‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is a 2021 movie produced by Marvel Studios. Katy (played by Awkwafina) is Shang-Chi’s coworker and best friend. In the mythical village of Ta Lo, mystical warriors train as martial arts experts. Katy comments to an old woman in Ta Lo: “I just love how you guys know exactly what you wanna do, and you spend your whole life getting really good at it.
“I wish I was more like that. It’s like every time I get moderately good at something, I just quit and start something new.
“I just know my own limits, and I’m not gonna waste my time chasing something that will ultimately be a disappointment for me. That’s not me.”
That pretty much describes me, too. I suspect it describes quite a few of us, really.
I started playing acoustic guitar when I was 12 or 13 — some 55 years ago. I should be a virtuoso by now, but I’m not — not even close. There have been times when I played my guitar a lot — a couple hours a day for months on end. And I got to where I was moderately good. But I was like Katy in the Shang-Chi movie. Every time I became moderately good, I quit.
I went to work for a builder after I graduated from high school in 1972. In 1975, I partnered with my coworker and friend, Rick Coyte, to form Coyte-Heinz Construction. For most of my adult life, I worked as a carpenter and builder. It was the best way that I knew to make a living. I have professional-grade carpentry, woodworking, and construction skills.
When I was in my 40s, I proudly boasted to my dad that I was a master carpenter. My old man rather put me in my place. “Anyone who does anything for 20 years or more ought to get good at it,” he said bluntly, unimpressed.
My dad was right. Indeed they should—
I learned to fish with a cane pole in farm ponds about the same time I learned how to walk. During the 60-odd years since then, I’ve fished the cold clear lakes of northern Wisconsin, the warm waters of the Florida Keys, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Grand Isle Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, and many other places far too numerous to mention.
I have a fairly broad knowledge of fishes, especially fishes found here in Kentucky. I’ve caught most everything that swims in Kentucky waters, including turtles and frogs and even salamanders. In the tailwater below the Wolf Creek Dam, I once caught a giant salamander called a hellbender.
I suppose I’m a moderately good fisherman, but I would never brag about it. When someone compliments my fishing skills, I modestly reply: “I can catch ‘em when they’re biting.” And that’s true — I can catch ‘em when they’re biting. But I’ve known guys who can catch fish when they aren’t biting. Now that’s a real fisherman — dang near a wizard — and I have known a few, but only just a few.
I don’t know if they were kind or delusional, but occasionally people have told me that my writing is a “gift.” I have never perceived it as a gift. In fact, it took decades for me to develop my moderately good writing skills. In carpentry, writing, and most everything, really, I was a slow learner.
In 1978, I wrote my first little (unpublished) novel. Some 30 years later in 2009, my literary novel, Shine, was published. People told me I should publish a follow-up book immediately — a sequel to Shine, or something that was similar. My next book, however, was entirely different. And my next book, and my next book—
All eight of my published books are different and unique. Perhaps it shows my versatility and range, but that’s not how a writer builds a successful career. J. K. Rowling, for example, built her career with Harry Potter. But I could never stick to just one thing.
There was a time when I had hoped to change the world, at least a little, with my writing. Nowadays I’m more realistic. Like Katy in the Shang-Chi movie, “I just know my own limits....”
My primary goal as a writer is to entertain the reader. The average person reads 200-250 words per minute. So, reading this column probably takes about 5 minutes. Hopefully, those 5 minutes pass pleasantly and quickly.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut likened reading a short story to a “Buddhist catnap.” Indeed, I hope that reading one of my columns or stories leaves you feeling refreshed, serene, and thoughtful — as if you’ve just had a lovely little nap.
My secondary goal as a writer is to educate and edify. But I try not to ever sound teachy or preachy. I don’t think I’m smarter than, and I’m certainly not morally superior to, my readers.
Sometimes, yes, I write about politics. That’s probably my least favorite topic. Indeed, I am often mindful of the words of Elvis Presley. When asked what he thought about Vietnam War protesters, Elvis replied, “Honey, I’d just soon to keep my own personal views about that to myself. ‘Cause I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.”
Hooray for Elvis! Hey, I’m just an entertainer, too.
Sometimes, however, I see it as my duty to write about politics. Some people’s political involvement ends at the polls. They expect their elected officials to think and make (the right) decisions for them. I believe in a more participatory and democratic type of government — one in which every citizen has a voice, and elected officials are responsive to their constituents. That’s not what we have — but that’s what I believe in.
I typically spend 3-5 hours writing a column. I’m not a perfectionist, but I try to make each and every column as good as I can make it — within reason. As Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Indeed, I can (and sometimes do) tweak and revise a column for weeks, sometimes months, before I finally abandon it — consider it to be finished.
And if I’ve done a passably good job, my 3-5 hours of diligent labor will entertain, and possibly educate and edify, the reader for 5 or 6 minutes. The best thing any writer can hope for is simply to be read. The worst thing, duh, is not to be read.
When my esteemed editor, Matt Lasley, invited me to write a regular column for this paper, I made a commitment (mostly to myself) that I would write these columns for 5 years. (I was 65 then; I’d write till I turned 70.) Without that self-imposed commitment, I knew I probably wouldn’t stick with it for long.
That was three years ago. Three down, two to go—
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m unhappy or ungrateful. I am truly glad and grateful for this opportunity to contribute to my community and this paper. Thank you, Mr. Lasley!
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.