Monday, July 23, 2012

Stop Time

I like to write. Reading and writing were the first things I discovered that provided escape, fueled my imagination, and allowed me to sit still for sustained stretches.

The library, I once wrote somewhere else, was the place where my mother took me for swimming lessons and I learned to drown.

That's obviously sort of a double-edged and bleak metaphor, but the library really was the one place where I could disappear, and where the little town in which I lived and all the things I was afraid of while growing up would disappear as well. They say that drowning is one of the more peaceful ways to die. You just sort of sink into the unknown and lose yourself.

There was also, though, in those treks to the library, and in the countless solitary hours I spent reading, a sense of voyaging on great seas alone in a little boat that was slowly taking on water, as land --and reality-- gradually receded.

I came to love that feeling, and I still love that feeling. At a very early age I discovered that I could also acquire that feeling by writing, by trying to create the sort of enduring documents that provided those first escapes.

I've been at it a long time now. I write every day, and have written every single day without exception for at least twenty years. My goal every night is 1000 words, and though that sometimes proves impossible I have held myself to a strict 400-word minimum. Many nights I will write several thousand words. I have filled up hundreds of uniform, lined, black journals.

There are novels in those black books, long novels and short novels, as well as hundreds and hundreds of short stories, from very long short stories to very, very short stories.

Because books are so sacred to me, it has always been my intention, and my dream, to write (and publish) books. And to try to publish some of those stories in magazines and journals. Yet for the last twenty years --and in truth it has probably been longer-- I have not submitted a single story or novel for publication. Nor have I transcribed most of the longer pieces from the black books (I write longhand, with a pen, the only way I've discovered that allows me to be as portable as I need to be to keep the streak of days alive no matter where I am or what's going on).

I dislike computers. I dislike --for the most part-- the internet. I dislike the busywork and the essential idea of submission, as well as the bureaucracy and economics of the publishing industry. I am also lazy and insecure.

Blogging (a word I despise) is not without perils, but it is nonetheless relatively easy. I have now been blogging in one place or another for more than ten years, this after having been dragooned into the practice by a former employer. I obviously don't get paid to blog, and I've never figured out how to get anyone to "visit" my blog or read the words I write. Still, I continue to do it, and some people do come here, but with every passing month (every passing day, actually) I think of all those words that have piled up in my black books, and excavating them has begun to feel like a massive archaeological project that I am rapidly running out of time and energy to undertake.

The things I post here, and the things I've posted on my old blogs, have all been smaller stories or sketches that I've just yanked right out of the black books. I've figured out that no one sitting at a computer is going to sit through a 10,000-word story, let alone a novel. I've also figured out that virtually no one is going to take very seriously anything written on a blog.

As a result I long ago stopped thinking of myself as --or pretending to be-- a "real writer." Real writers write books, give readings, hobnob with other real writers and readers. Real writers, I've always read and been told, endlessly revise and rewrite. There are stories of writers and poets rewriting some piece of work fifty, or even 100 times. I have a few problems with that notion.

It's masochistic. And it's also both self-important and depressing. I don't claim to be a great writer, and have no problem monkeying with something --or letting someone else monkey with something-- to try to make it better. As I said at the beginning, I like to write. I enjoy it, but that doesn't mean I don't work at it. That said, by the time I finish something I've usually already started something else that I'm interested in or excited about. And, apologies to those who work so fucking hard to get a story, novel, or poem right, but if, say, a carpenter has to build and tear down a house fifty times before it is habitable don't you think it would be reasonable for him to conclude that maybe he's chosen the wrong profession? For the last twenty years --or at least since I stopped publishing what I knew was sub-par fiction--I've been determined to write until I felt I could achieve the same confidence and precision necessary for a heart surgeon, or even a barber, the occupations I've come to think of as the one-shot, best-shot trades.

I obviously haven't gotten there yet, but I spent many years as an editor, and still do occasional editing jobs. It's been my experience that there is nothing --nothing-- that I've ever read that I couldn't rewrite or restructure a hundred different ways.  Yes, there are disasters; there are people who just can't write or who don't understand the basic architecture of a story. There are, I believe, objective criteria for judging good writing, but there's also a threshold where subjectivity takes over. Anyone who has worked in a publishing enterprise that incorporates "top editing" procedures --this involves a story being passed up and then back down through a chain of editors-- knows how ridiculous things can get. I've worked on stories that have been kicked around an office to the point that editors are editing the changes other editors have made. It becomes like a game of telephone.

I read every day, and there is not one page of any book I've ever read (including books I adore) on which, were I allowed, I wouldn't instinctively rewrite a sentence or a paragraph. I'm constantly quibbling with word choices or dialogue or some other niggling detail. It's just the nature of writing and reading, and also one of the pleasures. I like to read great writers and think about what they're up to and the decisions they make.

This, I realize, is a digressive ramble, but I'm trying to get at something, or to arrive somewhere. I'm grateful to every single person who's ever stumbled in here and read my words, but I'm also increasingly frustrated with this medium, and with cyberspace in general. My goal has always been to write books that might end up in libraries, even if only as shelf furniture.

And right now I'm trying to figure out a way to finally accomplish that goal, because --ridiculous as this may sound-- I've become convinced that my life depends on it.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Another Jet Is Gone

The love of books
is for children
who glimpse in them
a life to come, but
I have come
to that life and
feel uneasy
with the love of books.
This is my life,
time islanded
in poems of dwindled time.
There is no other world.
 --Robert Haas, from "Songs to Survive the Summer."

She waits for something to change, for the planet to snap back into place.

The seasons roll over, cartwheeling into earlier and earlier darkness, taking the way it was further into the way it is and the way it will be.

What is the way it is? What is the way it will be? What happened to her heart? How were these invisible wounds acquired?

The touch, once so familiar, is now harder and harder to remember. Old routines become untangled, the strands of the entanglement scattered.

All night long a world she has never understood and cannot see chuckles and hums outside her windows.

She gets up in the morning and dresses so carefully, spends a long time in front of the mirror, turning, scrutinizing, critical. Probably nothing she might do would matter; no one would do anything but look right through her. She hoped each day to be noticed, to feel herself observed, alive to another. Seen.

It was increasingly embarrassing to be still looking, to find herself loitering in the self-help and relationships section of the bookstore. More painful still that she actually bought the stuff. What did it say that she'd go to such trouble to hide these books in her apartment as if they were pornography, fully aware that there was no one she was hiding them from?

She'd had exactly one date in the last year, and the memory of that awkward, almost completely silent evening left her anxious and queasy. What should she have said that she hadn't? What might she have done differently? What --or who-- did the man see when he looked at her across the table?

It didn't matter. The man had been what her mother would call a drip.

The trees will shed their leaves. The moon will wax and wane. The stars will recede, yet blaze all the more brightly, as if trying to keep the cold at bay.

Something will rustle in the walls. The creek where they once walked together all those years ago will soon enough be paralyzed by ice.

She lies awake. The din of a wedding party somewhere in the neighborhood slowly disappears and the night settles once again to silence, a silence that will eventually and mercifully be drowned out by the idling of the furnace.

Another jet clears the city, and is gone.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Oh, My Stars

These things I know about the barber who cuts my hair in Livingston, Montana:

He refers to his wife as 'the battle-ax.' Or, alternately, as 'the fucking battle-ax.'

Though uncommonly foul-mouthed, even by own foul-mouthed standards, his favored exclamation remains, 'Oh, my stars.'

The project of his old age is reading all thirteen volumes of the journals of Lewis and Clark.

When he was in the army in Korea he got more tail than a dickweed like me could even dream about, and never paid any woman a red cent.

Every single time he has finished cutting my hair he says, 'How'd I do, blockhead? Not too shabby for a fat old blind man with a pair of dull scissors.'

And, oh, my stars, has he ever heard some stories. He should write a book. He really should. See all those books over there on that shelf? He's read every fucking one of them, and they're all fucking garbage. He could shit better books.

The last time I was in there waiting for a haircut, the customer in the chair said, 'I don't know who to believe anymore.'

'I don't believe anybody,' the barber said.

'Not even me?' the customer asked.

'Fuck. Are you shitting me, Lenny? Oh, my stars, how long have I been cutting your hair? I'd have to be an even bigger fool than I already am to believe a word that comes out of your mouth. You'd sell me a bottle of dick water and try to convince me it was soda pop.'

Friday, July 13, 2012

Like Something Thrown From The Furnace Of A Star


Soon enough he'd find himself behind the wheel of a parked car again, the location as inexplicable to him as it was irrelevant, the sound of gravel still rolling in his ears. A dark little patch of the world, the moon something he was vaguely aware of, a faraway place where he wished he lived in an Airstream trailer and floated  each  night above the formica tabletop, playing solitaire.

He wouldn't be able to find the right song. Communication of any sort would be out of the question. There would be things crouched just behind his eyes that he was determined to avoid forever.

He might well sit for some time mulling that curious phrase: Out of the question. He would, you can be sure, come to no conclusions. Though he was something of a specialist in conclusions (even, or perhaps especially, spectacular ones), he hated  them all the same.

All the same: there was another one. If he allowed himself to sit still long enough the language would tie his head in knots he might never untangle.

If he made any kind of choice --however insignificant-- in this state of mind, he would regret it immediately.

State of mind.

His mother, who had kitchen cupboards full of canned  tuna fish, had  recently said to him on the telephone (he was paraphrasing): You look up from your knitting and another world has been swept away or smashed to pieces. It breaks your heart.

He supposed she was right. Yet shouldn't he have felt ashamed to find a sort of consolation in the thought that somewhere at that very moment a train had likely come off the rails --not metaphor, but true catastrophe, with body bags heaped like cordwood on the embankment?

In response to his mother he had said: These days contagion seems to arrive by the strangest damn delivery mechanisms.

To which his mother had replied: I don't know what you're talking about.

I don't want to argue with you, he had said, which was the truth. What he had  meant, though, was this: Birds.

Wherever it was he would soon find himself, he'd recognize that he was a couple weeks away from tacking another year onto his age. He was more than halfway through his life, and he would wonder whether he really felt up to completing that journey, which he honestly knew better than to think of as any kind of a journey.

He might encounter a bell tower looming across the fields, and upon investigation discover that this tower was now empty.

He might think: Not the cold ground, but the consuming fire. Not the slow decomposition, but the swift conflagration.

If he was lucky, and still willing to look for such things, he might see, far out in the country, a steaming white horse rolling on its back in the moon-jeweled frost; a horse that, though obviously very much alive, appeared nonetheless to be on the verge of burning, trembling at the very threshold of combustion. And if he still had any sort of perspective left he would think, Look there. That is as good a demonstration for how one should live in this world as I am likely to see. Maybe it’s not too late. Keep driving.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Messengers


There were three of them, crowded into the front seat of a Volvo station wagon  that had 250,000 miles on the odometer. They were angels, and they liked to drive with the windows down and the music loud.

They seldom had disagreements about the music; all of them shared a taste for early Elvis Costello, the Pogues, and Buddy Guy, among others. They covered a lot of miles in that Volvo, and had a huge collection of tapes.

They'd been chosen for their stoic, no-nonsense demeanors. They weren't happy to be dead, and they'd all been taken quickly, violently, and  much too young. None of them were much for conversation, but they found  things to say to each other as they drove to and from assignments.

It irritated them that people seemed to think that angels were supposed to be comely. In truth, most angels of their acquaintance were unattractive and ungainly, and there was generally something downright terrifying about the very best and most effective ones. They certainly didn't look anything like what the gift shop loonies and inspirational quacks liked to imagine.

Angels --the real ones-- were expected only to be efficient and  to deliver their message loud and clear. That message tended  to be relatively simple and blunt.

They would get their human assignments trussed and blindfolded in the backseat of the Volvo, and then drive them into dark places, where they would release them into a patch of intense and paralyzing light.

They were epiphanic messengers, the sternest of the angels, and were assigned the hard luck cases and squanderers. Their advice, such as it was, was pretty much boilerplate by this time:

Straighten up and fly right.

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Get your shit together.

Pull your head out of your ass.

And: Live, you lucky bastards.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Wish In The Small Hours

If dogs could stand as tall as humans,
and on their hind legs,
upright, in a manner of speaking,

and if they could negotiate
the complexities of a phone
booth and had change,
or pockets for change,

and if you could still find
a functioning phone booth
in this godforsaken city,

I'd wish a lost dog would dial
my number entirely by accident
at four o'clock in the morning
and beg me to drive across

town to scratch its belly
and murmur consoling endearments
in the parking lot of a SuperAmerica.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Neglected Frontier


He drifted out of the reach of common  sense early and from  then on he could barely be trusted to properly dress himself and was interested in nothing but what he called sonics.

Some days he referred to it as sonus.

He'd be down in the basement and from  the top of the stairs you'd hear things, everything from the tinkling of one or two piano keys to what sounded like radio interference, pure bubbling static. There'd also be the occasional burst of some disembodied voice gargling words and belching. Electronic things, you know, squawks and blips and modulated droning.

He would insist that he was not making music.

He was discovering sound, or so he claimed.

"You are making fucking noise, is what you are doing," the old man would say. "Why don't we just call a spade a spade?"

Which of course only drove him right back down into the basement, back to his racket.

I guess he became somewhat famous in certain circles where the dicking around of obsessive weirdos was embraced and celebrated in a vacuum of obscurity. A prominent magazine once wrote a profile of him in which he was quoted as saying that he was assembling "a living museum of all the sounds that ever were or ever will be. All sonic possibilities will eventually be explored and discovered, or rediscovered, as the case may be. Sound is still the great neglected frontier. There are sounds from the Middle Ages that have not been heard in centuries. Or consider the cries and murmurs of extinct creatures, or an unmistakable or inimitable voice that was dead, buried, and silenced before any of us were even born. All of these things --every last one-- must be recreated."

Despite the fact that he regularly received increasingly unconscionable sums of money from foundations, pretty much everyone around  here was prepared to pronounce him a complete failure.