Fat books. One night I took a volume down from a shelf in the “criticism” section of my home library. This section lines the downstairs hallway that links the room where I write entries for this archive and the bathroom where I read the collected works of the “American Literary Tradition.” The volume I selected was a collection of the writings of Walter Benjamin. (The name is pronounced BEN-ya-meen, said David, when once we were sitting in front of the fire talking about Larry McMurtry’s book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and I said, “Walter Ben-jger-min.”) I flipped randomly to a page and then laid down on the couch of the front room, my reading room, and began to read a section marked “POST NO BILLS”. The subtitle for this short exposition was “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses.”
I have an endless curiosity for how writers go about their work -- if only so that I can avoid following their example. Twenty years ago I read two books, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II and Get That Novel Written!, and discovered that the authors of both of these books advised the would-be writer: “Don’t be literary!” Which puzzled me since it was precisely “literary” books that interested me most as a reader. Why would a writer be opposed to “being literary”? Was “being literary” something that should be feared? Then, as I read more of these books, I learned that it was “the publishers” that didn’t want “literary” books because “literary” books didn’t sell. People didn’t want to read “literary” books at all, they said. Which I knew wasn’t true. There are actually a lot of people who would rather read a literary book over a bit of formula fiction any day. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot, but I know I’m not alone in my preference for a challenging read. Aside from my being among their number, I admire readers who prefer literary books because they are literature’s greatest supporters; whereas the readers who don’t care for the taint of “the literary” might be as content with television as they are with the latest celebrity potboiler.
I’ve heard it said, that there is no magical formula for how to write a book. Each writer has to work out for themselves how to go about bringing each of their books into the world. Still I can’t help myself when I find a list of instructions about how to write a book. I won’t quote Walter Benjamin’s Theses in full, but I’ll mention only a couple. “2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress.” And then, “7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honor requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.” This is my favorite: “13. The work is the death mask of its conception.”
For sometime I laid on the couch contemplating Benjamin’s Theses. Write without looking back. That reminded me of Lot’s wife and how she turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom and Gomorra. And the words of Jesus, “Whoever sets their hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Writing a book even if it is only an archive is something akin to a journey through the underworld; it’s full of perils. Monsters lurk in the shadows waiting to consume the unwary or the careless. This is a journey into the Perilous Lands, the realm of the Fisher King who holds the waters of Avalon in his dying hand. Only courage, strength, and magic will restore the land.
As I lay there on the couch in my reading room thinking about such things, I flipped to another page in the book of Ben-ya-meen and found this: “TEACHING AID” with the subtitle “Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books.” Ah ha! The secret to writing long books. I had at last found some advice that would aid me in my quest since archives -- any worth their salt -- are fat. But after reading a few of Benjamin’s Principles I realized that his purpose was satirical. These were not honest principles, but these were the instructions for how to write a tedious book, a book that is a waste of the reader’s time.
What now? I thought. What was I to make of Benjamin’s Theses when his Principles were (in truth) antitheses. I put the book down and decided to keep to my own counsel.
Oklahoma. I took my son to Oklahoma in February 2011. That was the first time he had ever been to the state that I say I am from. Nine years had passed since I my last trip to the farm. And that return was precipitated by the death of my grandmother.
Returning to Oklahoma with my son was a calculated action. I had, for several years, intended on writing a novel about going home, a homecoming novel. And after writing the first of my Adam Fisher novels, Lost in the Ruins, I thought perhaps that I would send Adam home to Oklahoma to visit his elderly, but cantankerous grandfather. Instead, I invented a character, Gary Ponds, a city-slicker from Cimarron (Adam’s hometown) who returns to Oklahoma to teach at a fundamentalist Christian Bible college. I wrote the novel in which Gary Ponds is the principle character, but books never turn out the way I plan. Gary Ponds story is less about homecoming, and more about the doldrums of middle-age when a man realizes that he isn’t going to achieve all the great things he planned when he was a boy.
In February 2011, my son was seven years old, old enough, I thought that he might (someday in the future) be able to remember that trip back to the family farm. I wanted to share with him something of myself. I wanted him to walk on the land where I walked, play where I played, and see for himself the landscape that he imprinted itself so indelibly on my imagination. If he could be there on the farm, if only for a week, the experience might leave an imprint. Would he understand me any better? And why did I even think that a piece of land --- dirt, grass, trees, ponds --- was an extension of myself, something essential to my complete identity?
Writing a novel about homecoming remained a distant idea, a vague notion that (despite the effort of writing the story of Gary Ponds) was not pressing. No great urgency compelled me to write about homecoming. Not that I know what it feels like to be pregnant, but the oft-used metaphor of a writer being full in the belly with a story is an apt description of how my books come to be written. The novels I write have long gestation periods and labor is always triggered by some moment of inspiration, perhaps the acquisition of some critical mass of material and ideas, but typically the moment of inspiration comes when I am reading.
The day I first felt the fetal kicks of a new homecoming novel was when I was reading W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo. The photographs are what started me thinking about how my homecoming novel could be structured. Like the narrator of Vertigo I would return to the place where I grew up, and I would sit quietly and remember and write about what the place called “home” called to mind. I would sort through my collection of photographs and select a few dozen, perhaps a hundred and build a digressive narrative around those photographs. And I would take new photographs.
David Branson came to Long Neck in November 2010 to spend Thanksgiving with Alice and me and Patrick. David and I passed five or six beer and scotch soak days together talking. Each evening I’d build a fire in the front room and the two of us would sit with a stocking feet warming on the hearth, French pop music playing at a low enough volume that we could chat with each other. One evening, we were into our second glass of Irish whisky when the conversation turned to Walter Benjamin. “Ben-ya-meen,” repeated David. And he asked if I’d read Larry McMurtry’s book.
In December, a package arrived from David. Inside was a copy of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. As I read the book, I recalled Sebald’s Vertigo and the stirrings of my developing homecoming novel. McMurtry’s memoir of growing up on a cattle ranch in near Archer, Texas seemed to mirror my own experiences of growing up on a farm (complete with a herd of cattle) near Stillwater, Oklahoma.
I’ll keep coming back to these books as I try to find my own way through my memories and imaginings about Oklahoma and my connection to that state, well, specifically to a small plot of land near Stillwater. Or possibly, I’ll wander away from these books that inspired me to start this collection of notes, this archive (might it turn into a novel?). At this moment it is impossible to say how the moment of inspiration will influence the journey.
I used to read a lot of memoirs, biographies, and diaries. Now, such literature doesn’t really interest me much. My preference has shifted towards fiction. There was a time when I thought I would write a memoir about my time growing up on a farm in north central Oklahoma, but now I think I’d prefer to write a novel.
In an epistolary novel by Antonio Tabucchi, one of the letters contains a description of the limitations of memory and imagination. Memory is limited to things that happened in the past. Imagination is limited to things that never happened. Together memory and imagination make a pretty good team. One assisting the other as the writer attempts to tell his tale.
“Where are you from?” That’s a common enough question now, but I wonder how common it was when my grandfather moved to the farm where he, then my father, and then I grew up. Each person is shaped by their experiences and by the people around them. I was an only child and so it stands to reason that the two people who imprinted their personalities on me were my parents. And because I grew up on a farm, spitting distance from my grandparent’s house, I spent as much time with them as I did my own parents. Most of those long hot summers in my youth were spent on the farm under the relaxed supervision of my grandfather. When I wasn’t working with my grandfather, I was playing on my own. The farm was a 160 acre playground and I explored every bit of it. There’s no piece of land on this planet that I know better than that square of red dirt.
Why did I leave? My life represents a discontinuity. I wandered away from the farm. And that choice had determined that my son will be the first generation of Halls in a hundred years not to call Oklahoma home.
When I was in grade school, my teacher assigned her class a family heritage project. We were to gather information about our family tree and write up a report. When I asked my dad, he told me to ask Grandpa. So I went down to the A-frame where my grandparents lived and bugged my grandpa for information. He had in a filing cabinet six or seven typed sheets with names and dates for his dad’s side of the family going all the way back to the 1830s. It was probably then that he told me the story about his grandpa and how he made the land run in 1893. That would have been the Cherokee Outlet land opening, not the original land run in 1889 of the so-called Unassigned Lands.
My trip with my son to Oklahoma in February 2011 didn’t go the way I planned. I didn’t get any new photographs. I hardly wrote a hundred words while I was there. And after a week in Oklahoma I had not found that spark of inspiration to write my homecoming novel. In fact, the experience had left me empty. I would have to return if I was to understand what strange transformation had taken place.
Writing became difficult after that first, brief trip back to Oklahoma. I didn’t know what to work on. What book needed to be written? Should I write the novel about the Fishers and their homestead near Cimarron? Or should I write another kind of book, a book about lost love and recovery? It was in this state of indecision that I traveled to Dallas the following month. There I spent a week in the town where I'd gone to college a decade previous. I spent most of my time reading Beckett and sitting in bars. Not until after I returned from Dallas in March did I start to write again. I started writing a diary.
At the beginning of April, my son and I took another journey, this time by car. First, we drove to Virginia to visit David. Then we drove to the Outer Banks to spend a week with some friends on the beach at Nags Head.
Then at the end of April, Alice, Patrick, and I flew to Jackson, Mississippi where we rented a car to drive to Natchez where we would meet David. Our friend Peter Wright was marrying Kathy, his first love.
We stayed in a hotel in downtown Natchez. I’m an early riser, so typically I have two or three hours to myself each morning before Alice and Patrick stir. I took advantage of this early morning freedom to wander around Natchez. On the first day, I found a bookstore where I chanced upon a copy of Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Of course, I had to buy the book, this memoir of a young woman and her experience of growing up in Oklahoma. This chance event, finding Red Dirt in a indy bookstore in Natchez, inspired me to attempt (at least) writing my Homecoming novel, the book I imagined would have sprung from my return to my place of origin.
Reading Dunbar-Ortiz's book gave me the energy I needed. But as I read, I became more critical of her book. I was hoping for more about Oklahoma and early communist/socialist movements in that state, but it’s more about the childhood of little Roxie. Still the story draws me in despite its memoir feel. In general I dislike “true stories.” Often I’ve said things like: “If you can’t even bother to make something up, why should I bother reading?” But I’m only half-joking. Little Roxie and I have something in common: we both grew up in Oklahoma. Though I’d never say I grew up “Okie” since I always thought that “Okies” were the ones that went to California and neither I or mine went further west in the Dust Bowl. The Halls stuck it out, did their best to eek it out on the dusty plains. But maybe we didn’t have a choice. When I asked my grandfather about what he remembers about that time (he was just a small boy then), he told a few stories, but no real explanation what his life was really like. It’s a fact that my great-great-grandfather lost his original 1893 claim on the Cimarron river near Isabella for not being able to pay $40 in taxes. At least it is a fact that this is one of the stories told about that time. Nobody seems to remember exactly what happened. That was back in the 20s, I suppose. Our present parcel of land came into the family in the early 30s when one of my great-uncles was killed in a car crash. When great-uncle Leo died, his farm went to my great-grandmother Mary Magdalene. Our family still lives on that farm 80 years later. Although I’ve left the farm behind. A bit of me stays on the farm, or perhaps it’s me that carries some of that red dirt around. Actually, quite literally, I do carry a bit of Oklahoma with me. About ten years ago I filled a quart mason jar with the reddest dirt I could find from the farm where I grew up. Now that quart jar of red Oklahoma dirt sits on my shelf in my Long Island beach house.
While I don’t have any evidence that anyone in my family ever supported or had dealings with the Communist or Socialist Parties, the fact that in 1916 nearly 47,000 Oklahoma votes gave the nod to Socialist Party candidates intrigues me. I wonder who my people voted for in 1916. Allan Louis Benson? (Benson was the Socialist Party candidate that year because Eugene Debs declined.) Benson didn’t come close to winning in Oklahoma (what 3rd party candidate ever has?), but he did get 15.6% of the popular vote. Not too shabby.
Memoirs. There was a time when I thought I wanted to write a memoir, but that was when I was young and thought my life was interesting enough to write about. When I get old, maybe I won’t care what other people think and I’ll just write down the story of my life anyway, making the mundane seem heroic.
What kind of person wants to move into the glass house? Why hang the laundry out for the whole neighborhood to see? All writers are exhibitionists, or liars. Hang out some made up laundry. Didn’t James Frey already do that? His Million Little Pieces. Fictional memoir? Autofiction?
Then you have those writers that hide, live in seclusion, refuse all interviews. Perhaps they just don’t want folks to figure out just how much of what they make up is real life. Life as a work of art.
Fake it. The Fishers. Sock puppets or fictional characters? When Peter and David and I started making up our fictional worlds, we created stand-ins --- narrators that could speak for us. Idealizations? To be real, a character has to be flawed. How do you fake a flaw? Writing is a little like being an actor. To write with another voice means getting into character. Method writing?
Stuff it. I purchased Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Red Dirt in a little book store in Natchez (Cover to Cover Books). Actually, Natchez’s little downtown (I say little, but it’s bigger than the downtown in Long Neck) had two book stores, but Cover to Cover was my favorite with many titles from my two favorite publishers: Dalkey Archive and New Directions. Red Dirt is a Verso title (offices in Brooklyn and London). Verso is a lefty publisher as the name might suggest. Back to my book ramble in Natchez. So by the time I collected Red Dirt and some other choice titles, and wandered into the second book store of the morning (merely minutes walking distance), I wondered why my own Long Island village doesn’t have a single book store. My fictional Long Neck has a book store, of course, based loosely on Good Times Books that used to be in Port Jeff. Not even Port Jeff has a proper book store anymore. There is one, but it is one of those remainder shops where you get all the junk books that aren’t selling in the big stores. If I want an independent book seller I’ve got to travel to Southampton or Sag Harbor or Brooklyn (at least there’s public transport).
When I got back from Natchez, I went on a book binge, adding a half-dozen volumes to my bedside table. Of course, even if I did nothing from now until my dying day I wouldn’t get through half the books that I keep in my home library. So why do I feel better now that there’s a copy of Wallace’s Infinite Jest on my shelf? Am I going to read it? Maybe, but then there’s Franzen’s Freedom. But I’ve got to finish Vollmann’s Imperial first. One has to choose one’s books. Vollmann’s fat book is what I would call “on topic” --- essential reading for me since it’s a stepping stone in the path of my readerly journey. But what of Wallace and Franzen? Their fat books, where do they fit in. I think of myself as a literary reader. But who decides what is “literary”? The academy? (That would be the catholic view.) Or the reader? (The protestant view.)
Here’s what Terry Eagleton writes about how to judge whether a book is literary or not (from his book The Event of Literature): “My own sense”, he writes, “is that when people at the moment call a piece of writing literary, they generally have one of five things in mind, or some combination of them. They mean by ‘literary’ a work which is fictional, or which yields significant insight into human experience as opposed to reporting empirical truths, or which uses language in a peculiarly heightened, figurative or self-conscious way, or which is not practical in the sense that shopping lists are, or which is highly valued as a piece of writing.”
Stuart Kelly reviewed Eagleton’s book for the Guardian (Friday, 6 April 2012). This is what he says: “When, as a critic, I call something literature, I mean that it expands the field of what literature can be. David Foster Wallace is literature. Jonathan Franzen just tried to write a literary novel.” It’s a vote for Wallace. Perhaps it’s time to add The Pale King to my list --- Wallace’s posthumously completed novel was on the short list for the Pulitizer (2012), but the committee decided (in the end) not to hand out the award saying that none of the books were good enough.
Les cous rouges. When I started writing about life on Long Island and the straw yellow beer scene, I couldn’t resist calling my suburban village Long Neck after those bottles next to the shots of Southern Comfort in Callahan’s. Long Neck is, after all, a beer town. Of course, I’m not from these here parts. I’m from Oklahoma by birth and from Louisiana by choice. Keeping a foot in Louisiana is a pretense, since I spent my formative years in Oklahoma and so have absorbed a completely different experience of the world than your average (if that can even be said) Louisianian. The race thing. We had a few blacks in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Two or three in my school and we got along just fine. There weren’t enough blacks for them not to integrate fully into what the white kids were doing. Thus I didn’t know anything about race barriers. Not first hand at least. Stillwater might be strange. We didn’t have many ethnic minorities at all. In my elementary school we had one asian and one hispanic. The rest of us were a white as white could be. No “Indians” in Stillwater either. We had our fair share of “white trash” and many were my friends. Why not? Rednecks? I can’t say when that word entered my vocabulary. Probably when I was living in Texas.
It’s easy to spot a redneck in the South. Pickup truck. Gun rack. Stars and bars flying proud. “The South’s gonna rise again!” Except modern rednecks vote Republican. Used to be that all good rednecks voted Democrat and the whole South was blue on the election map. Red was reserved for those Republican northerners (what we called “easterners” in Oklahoma). The world’s turned upside down.
In part, I left the South to get away from the rednecks. I was tired of living in a red state. Of course, the colors are all backwards. Red’s supposed to be the color of the commies, right? Not in the US of A. I should have done my research better. When I got to Long Island, I discovered the place was crawling with rednecks, and even a few with pickup trucks, gun racks, and Confederate flags.
Perhaps I’m a remediated redneck, un cou rouge. How many rednecks do you know that read litfic and watch French films without the subtitles on? Rednecks like to shoot guns, right? Hunt. Fish. Well, I like fishing just fine. Characteristics of rednecks: poor, working-class, under-educated, God-fearing (optional in the North/East), thinks FOX reports actual news, votes Republican, listens to Country music, etc. But even if a redneck gets a PhD, becomes a Unitarian, gets their news from Amy Goodman, listens to the Decemberists, and votes Green, does that mean he stops being a redneck?
David: “I’m your worst nightmare; I’m a redneck with a Ph.D.”
That’s what my buddy said to me when we were having a beer in Natchez. Getting quietly misty-eyed, nostalgically for rural America and its symbols, even the misused ones.
Left-wing bookstores. Any small independent bookshop is going to be left-wing. The big corporate stores don’t have any careful thought behind their selection, being market driven, they carry what sells. I’ve never stumbled into a right-wing bookshop (not counting those Bible gift shops with all those pastel colored spiritual self-help books). I’d almost say there are no right-wing bookstores because right-wingers don’t read. But I know that’s not true. While the right-wing is largely populated with non-readers, the right-wing intellectual is not an extinct animal. However, the danger of learning, from the perspective of the right, is that once you start thinking, you start being able to see that things are more complicated than the one-liner or the sound-bite. Education is the process of becoming less certain that you know things. Paradoxically. But that’s the first thing they teach you in Philosophy 101: the only person that can learn is the person who knows that they don’t know. As soon as you know something, you don’t have to think anymore. Lefties tend to keep thinking and are just a little embarrassed when they have scrawl slogans on signs and wave them. “No War for Oil!” Yes, we believe that.
Exhibitionism. We want to control our information. Web presence. Privacy. Certain things, we’d just rather people not know about us. Publicity. 15 minutes of fame. Snippet of conversation (gathered around coffee maker): “I’m not into Facebook. Who cares what I’m doing anyway?” Twenty years ago it was safe to be naked in public -- what I mean is that now if you walk around naked your picture will likely end up on the Internet. That might not be a big deal, now. But down the road? When I was in High School, my buddy Craig took all of his clothes off at a party. Someone snapped a photo of him with an Instamatic (remember those?). I doubt more than a dozen people ever saw that photo. But who cares? So what if Craig is naked and his picture’s on the Internet? Who’s going to look? We’ve all seen naked people. What if it’s art? If you post something on your blog or Facebook wall, there’s always the possibility of an audience, even if nobody’s looking. It’s not like anyone really wants to see Craig or you naked anyway.
The unreliability of language. Of course, I didn’t come close to saying what I wanted. I’m sure it’s my fault. A better writer would be more disciplined. When I started writing about exhibitionism, my plan was to throw down some generalizations about what I thought people (les gens) wanted, and then show how people are just plain ridiculous. Like when I wrote “right-wing” when I really mean redneck (un cou rouge, see above). Who doesn’t want their cake and eat it to? The happily married man and his subscription to Playboy. When I talk about other people, I’m afraid about myself. Another word for it is conflicted. I want to be famous, but I don’t want to give up my freedom (or privacy). I’m often shocked when someone I know tells me that they read something on my blog. It surprises me to learn that I am read. Annoyed even. Like they hacked into my computer and read my thoughts without permission. But it’s my fault. I wrote those words and put them on the Internet. I can’t strip and then be coy.
The importance of a sense of humor. These jottings in no way resemble Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, the original blog, but on scraps of paper. (But is it any good? The author wants to know. Or maybe not.) The righteous can’t have a sense of humor. When you are right, you can’t laugh about it. What I mean is that people often argue about things which are beside the point. I could give you some examples. Does it matter what we call something? Yes. And no. As long as we all know what we are talking about... But how can we know? Unless we agree to call a spade, a spade. In the most general terms, it’s best not to fight too much with your allies. That’s why we should all keep in mind what it is that we want, what we agree on, and laugh about the details.
Lunch today was a baguette with some slices of brie. And a beer. I like having a beer with my lunch. I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It. The title might be nonsense, but it appeals to me. Especially since I actually was bothered to do Yoga this morning. I started doing Yoga a couple of years ago, 683 days according to my exercise appliance that keeps track of my physical activity. Despite my best efforts the ravages of middle-age... That Paul Simon song from the 80s: ...soft in the middle now that my life is so hard... Dyer’s my kind of writer, it seems. This is the first book I’ve picked up by him. I liked the book immediately because it starts in New Orleans.
I don’t travel much. Or claim not to. Maybe I travel more than most. I don’t know. I travel somewhere each March, to some US city, and spend a week wandering in the downtown, pubcrawling mostly, but officially I’m writing. Last year I wrote a novella in Portland, Oregon. I have to write Oregon because when I say Portland around here everyone assumes I’m talking about Portland, Maine.
In March of 2011, right after my homecoming trip to Oklahoma, I traveled to Dallas which was another sort of homecoming (I‘d spent four years attending the University of Dallas sometime in the last century). I couldn’t write in Dallas. (I want to draw a parallel between Dallas and Vienna. Forced, I’m sure. The narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete couldn’t write in Vienna. Vienna paralyzed him. Vienna takes and doesn’t give back. Perhaps this imposition of paralysis on the writer is too much to attribute to Dallas, especially since it was in my hotel room there that I did begin, with great effort, to write again --- even if all I wrote were a few notes about current events in the news.) I had to wait to get back to Long Neck to start writing again. It was weird. Dallas, that is. Dallas is a big small town. Not the sort of place where you’d meet a woman and fall in love. Dyer pointed this out. When he went to New Orleans he didn’t meet a woman in a supermarket check out line or in a café. The same thing has happened to me for the last twenty years. I’ve traveled places and never met a woman and fallen in love. But in all my books (most of them?) that’s what happens. The narrator meets a woman and falls in love, or at least has lustful thoughts. One of my friends, who has read three of my novels, says there’s lots of sex in my books. I never noticed that before. Most of my narrators are alcoholics. They dream about sex, mostly. Perhaps my books aren’t realistic. Men, drinking men, who travel to US cities don’t meet women downtown. Does this mean my books are unrealistic? What’s unrealistic is that my narrators are not the type who would meet random women and fall in love. That is because, for the most part, the narrator is a surrogate for the author. And the author, in this case, isn’t interested in the drama of hooking-up with a random woman in some distant American city. One of the side-effects of my early protestant upbringing is the capacity to be completely paralyzed by guilt. A sure-fire way to never get any more writing done is to have some stupid fling. Even if Alice never found out, I would be so racked by guilt that I’d be able to think of nothing else until I confessed and suffered the punishment I deserved. As far as I know, in my travels over the years, not a single random woman has ever given me a second look. And even if they did, I would just ignore them. This is not because I’m a morally superior person. I would ignore any attention of that nature out of vanity. Other men might indulge themselves for the same reason.
Honestly, I’m not overly concerned about how this book I’m writing now is classified. Dyer’s Yoga was in the travel section. Could it be fiction? How much do you need to make up in a book in order for it to be considered fiction? 51%? What if only 20% is made up? You still couldn’t call it fact. (Is there a story here?) A true story. 100% fact? More likely, “based on a true story” where 80% is made up and only the general outline has any foothold in reality. Plot is just what happens. Life may have a plot, but if it does, it’s not a very good one. The writer’s job is to connect what happens in some rational way, make it hang together, give the flow of events a sense of meaning something. Disconnected events don’t make a plot. Even David Markson’s fragmented books which appear to be collection of statements are not completely disconnected. Wittgenstein’s Mistress was good. The four that followed got a little tedious. Still, I read a novel by Thomas Bernhard called Wittgenstein’s Nephew just because the similarity of the title to Markson’s book amused me.
There was a time in my life when I confused the word meconium with encomium. One day I realized my error. (Had a good chuckle.) One is never too old to learn.
Writers & Co. Here’s something from Dyer’s Yoga: “When you are lonely, writing can keep you company. It is also a form of self-compensation, a way of making up for things---as opposed to making things up---that did not quite happen.”
Alice gave me a tee-shirt for my birthday a few years back. The tee-shirt is plain white and on the front, across the chest in an old typewriter font says “I make stuff up.” I used to wear that tee-shirt out a lot, especially when I would travel. It amused me to go through TSA check-points wearing that shirt. At some point it got a stain on the belly, a stain that won’t come out. Now I don’t wear the shirt so much. Only around the house. Sometimes even when I’m writing. I’m wearing the shirt right now, coincidentally. (Not ironically.)
Works in progress. When I’m working... It’s hard for me to think of writing as work. I know that’s how we writers speak of what it is that we do. I’m working on a new novel. Or, I worked all morning and only have 500 words to show for my effort. I’m not saying that writing isn’t work, or that writing is easy. Writing is labor, but it feels different. Also, in my case, it doesn’t pay. Without Alice’s income, we would have had to move back down to the bayou, or to the farm. And we still might, once Patrick has finished high school.
I don’t think I could bear the sort of solitude that Dyer writes about. Only in small doses, perhaps. Dallas was that way. What I mean, of course, is that I was that way in Dallas, enduring solitude, but not working. I should have forced myself to write. That way I could have kept myself company imagining narrators and the women they have the courage to speak to. What I’ve noticed is that when my protagonists meet a woman, it is she who usually talks to him and not he who takes the initiative. My protagonists are passive like me.
Close encounters. Once every other month or so, I’ll take the train into Brooklyn or Manhattan to visit some left-wing bookstores. It’s only in these small bookstores were you find offerings from the small, independent publishers, the ones that actually accept submissions from writers like me. One of my favorite haunts is St Mark’s Books, not just because of its selection, but because of its proximity to Jimmy’s No. 43, the craft beer bar where I sit and read leisurely from my new acquisitions. One day (my lucky day?) a young woman with long dark hair and a cadaverous complexion stalked me in St Mark’s. She found me in the literature section (of course). Then followed me. At one point she stood over me while I squatted to remove a volume by Vila-Matas from a shelf near the floor. Casually I perused Montano’s Malady while the thigh of my stalker nearly brushed my cheek. When I stood I had to step back. I think she wanted me to bump into her. I could have said something at that point. At the cash register she about bowled me over, cutting in just as I was stepping forward. “Oh excuse me,” she said. “You go ahead.” Still I didn’t say anything. I handed the clerk some money for my purchase. I had decided to buy (contract?) Montano’s Malady. Then I stepped out onto the sidewalk. There I turned and waited for my stalker to come out of the bookstore. When she stepped out, she looked directly at me. She actually seemed surprised. Surprise turned into embarrassment, perhaps. When I didn’t back down, or pretend that I wasn’t actually staring directly at her, she turned and rushed away without saying a word. I don’t know what she thought at that moment.
When I got to Jimmy’s No. 43 I grabbed a seat by the window. Jimmy’s is in the basement, so the view is of the side of a concrete window well, but I like reading by the natural light (even if I don’t like drinking it). I was into my second beer when a red head walked into the bar. She ordered a Sophie and then asked me if it was alright if she sat down at my table --- which was a little strange since I was the only person in the place and every other table in the joint was free. “Be my guest,” I said.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said. “I just hate sitting alone. Every time I come into a beer bar, some guy comes and starts hitting on me. It’s really annoying.” Perhaps she didn’t intend her words ironically.
“How do you know I won’t start hitting on you?” I asked.
Without missing a beat, she says, “I’ve seen you before.”
“The beer festivals,” she said. “I go to all the beer festivals. You’ve served me beer a few times.”
“How pleasant,” I said wishing I recognized her.
“I’m Brenda, by the way,” she said extending her hand.
Brenda wasn’t bad looking. Clear face, compact features. She wasn’t fat, but voluptuous and creamy skinned. Her red hair was pulled back in a pony tail.
I told this story to a friend of mine later after I took the train to Brooklyn. “She was hitting on you, man,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Then Brenda proved me wrong, perhaps. She sent a friend request to me on Facebook. I accepted, innocently. I noticed on her profile that there was a picture of herself in a black, low-cut dress. Her full figured, shapely leg extending through a slit in the skirt. The photo probably wasn’t intended specifically for me, but I admit to feeling a twinge of skepticism about her story of unwanted advances by frequenters of craft beer bars. Among the many things that Brenda had that worked in her favor (at least with me) was that she wore smart glasses. How much of this can I post to the blog? Peter only referred to Brenda as “your cyber-stalker”; she had a habit of commenting on everything I posted to my blog or to Facebook. If Brenda was a guy, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Nor would have Peter, I suspect. Such are the genders divided by mutual suspicion of secret lust.
Ignorance is bliss. More from Yoga: “That’s one of the things about travelling, one of the things you learn: many people in the world, even educated ones, don’t know much, and it doesn’t actually matter at all.” Like the time after Nine-Eleven when I stopped listening to the news or reading news reports online. (I retreated into that safe, warm spot, deep in the belly of the whale.) There ended up being a lot of things I didn’t know. A few years later when I started paying attention again, I don’t think it mattered that I knew what was going on because it was really only a pretense of knowing what was going on. In fact, I only knew what people were telling me and what did that matter to my life in Long Neck? Just something more to talk about, but really I’d rather talk about beer or books.