I was at the Sacramento airport one bleak winter morning trudging up the escalator managing several scraps of paper in my two hands (ticket, baggage tag, ID to name a few) while balancing my roller-board with my elbow on the moving surface.
I am not a morning person from any angle and I always find early morning flights depressing, more so if they are preceded by long commutes in shuttles and long waits in the dark when you inevitably turn out the first passenger to be picked up by a van at 4 am.
So needless to say, I was yet to appreciate the beauty of the morning.
But today, a strange surprise was waiting for me at the long security queue at the end of the escalator.
An elderly man in a full-sleeved shirt and gray trousers was weaving his way around the queue smiling at the children, exchanging pleasantries with people who would. This was not that unusual. I’ve often seen such cheerful people even at such time of day.
But one moment he was talking and another moment this nice, elderly gentleman had broken into song. A very sudden song.
A very loud song.
He had a rumbling voice rather out of place amongst the TSA announcements on the loudspeakers and the clicks of people’s shoes and laptops and belts hitting the conveyor belts and the stern but polite voices of the security personnel.
It was a song about waking up every morning and keeping yourself going. About smiling everyday. And something else about sunshine.
When we finally recovered from our stunned silence and the song ended, he told us that he was a motivational speaker, waiting for a different flight. He had no further motive behind getting into songbird mode than motivating us.
I am usually rather sceptical about songs which have the words smiles and early mornings and sunshine and new days in them.
But today, he somehow made me feel different. A little better about things.
Since that day, whenever I see motivational writing anywhere, I think of that man.
For example, the other day, a piece by a celebrated self-help writer jumped out at me linked from no less than the New York Times. The topic was loneliness.
It was a piece as such pieces usually are. Mellifluous writing that moved like a soft feather over your mind soothing you down, the flute-like tone calming the thinking parts of the brain, giving you hope out of some deep part of yourself but little in the way of concrete instructions that you might remember.
Why then did I read it?
Why then do I click on a dozen such other pieces?
More importantly, can I pull off some such piece of writing myself? Can I give people hope?
Hope for the future, the idea that the individual matters, that solutions can be found within oneself without locking horns with things one is powerless about, that negativity from others don’t matter–some common themes that shouldn’t be too hard to pull off. Right?
Escapism. Very hard to pull off, as a matter of fact.
Is that why there is so little hope and so much of inward turning despair in current literary writing? Or is it really true that the world is much worse off than it ever was before?
A lot of high-quality literary pieces I read these days are very depressing. It’s almost a given.
It almost makes you think that hope equals frivolousness. That hope equals pandering to crass populism.
And yet there was Oliver Twist. There was Jane Eyre.
Is there some deadlock between literary merit and hope that they have to be inversely proportional in books nowadays? I mean in books of high literary merit. Not our Harry Potter’s of the world. [insert smiley face here].
Few of us will ever become completely motivational speakers or writers.
But the current scope and tone of literary books does make one wonder whether elements of hopeful writing (such as unequivocally happy endings or miraculously good characters) are incompatible with the tenets of good writing of the current literary canon.