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How to Lose Friends and Influence People


It's been just about a half-year now since I started this little essay-writing hobby. It grew out of a request from the editor of an English-language weekly newspaper here in Tokyo, who had seen some of the newsletters I had been sending to collectors of my woodblock prints, and who thought that one of the stories from that newsletter would be suitable for her publication. I was pleased by the request, and happy to edit the story to the proper length and style she requested. After it appeared, she suggested that if I wished to contribute more, she would consider them for potential publication. I did, and she started to use them, one every couple of months.

When I asked her about the themes and topics she wanted to see, her reply surprised me a bit; "Anything you want to write about," she said. Although this was a bit disconcerting at first, to be faced not only with a blank word processor screen, but with no hint at all about what to put on it, I soon got used to the idea, and have been enjoying myself tremendously, creating these little pieces. One reason for this was that during the previous few years, I had 'lost' my hobby, and had buried myself perhaps a bit too deeply in my work. Back when I was a 'salaryman' in Canada, my hobby had been woodblock printmaking, but that had now become my job, and I had done nothing to replace it ... So I was quite ready to spend time on something totally unrelated to printmaking, and indeed, very few of the essays have been in any way related to that topic.

There is another reason why I have taken so well to this writing, although it feels a bit funny to verbalize it now. For a couple of years prior to this, I had been living pretty much alone. Of course, I physically live here with my two daughters, and we get along very well together, with lots of contact and communication, but I undeniably feel a lack of 'intelligent' adult companionship. The printmaking work, being a manual craft, is hardly the sort of thing to overly tax one's mind, and I suppose that this is why I expanded the work to include things like the newsletter - to add an intellectual dimension to the job. But during the day, and into the long quiet evenings, as I sit there at my benches, carving and printing, my mind is pretty much free to roam.

And roam it does. Although I spend a good deal of the time with the stereo system turned on, listening to radio programs or to various types of music, it still insists on wandering away. Sometimes I wish I were back programming computers again, so it would be forced to behave itself and stay 'at home'. Where does it go, you ask? Well, that's the problem, and that's why I'm glad to be involved with this essay hobby, in order to give it something sensible to focus on. Because more and more, I had been finding myself falling into the 'Walter Mitty' habit.

Have you ever read the 'Secret Life of Walter Mitty', that short story by James Thurber? I remember first encountering it back in high school. Walter Mitty is a little nondescript man, who escapes from his humdrum daily life every chance he gets, by retreating into imaginary situations. As he stands outside a shop, for example, waiting for his wife to come out, the scene is transformed in his mind into a hero standing against a wall, facing a firing squad ... Every activity in his mundane life becomes, in his mind, a heroic situation. Every moment that his brain is not actually engaged in overt activity, he slips away into this private world.

Now whether it is influence from Thurber's story, or as I suspect is more likely, that everybody does this sort of thing sometimes, I had been emulating Mr. Mitty during my carving hours somewhat more than I'd care to admit. But since I took up essay writing, I am pleased to report that I now spend a lot less time in front of firing squads, and a lot more time in a rather more productive (and certainly less embarrassing) form of activity - thinking!

As much fun as the essay writing has turned out to be, one thing that has surprised me is that there is a dangerous side to it. Of course, I don't mean physically dangerous, things like eye-strain from the computer screen, or wrist problems from overuse of the keyboard, but rather, dangerous to my relationships with friends and acquaintances. It comes from the fact that my essays are mostly of a 'familiar' type, making their point (where there is a point to be made ... that is!) from an episode or happenstance from my own experience. Or sometimes, from the experiences of those people near to me.

Now I'm sure it didn't bother him overly at first to see the phrase 'my friend Terry ...' in an essay of mine, but my friend Terry must have started to have misgivings after it started to crop up more often. He must have started to think, "This guy isn't interested in me, but only in ideas for his essays. I'd better be careful what I say, of he'll write about it and tell everybody ..." No friendship can long survive such a situation. The problem is perhaps even more marked in the case of female friends, and one budding relationship was nearly destroyed recently, when the lady found out what I was doing with my time. It is obviously a slippery, and very steep slope - this business of using personal friends' experiences as source material for writing. At first, I hadn't been concerned about this at all; I just simply assumed that friends would share my willingness to be 'open' about personal things, in the interests of communication and discussion about human problems, but now that I've become more aware of their feelings on this, I'll watch my step much more carefully. (Do you hear me, S-san? This is the first and last time you will ever appear in one of these pieces ... I promise!)

Will my essays now become less interesting, without this source of input? Perhaps. But I'm not worrying too much about that just yet. My memo listing of topics waiting to be covered has more than a hundred items on it at the moment, and it's still growing faster than I can chew away at it! It's not that I've lived for 43 years, and will now spend the next 43 writing about these experiences, but that the two activities, living and writing, will now proceed together hand-in-hand.

So relax, Terry. Although your name may still appear from time to time in these pages, it will only be there in connection with a 'point of departure', a start to a chain of thinking. The 'private' thoughts that will be exposed will be mine alone. Now let's see ... where did I leave that old overcoat ...?