Dodge took the television audience’s collective breath away by transforming Paul Harvey’s “God Made a Farmer” speech into a Super Bowl commercial. It was a spellbinding move.
Here is a snippet of the transcript:
God said I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt and watch it die and dry his eyes and say maybe next year. I need someone who can shape an axe handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, make a harness out of hay wire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And…who, at planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty hour week by Tuesday noon. Then, pain’n from “tractor back”, put in another seventy-two hours. So, God made a farmer.
The commercial is meant to signal something selfless about being a farmer. A servant of the land. A servant of the country, his town, and his home. It’s hard not to admire, respect, and adore such hard-working men and women.
The farmer is the unsung hero. And who better to praise him than the iconic Paul Harvey–a voice every American recognizes? A head nod toward the farmer in all of us.
Which brings me to the point of this post: there is good reason Paul Harvey didn’t declare, “and God made a writer.”
Think about it.
Writers are not the model of selfless character. Rather writers are models of obstinacy, self righteousness, and cynicism. You would consider it an awful irony to say “and God made a writer” and then publish a picture of one of the most feared writers–Christopher Hitchens.
True, you could use Elizabeth Gilbert as your role model. But even then I can not think of two totally opposite occupations: farmer and writer. Just look at what we do.
We might get up before dawn to put in two hours of writing before work, head out to pound the pavement as a mailman to pay our dues (as William Faulkner did), only to come home to wolf down a hamburger and two tumblers of whiskey (as I’ve read Joan Didion did), and then go to town and stay past midnight at the coffee house in the intellectual center of the city (like Hemingway).
And so God made a writer?
We might spend our weekends plowing through 1984, our days translating Mo Yan, glowering at anyone stepping foot into our space. We might flee to New York City after graduating from Truman, land a job as a waiter in a deli, serve our literary hero eggs and onions, only to have him look up from his iPhone to say, “Quit while you are ahead. It’s an awful field.” (As Phillip Roth did.)
Yet, there are redeemable reasons to be a writer. Harvey might say:
God said I need somebody smart enough to write a human rights speech, explain to creditors why the last payment wasn’t made, write a brutally honest cover letter, and yet gentle enough to eulogize about the death of a friend, sing a song of love and carry a child’s imagination to a wild world.
The significant difference is that farming is not a fame-oriented occupation. You don’t hear about superstar farmers. Pimped-out tractors. Agricultural groupies. Writing, on the other hand, suffers from a fame-orientation. Our work is meant to be read, shared, and, hopefully, lionized. But because the competition is ridiculously stiff, and the spoils grossly disproportionate, we tend to compromise everything to reach fame.
Cut throat is a phrase that comes to mind. Cut throat with not only other writers, but cut throat with our health, family, money, and friends. Nothing is sacred. And for many reasons the despondent are drawn to writing.
In Joel Carrone’s poetry book “Eight American Poets: An Anthology,” a book I read as an undergraduate nearly fifteen years ago and still haunts me to this day, three of the poets committed suicide–John Berryman, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath–while the remaining suffered from mental illness of one degree or another.
It’s difficult to imagine Paul Harvey saying, “God said I need a someone to live in his head. To suffer over a sentence, scrape together a few pages of typewritten copy at 3 in the morning, only to rip it out and throw it in the waste bin, and then reach for the pill bottle with a sigh, saying, ‘Maybe I’ll get it tomorrow.'”
There is, however, only one class of writers who deserve a Paul Harvey treatment–and a sub class at that: journalists in war zones. They represent the only selfless figures of the writing world–if there is such a thing. Perhaps Harvey might have written something like this about the Syrian war:
God said I need somebody to embed themselves with rebels advancing into the Syrian capital, fighter jets overhead pounding the buildings around you, mortar shells shattering walls, sniper bullets smashing windows. I need somebody to bandage a wound, drag dead bodies out of rubble, and then sit on a cinder block in the dead of night to write, edit, and send dispatches to an editor, slipping away just in time to watch your shelter explode.
Journalists often serve as the voice for the voiceless. Often at the risk of their own lives. Paul Harvey might have praised them. But Dodge would’ve never used such a speech for a mass market commercial. It would’ve fallen flat.
Yet, writers are useful. We are in the business of informing, persuading, and entertaining. We are just not necessary. Farming, however, is in the business of tending, providing, and fixing. Farmers are necessary.
Granted, I’ve never been a farmer, so I don’t know the stories that can be told of poverty, suffering, and the general hardship behind farming. But I doubt it’s torture, as some people would like you to think about writing, which I find strange strange because as Avi Steinberg put it in his New Yorker article “Is Writing Torture?“:
You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it.
So we writers continue on. Not as servants of the land or country. But of truth. For why else do we write?