A conversation I had today with a friend about a significant failure in a business venture:
She: I tried and I so blew it.
Me: But at least you went for it. You tried.
She: Yeah, but it was Way above my level. Stupid to spend so much time on it.
Me: Well, you should try novel writing sometime. Spend months in the writing and they don’t want it.
She: So is it worth it, then?
Me: (Long silence.) I’m not always sure. But if you don’t try, what do you get? If you step back, you’re out of the rapids, sure. You’re safe. There are two ways to be a published writer: On the shore of the river, skipping stones, half-hearted, playing it safe. Or on the raft with the screamers heading down the rapids. It’s tough, scary, and exhilarating if it doesn’t kill you. We get to decide whether we’re all in or just tentatively in. Tentatively means you never reach for more than you think you can do. All in beats you up, dumps your gear in the water, thrashes your tail bone, and shows you the river.
She: Are we still talking about me?
This topic must have been on my mind in my last novel, Queen of the Deep. Here, near the climactic scene is an exchange between the major character, Jane, and a shadowy mentor figure whose apparent job shipboard is as director of activities:
And then, a hook-nosed man beside a litter. Marcello di Silvio. The Master of Games. He stood outside his palanquin, leaning on his staff, looking bewildered by all the merriment going on without his help.
She rushed up to him. “Master di Silvio!”
“Eh?” He turned to her. “Ah, Jane!”
“Master di Silvio, help me to save the ship!”
“Ah, the ship. But my dear, I cannot. An excellent suggestion, but alack, ’tis not my job.”
“What is your job?!”
“Well, ’tis plain.” He spread his hands wide. “To entice people into the game. To get a full table at whist.” His bearers were watching the celebrations, cutting sideways glances at di Silvio, perhaps wondering why they were still working when others were not. He focused on Jane with a quick, dark glance. “You, in your old life, were sitting things out.”
That was plain stupid. “I was a fucking star of the stage!” Not everything was her fault.
“Mayhap, mayhap. But who knows how long you’d have lasted? Fame is fleeting, you know.” As if the very thought deflated him, he sat heavily upon the litter. At his signal, the bearers lifted it up.
She grabbed the litter curtains to keep them open, tears jamming behind her eyes. It was all coming apart. She was coming apart. “But doesn’t it count? Everything I loved? I loved the theater. I loved my roommate.”
He sighed. “Life an inch deep and a mile wide. Star of the stage? Good, a point! Loyal to your roommate? A point again! But the game itself, no not played with vigor and dash! Did you give it your all, your heart, your very life?”
“What makes you think I didn’t!”
He shrugged. “Well, since you have been dallying with the stage and with nobles when the great game was afoot, I can only cast a guess. But am I right?”
“No, goddamn it!”
“But, my dear Jane, did you give yourself with a full heart?”
There had been a long string of lovers, none of them meaning anything. Then, on the Palazzo, she had fallen for Stephano Primari. . . . the most superficial of them all.
He went on. “Did you know what you’d die for? Ah, that’s the player who’s in the game, who’ll take the rubber, slam home the match point.”
“Well, I’m in it for life or death now!”
“Yes! Well done, Jane! The very thing!”
Jane moaned, “A lot of good it’s done. Now that we’re all going to die.”
“Well, the outcome is never certain. Who would play if it was?”
He waved his clipboard at her. “Carry on, Jane.”
She ducked her head inside the litter, trying very hard not to scream at him. “Well, is it just a game then? All this suffering?”
Startled by her intensity, he held up his hands, palms out. “Of course not. Not just a game. It’s the grand game. The grand voyage.” He nodded at her. “I dealt you in. Now you must make of it what you can!”
The bearers charged forward, bearing him into the crowds as di Silvio barked, “Badminton on the All Commons! Shuffleboard at nine bells!”
Jane watched him go, horrified that she had paused. Sitting it out? Her life, broad and shallow? Well, if so, no longer.
She made her way to the grand stairs and rushed upward.