So I happened to be in the car today, with the radio on, just as the day’s installment of Writer’s Almanac was winding down. I caught the very end of the featured poem, and Garrison Keillor’s signature closing: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” And I was thinking about how much I love that advice, even though liking Garrison Keillor might be a little complicated, particularly as a way of framing a writing life.
I love that “be well” is first, how that placement intimates that being well is a precondition for doing good work. I love how there is no conjunction to modify the relationship between the first two instructions. It’s not “Be well, BUT do good work,” which would imply that there is an inherent or necessary incompatibility between these two aspirations. Despite what we often learn in graduate school: there isn’t. And if we act as though there is, one or the other thing will inevitably suffer, probably the first, because (at least in my experience) the to-do list is way more durable than the body. Relatedly, it’s not “Be well, OR do good work,” as if there is a trade-off. Neither is it “Be well, AND do good work,” which – to my mind, at least – would instrumentalize being well purely into the service of work, like “Be well, SO THAT YOU CAN do good work.” Just two simple imperatives, coexisting comfortably, with the space between them reminding us that sometimes being well requires taking some distance from doing good work.
“Keep in touch,” though, has always struck me as opaque. For a long time, I assumed that G.K. was inviting me, all of us, really, to keep in touch with him. In retrospect, probably not. But the absence of an object is puzzling. Even when he explains this signature line, G.K. doesn’t mention this last bit. Keep in touch with whom? Or what? Maybe the answer is anybody, or anything. Maybe: after you’ve taken care of yourself, after you’ve done your good work, maybe look up, and around, and see what, or who else needs your attention, and invest judiciously enough in the doing of your good work that you have something left for whoever, or whatever, that might be.