Notes for an Unfinished Essay on Tenacity

by Chaim Bertman 
Call me Hamlet, but this is the thing: I was always bored. “Mom, there’s nothing to do.” Our house was so boring. It was boring outside. There was no one to play with. I didn’t want to play with my toys. Why do I bring this up? I am still the child that I was. Only now, I’m a writer. I put one word in front of another. I try not to let my characters get bored. (I’m still wondering what there is for them to do.) I’ve always had a hunch that the secret of tenacity was a riddle: “Do what you do.” This might even be a cure for that dismal boredom. But what if doing so led one into a thick woods, where it’s impossible to tell tenacity from imbalance? Look through this little window, until you see the portrait of a writer: Typically hunched over a desk, scribbling for hours, and at the same time, unable to write a single decent sentence.

Does anybody really know the face of tenacity? A short story: Harry Keshufi spent the last twenty years marinating in a pessimistic stupor. (Don’t ask him how he’s been, don’t ask to read his poetry.) Twenty years older, wearing those same pants, and he’s almost ready to scribble his masterpiece. Could this be the face of tenacity? (A handshake soft, without bone, as dirty as his underwear.)

Their culture is very different than ours. They drink tenacity with their mothers’ milk: “Good son sits under the kitchen table and must beg for his food. Good son finds it hard to separate family madness from our ancient traditions.”

I used to think there was nothing as beautiful as this postcard I found in the garbage of the sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, in his studio in Paris. He had the heavy mug of a man who found himself in a thick woods because he did what he did. Only a cat choking on a hairball looks like it knows as much as Alberto Giacometti, and sailors as their boats go down.

The most chilling hauntings hover over willful children, at night, when they have lost their will. For telling lies, for telling the truth, almost equally is the willful child punished. But is not television a cure for their horrible tenacity?

From a very early age, George had a powerful nose. He sniffed out all of the blemishes the rest of us were hiding. But it bothered him, especially at night, that he didn’t know how he himself smelled to other people. He began to tell the kind of lies that have no practical purpose, but to cover the hideous smell of, gasp, mediocrity. So, he stretched the truth and bragged; but with every word he uttered, everybody asked, “Why is he so obvious?” The moral of the story? I saw him again last night on television. My god, my god, he’s finally found his medium.

Because I never quite believed enough that if I slowly, surely, dragged my brain across this naked, unformed stuff it might take shape, I rarely did; and so, it hardly has a name, but lungfish, rotten, dwarven, rough, this wild muscle in my chest. These are the things I had to admit before the pearly gates. I never liked the word tenacity. I always thought the real thing was brains and luck.

I remember reading somewhere about a Tibetan monk, a thousand years ago, who went to India to learn to meditate. After twenty years of silent meditation, he went to his teacher, who told him he wasn’t doing it right. I remember the girl living upstairs from me at the time, she’d taken a course in meditation at City College. I tried telling her about the monk, but she thought I was full of shit too. She wouldn’t even let me finish the story. When I left, I felt ashamed of my intensity, my obsession, my tenacity. We were monsters, this monk and I.

Include biographical sketch: Palissy, Bernard (1510-1589) French potter. At 29, was shown white enameled cup. Big deal. But it so astonished him, determined to discover secrets of manufacture, quote, “like a man who gropes in the dark.” Nearly 16 years, laboured, through utter (interesting) failures. He and family reduced to poverty. Burned furniture, even floorboards of house, to feed kiln. Autobiography much worth reading: details, examples. (Van Gogh’s ear, big deal.) Historians surmise, what he’d seen was common Chinese porcelain. Tragedy: soon to hit Europe, valuable as dish water. Point: his tenacity paid off, however, through many serendipitous discoveries, not only in pottery, but in natural sciences: springs, underground waters; also, first to enunciate the correct theory of fossils; fame at French court, favorite of Catherine de’ Medici, until fanatical outburst of 1588 – condemned to death, nearly 80, died in a dungeon of the Bastille – and posterity: for centuries, France flooded with “Palissys,” rude copies of his ceramic masterpieces. Moral of the story? Palissy threw only his furniture and floorboards into kiln, while writer consumes everything she is, her secrets, her pleasures and demons, her family, her sincerity, her ignorance, her wonder, the few things she knows.

Personal anecdote. I knew the name of my first novel before I knew what it was about. It was to be called The Stand-Up Tragedian, and I was having a terrible time trying to write it. I had written about twenty pages of it, when my imagination went dead. Those earliest pages eventually went into my filing cabinet: subject heading, 1999; sub-heading, Excess. I’ve never been able to look back at them since. But I remember the basic idea. A young man gets a job at a bookstore. A woman comes into the bookstore. She says something cryptic. They fall in love. I would figure the rest out later. After about fifteen days of typing these stillborn lovers, I had a dream: My car broke down, and didn’t have the power to go uphill on the hills of San Francisco; and so I took a rope out of the trunk, and pulled the car uphill. But then I found it didn’t have the strength to go downhill, either; and I became famous in the city: The man who pulls his car around town.

I walk across town to the place where my father worked when I was a boy. They’ve kept his office locked all this time. On the dusty floor, in a box of old books, I find some unpublished pages by Isaac Bashevis Singer. A hundred stories, each numbered according to the author’s age. In the story called “One,” he writes about being one; about being a hundred in “One Hundred.” Without looking to see which year it is, I take one of the stories and sit down to transpose it into my own fiction. Soon, my bones begin to ache. I’m not sure what year I’ve got, but it seems terribly old; and I find it hard to be happy as the decades fall away from me. This man whose life I am writing, I decide, must find a way to make himself young again – at every age. And I meditate with all my might upon that which is bothering me: the residue of my intentions, good and bad; and at last, I see that I’ve had another soul within me, attached to me. As a tapeworm eats one’s food, this dybbuk eats my spiritual nourishment. And so, with all my stuff, I write a story of the dybbuk – and in writing it out, I remove this weight upon my soul; and in my seventieth year, I write a comedy; and in my eightieth year, a love poem. But then I see that I haven’t written these things at all: I’ve merely copied out the works of another person – changed a few sentences, a few names. Funny. All along I’d wanted to be an inventor, that is, a magician, instead of a humble translator.


1972, Leonard Cohen has written a book called The Energy of Slaves. His poetry here typifies energy of both historical and personal underdog. Born old and bitter, tenacity of withered fingers that clutch, etc. 1973, tries out for lead role in Kung Fu. Ultimately rejected. Moral of the story? Just be yourself. (Amateur phrenology: At the age of 67, his heavy mug has come to resemble Gertrude Stein.)

Cultivating tenacity: Find place that is yours: library, tree, Greyhound bus. Ask what it is you want to do. Wait for the answer to come in a divine voice. Clutch it with your nasty fingers. Breathe. Be (alone). Simplify. Push. Then relax your hands, stretch, let go. Open your eyes. Count gray hairs. See difference between tenacity and chutzpah. Stop pushing. Simplify for real this time. Be (together). Breathe (gently). Ask what it is you haven’t done. Laugh. Die.

Some final thoughts on tenacity: Balzac, supposedly, finished writing one novel, had a sandwich, and immediately began writing another. But he loved that sandwich, he cherished it. Likewise, as a young man, George Bernard Shaw wrote five novels, threw them (supposedly) into the ocean, then began writing important plays even into his nineties. Question: Was Ireland’s greatest playwright really such a drama queen? Question (nagging): Other than material gain or spiritual development, what is the reward of tenacity? Answer (bitter, tentative): Some kind of a crown or laurel wreath. (End essay on note of optimism?) Answer (hopeful, tentative): Being able to do what you do, having done what you did.

Chaim Bertman’s short stories and essays have previously appeared inComet, 6500, Quanta, Tikkun, The Literary Review and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. His first novel, The Stand-Up Tragedian, was published in 2001. He is currently working on his second.
back to top