Fear & Flight—a writer’s perspective

EDIT: I wrote this post before I finished the book. I won’t do that again! Halfway through, I ran into some racist language. Yes, perhaps it’s standard for the period in which he wrote, but there’s no reason to recommend it today. Still, this piece makes some good points for writers, so I’m not going to take it down.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Many of us read his gorgeous writing as children—he wrote The Little Prince. But Wind, Sand & Stars is not a fable, it’s a 1929 memoir of his youth as an air-mail pilot, flying the mails from France to Africa, or across the sea to South America—back before radar could show you that mountain you needed to steer around, back when you had to radio an airport to flash its lights three times so you could see where to land. Not an easy job.

cover of Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars

I’ve seen several sources cite Wind, Sand and Stars as one of those must-read books for any writer, and not even a quarter of the way through it, I have to agree. Here he’s talking about the reactions when his colleague Mermoz radioed that he was cutting off an engine. Ten minutes went by with no contact:

“It would be ridiculous to worry over someone ten minutes late in our day-to-day existence, but in the air-mail service ten minutes can be pregnant with meaning. At the heart of this dead slice of time an unknown event is locked up. Insignificant, it may be; a mishap, possibly: whatever it is, the event has taken place. Fate has pronounced a decision from which there is no appeal. An iron hand has guided a crew into a sea-landing that may have been safe and may have been disastrous. And long hours must go by before the decision of the gods is made known to those who wait.”

English translation by Lewis Galantière

Before this passage, Saint-Exupéry treated us to detailed descriptions of the many times Mermoz had escaped certain death: he’d been captured and held for ransom by an African tribe; forced down in the Atlantic and rescued by a passing freighter; stranded for two days on a 12,000-foot high mesa in the Andes. Surely this would turn into another of those triumphant stories.

“But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the fields to sleep.”

How can a few dozen words make you care so much about someone you’ve never met? But I feel the loss of Mermoz, don’t you?

And actually, it’s Mermoz more than Saint-Exupéry who inspired me to write today. He braved the skies and risked his life every day. On more than one occasion, he came close to death—yet he continued to fly until death overtook him. He flew because he loved it.

Fear & writing

Mermoz’s story reminded me of Agnes, a woman I worked with for a bit. Faced with an unplanned career transition, she decided she wanted to be a writer. Yet she didn’t write.

I suggested that she enroll in my writing class, but she believed she couldn’t afford it. Instead, she opted for a program that offered analyses of great pieces of writing—more an intellectual how-to than a hands-on DO IT. And even though she received a writing prompt every other week through that program, she never posted any work. Strange for someone who claims to want to write professionally, eh?

When we talked, she rationalized all the busy-ness of her life that prevented her from sitting down to write. Yet she continued to say she wanted to be a writer. Who was going to win that battle—Agnes or her fear? So I made her an offer: she should take two weeks to write something—anything—and show it to me and I would give her a free coaching session to discuss it.

Ten days later she told me she couldn’t do it. Agnes, like Mermoz, was lost.

The difference that is by facing his fears, Mermoz was able to pursue his passion. Agnes succumbed to her fear without even trying. The other difference, of course, is that writing is a much safer endeavor than flying a 1920s-era airplane. Paper cuts and maybe carpal tunnel are pretty much the worst you can do—and neither of those will force you down in the South Atlantic.

Mermoz died doing what he loved; Agnes wouldn’t even allow herself to try.

Which one are you?