, from stacks of money to fame to certain kinds of power, are small, transitory bonuses. The point is rebellion.