August 24, 2016
In the New York Times on August 18, 2016, there appeared an article entitled “Luck Unites a Couple for a Lifetime of Great Collaborations” about Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. The two men, who met and fell in love while they were in law school, co-authored more than two dozen books during their forty year partnership (among them, biographies of Jackson Pollock and Vincent Van Gogh). Over the last twenty-five years, they together restored Joye Cottage, a huge landmark estate in Aiken Georgia. What made their work and this restoration financially possible (the Pollack biography took them ten years; they received a $22,500 advance for it) was the financial success of their joint publications Best Lawyers and Best Doctors.
As anyone reading this blog over time knows, I believe that learning how “real” writers work helps us do our own work. And, for me, this article is no exception.
What struck me is that in 1974, the year they met, Smith was diagnosed with hemangiopericytoma, a “rare and . . . deadly” brain tumor. Over years of treatment, he lived through “13 brain surgeries, kidney and facial surgeries, radiation, nuclear treatments and constant pain,” and died only recently in 2014, many years after his original diagnosis, many years after his expected life expentancy. Through all this time, except when severely incapacitated, he worked. And he wrote about patients like himself who lived with excruciatingly difficult illnesses in his book Making Miracles Happen.
Accompanying the article is a photo of a sitting room in which Smith worked. Nafieh described how much time Smith spent over the course of five years sitting on the white sofa in that room reading Van Gogh’s letters in preparation for writing the biography.
The final words Smith spoke to his partner before he died were “What’s next?” It is the same question Smith asked Nafieh throughout their partnership, the question whose answer propelled him from one accomplishment to another. Nafieh believes, one reason Smith lived so long and so well was that he was continually embarking upon projects that would take many, many years to complete, as if his beginning a huge endeavor would ensure that he would survive its completion.
In this period of unrelenting illness that I myself am living through, I will think of Smith sitting on that sofa reading Van Gogh’s letters, knowing that it will take years for the two of them to complete this next, enormous project, knowing that during that time, there will surely be serious medical matters to attend to. And I like to imagine that immersing himself in his work helped him immeasurably, as all work well done helps us.
How many of us can say that we would carry on despite such enormous difficulties? And yet, it is perhaps within our capacity (baring, of course, incapacitating illness) to do so. I do know that I have spent many an hour stuck in bed feeling quite sorry for myself and yet when I have propelled myself out of bed into my study to work on a project, I’ve forgotten, for those precious minutes, what I myself am enduring, Still, Smith’s words, “What’s next?” can become our mantra, too, urging us to move to our own couches or desks or kitchen tables to read whatever we must to complete whatever enormous project we have decided to undertake, no matter what else is going on in our lives.