What I lack that the poets and novelists have, the really good ones, is not finally sight or insight, talent or memory—things you’re either born with or you’re not. What I lack is courage: the fortitude to look things in the face and tell the hardest truths—about yourself, about life. Think of Joan Didion, sending her dispatches from the shores of death. “The mind is full of what it doesn’t want to know,” wrote the critic Michael Wood in an essay on a book about Proust. For most of us, our psychic equilibrium depends on not letting in the kinds of recognitions that the writers make a dreadful daily business of pursuing.
I cannot blame myself for not having talent, but courage is another matter. We like to throw around the word “heroes” these days, almost always in connection with people in uniform. But putting your body at risk, in the company of comrades, for a cause you believe in, is something very different from risking your soul, alone in your mind, by daring to discover things about yourself that cannot be forgotten or forgiven. Yet what a gift to others, if you make it back intact. The people who do that—those are my heroes.