When he was a young boy in Pennsylvania novelist James Michener once watched a neighbor driving rusty nails into the trunk of an old apple tree that had pretty much quit producing. When he asked why he was doing it the man told him the tree had forgotten its purpose. Those nails, he said, would hopefully give it enough of a jolt to remind it to get on with its job.
Almost 80 years later Michener found himself down and very nearly out, physically and emotionally. His beloved wife Mari had just died, his own lifelong robust health was deteriorating, and he was spending a good bit of his time attending the funerals of old friends. Figuring he was done, he stopped writing.
Then he remembered that apple tree and those rusty nails, and how the tree produced huge, honey-sweet, bright red fruit the next season.
So he gave himself a swift, though metaphorical, kick in the seat of his pants, and dusted off the old manual typewriter that had rolled out so many fine novels. “The job of an apple tree is to bear apples,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The job of a storyteller is to tell stories, and I concentrated on that obligation.” So he finished the novel he’d abandoned, and then wrote several more books before he died.
Michener’s spunky determination to get on with life, to “keep on keeping on”, is a fine example of what the human spirit is capable of. Since he’d once been an English teacher, I’ll bet he was well acquainted with this snippet from Lord Byron: “The heart will break, but broken, will live on.”
Of course, it’s far too simplistic to suggest that all anybody has to do to overcome grief, illness, or heartbreak is stab in a few imaginary nails and adopt a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” philosophy. If that were the case a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists would have to hock their couches and find new lines of work.
But the notion was enough to remind at least one writer, James Michener, that a writer ought to keep writing, like a tree bearing fruit until the very end of the season.