April 5, 2011

On Being a Writer

On Being a Writer
                I’m not sure why, but at an obviously weak moment when I was 17 years old I sat down at my desk and wrote a story.   And after no editing, revising, creative writing classes, or real encouragement from any real writers or teachers, no ambition, discipline or any reasonable degree of aptitude  announced –to myself mostly –and my best friend, “I want to be a writer.”
                I wish I’d never uttered that phrase.   Some ____ years later, I’m saddled with the weight of that phrase.   I had no idea what I was getting into.   I mean, this is America.  No one really writes anymore, or at least how I imagined writing to be.   Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark don’t write; they work:  8 hours a day, complex formulas, books out on deadlines, book tours, etc.  
                I wanted to write.  I wanted to sit down at the typewriter and see the words pour from my fingers as if they were a magic spell, as if each word had the marking of genius on it.   Surely with enough literature under my belt, I’d be destined for some faculty office at some state university spending my time talking about “Kerouac’s Nation of Underground Monsters” and how they shaped our perceptions of artists today.  I wanted to be a part of the literary dialogue.
Now dig this:   I’m sitting in a coffee shop on Central and I’m a little shocked by what I just saw on the walk over.   A white truck with a black dog in the bed pulled out in front of this green Saturn and was struck by it and spun around ninety degrees.  The dog became a cart wheeling bundle of black fur and twisted and turned in the air for a good twenty feet.   None of the people were harmed, and the cars – good old disposable cars – who cares.  But the dog – he trotted back to the truck and jumped into the bed like nothing happened.

Now I can’t get the image out of my head, this black mass flipping and twisting in the air and I’m almost glad I didn’t see him hit the pavement, and I couldn’t stop and say I was a witness and give my name and address because I kept seeing this bundle of black fur that I didn’t even realize was a dog at first flying through the air in a mass of legs and paws and I’m supposed to write about Kerouac.  I’m supposed to write about the disjointed style and verbal barrage of The Subterraneans when all I see is the black fur flipping and twisting and that image is juxtaposed against an image of my own black dog running out into the street and hitting a car and running back inside and dying on my living room floor.  And I’m supposed to write about Kerouac when I can’t help but shake and freak out.

Take this image from my mind Jack.   Take it with you on the road and you and Cassidy can mull it over and talk about how grand it is as you plow through the eternal present of 40’s America.  And I wonder if you could write fast enough Jack.  I wonder if the very act of writing is counter to Zen because you have to absorb the world then spit it back out.  Then why write?   Why write Jack?  Answer me that.
I wanted to be Jack Kerouac.
And I wanted to get paid having serious conversations with serious people about serious subjects, and I wanted to bullshit my way through it.   I wanted to get paid spouting bullshit.   Bullshit has done a lot for me.   I basically bs’ed my way through high school, much of my college career, and even a teaching certificate.   I’m allowed to teach kids, really.    And this doesn’t strike you as strange?

The Joint


Impossible to ignore,
the joint,
perfectly tapered and rolled,
leered at me from behind my wallet
or was it in my wallet?
I'm not sure, and I want to be sure.
Because if its mine,
then I want to spark it right now…,
drag the smoke into my lungs,
dilating alveoli,
galloping blood and adding THC to oxygen
until the world gets...higher
and grays melt into shades of darker gray and hues of dirty whites,
hints of purples, touches of blues
and I'm pulling my car out onto the highway
putting some Pink Floyd, Ozomatli, Robbie Robertson in
and feeling the engine rev below me
like the world has become a cross section
and I'm am looking at it...
sideways.
Unadulterated joy; unattenuated ecstasy; pure bliss.

But maybe this joint, perfectly tapered and rolled, is not mine?
In all my years of smoking
I've NEVER lost pot, marijuana, ganja, bud, dope, reefer.
NEVER.
It’s like the part of my brain responsible
for remembering where my pot is located is cordoned off,
walled in, surrounded by a gator filled moat
with a neon sign bursting from behind the ramparts
and announcing,
"Your pot, marijuana, ganja, bud, dope, reefer is here."
And it’s possible it’s not.
Because this is not my house,
and the bed that I am sleeping on is not mine,
and there's a Bob Marley tapestry hung from the wall
and it includes his name being spelled out in pot leaf configurations.

You see, I'm a traveling poet,
so I go through periods where couches,
guest bedrooms,
carpeted floors,
recliners make do and I'm sleeping in a stranger's house.

I'm in a cluttered house of a four corners poet,
whose teenage daughter is away,
and I'm on the daughter's bed
and I think this perfectly tapered and rolled joint is hers.
It has to be.
And there it is on the nightstand,
as if it was placed there just for me,
yet this poet,
most certainly her daughter,
doesn't know me well enough to know
that a gift joint
would be greatly appreciated. 
But the idea that it’s a gift doesn't seem right.

And now I'm wondering if I should tell Mom about the joint.
But I'm not Nancy Reagan,
and telling mom that her daughter smokes pot doesn't feel right
and it also feels like its so obvious that mom has to know.
After talking with her the night before, she's too much the realist not to suspect,
if she doesn’t know for sure,
that her daughter, Bob Marley hung from the wall, smokes pot.
She has to know, and I don't want to tell her.
I don't.
Telling her starts with the assumption that she doesn’t know how to raise her kid
and that I do.
And I don't. 
I don’t.

So I leave it, pack my bags, and set out on the road.
Just the thought of pot makes the sky turn a variety of gray
as snow starts to fall and I head up Wolf Creek pass.
My front wheel drive car starts to spin out,
but gets me up and over this nasty road not enjoying the music
but trying not to lose control in a world
that suddenly seems quite hostile
and not at all the kind of world I'd want to be stoned for.

Every time I was up in front of kids, they’d ask me if I smoked pot.   And I could lie, bullshit.   And they’d believe me.  I’m really good at sounding convincing – it’s one of my talents.   Hell, I got promoted in several jobs because I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. 


                Every novel I’ve written, and I’ve written three, is padded with bullshit.   My first novel was

about a private detective hired to find a mom who’s skipped out on her marriage for the hell of it:

On the other side of the plate glass a punk gazed out on the heavy traffic.
Perched, like a parrot, on his shoulder a Sony boom-box blasted the latest
popular rap song.

Can you smell that?  It’s not like I know any private detectives, so I’m channeling Humphrey Bogart?  I saw The Maltese Falcon, once, and now I’m an expert on the “Private Dick.”   A novelist?  Right?  
Not!
Okay.   Okay.  Maybe?   But you can’t write mysteries where things happen for the hell of it.   You can’t.   That defeats the whole point of the genre.  Maybe a real writer could write a mystery where the solution was “shit happens?”  But me?  I should probably stick to stuff that I know.   But, I don’t really know anything; I just sound like I do.
The Blank Page

The blank page
is
undeniably white,
maybe lined,
frayed around the edges
or blue bordered
with common
icons.
But the mass of it is
blank,
like the night sky is mostly empty,
a vacuum,
and the space between nucleus
and orbiting electrons
is empty.
As if it too is waiting
for me
to create upon it.
Nevermind,
that this line
doesn’t use the full margins,
and this font
means that “O”
is set apart
by more
white
than black.
Creativity
needs
empty space,
a hollow chamber,
a background
and a foreground
a quiet house,
with the radio turned off,
the stove simmering
brown rice
and the phone messages returned.
Creating poetry
is
about silence,
not words,
not rhythm,
rhyme,
or conceit,
but listening to silence
and
plucking
the poem
as if it were a blooming dandelion
and blowing parts of it
upon this
blank page
and hoping some of it would grow.
                I took a class – only the third time I’ve taken a writing class.   And you know what?   Real writers, as a rule, are lousy teachers.   And I know, after getting my teaching certificate that writing is one of those skills that takes a long time to master and there is not one sure-fire method for teaching it.   Yet, I sign up for a class that’s offered in the back of Writer’s Digest or offered through Continuing Education, you know:   “Write the novel you’ve always dreamed you’d write!...” and all on a Saturday afternoon.  Most of the time these classes were for people who were writing but just didn’t know what to do next.   Part of the game is finding your audience, figuring out if the world is going to “reward” you by publishing you.   You know my last writing teacher told me this, “You’ve got to write every day.”   That’s it, his basic advice.
                “You’ve got to write every day.”   That’s what I paid for?   I just paid three hundred dollars for you to tell me I’ve got to write every day.   Maybe you could tell me how to brush my teeth too?   “You’ve got to write every day?”
                Yeah.  I know.   Writers write.   Yet, I’d go through these spells where I didn’t write at all.    And the thought of writing, but not sharing it with anybody is a little frustrating.   When I finished my third novel, after 4 years, I never wanted to write again.   I’d spent 4 years trying to convince myself that I was a writer, and I didn’t want to show it to anybody.  But if I didn’t show it to anybody, what the hell had I been doing with my life.   I hadn’t put myself on any other career path.  I just wanted to be a writer.    And now, at ____________ years old, I’m starting to question the whole idea.
                Why couldn’t I have decided I wanted to be a basketball player?  
                At least by 24 you know whether you’re going to make it as an NBA star or not.  
                 But writing?   The world is full of stories of writers who don’t “make it” until after they’re dead:   Henry David Thoreau published 2 books by the time of his death and during his life was considered sort of “weird.”   Edgar Allen Poe died basically penniless on my birthday in 1849.   Emily Dickinson published seven poems in her lifetime, seven.   Franz Kafka’s best work wasn’t even published until after his death.  There’s a whole website dedicated to “late-blooming novelists.”   That’s people over fifty.   Over fifty? 
                The world is full of stories of writers who don’t make it until they’re in their fifties.   So if I give up now, then when I hit fifty, I’m gonna start asking myself, “What if I’d stuck it out?   Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for my kind of stuff yet?   Maybe I just haven’t met the right people?”  You can spend your whole life writing and still not make it and suddenly, a week after you die, they discover you.  I could die poor, reams and reams of unpublished stories that I cart from house to house, and still not amount to a thing.   And then, suddenly, upon my “untimely” demise, I’m found and discovered brilliant.   What kind of crap is that?
                So you see the riddle I’m faced with in my rapidly approaching middle age?  Do I write and hope that someday I’ll make it?   I’ll produce something that someone with a little bit of money will buy and invest in and suddenly I’ll be on the career path that I chose?   And if I’m never “discovered” do I continue to write even though my teeth are falling out of my head, my finances are burying me under a mountain of bills, and I’m slowly accumulating a long list of ex-girlfriends who hate me because I wrote about our relationship?  
You’re Nuts
This one is dedicated to my ex-girlfriend.
It’s called “You’re Nuts.”
When the salted peanuts stale and the cashew and pistachios start to mix and match in the bowl,
I will think of you.
When the soft caress of a female voice starts to crack the shell covering my heart,
I will think of you.
When the Payday starts to sour and the taste of another girl’s kiss reminds me of the late night kisses,
long embraces, times I spent with you, I will remember your hollow shell
and I will think of you.
You’re nuts.
You’re the cashew that cracked upon hitting the floor,
the black peanut on the bottom of the bag,
the pistachio that only opens when bitten between molars,
the brazil nut that is ground up in cheap sorbet,
the rotten walnut that spoils the carrot cake,
the “chestnut roasting on an open fire” that goes up in flames and burns the house down at 5 AM;
you’re the bag of corn-nuts that’s been stuck in a bus station vending machine for 3 years,
the almond in a candy bar named “Almond Pain;
you’re Tom Green’s gonad that’s been removed on live television.
You’re nuts.
You’re nuts.
You’re nuts!
You really are.

                What kind of life is this?   What if this is the story I’m supposed to tell?   What does that leave?   Because you see, I want stuff.  I want a new computer, a new stereo, my own house, a Camaro I can trade in on a Corvette.  I want a 401K, a retirement plan, a dental and medical plan, a health club membership, 2.5 kids, a riding lawn mower.
                And writing, unless I’m sort of inhuman machine and can crank out book after book, ain’t gonna do it.   Writing ain’t gonna do crap.  
Underwater
I want to write a poem that can be understood under water,
that can be listened to half submerged with just your eyes,
nostrils,
and mouth a part of air.
Your lover holds you
the poem is transmuted through the filter,
the long slow sound waves through liquid
no louder than your breath,
which at times is the loudest sound you hear.
Your skull's an echo chamber
as you realize even your breath carries a tune,
varies pitch and frequency.

I want to write a poem that would announce the coming of a tsunami,
a hurricane of thought as the words lack clarity,
a series of vowel sounds.
In the water, the consonants don't make sense:
a "K" sounds like an "A,"
a "T" is nothing more than an "E."
I want to write a poem that does this,
yet also says, "I love you,"or "This shit is fucked,"
or "Let me tell you about somethin'" under water,
where fish can rise and say, "That is deep," and want to cry.
And may be they do cry?
You'd never know,
cause your bodies submerged in tears as well.
                I surrender.   I like to write.  I need to write.  I like to get in front of people and read what I write.  Occasionally, I write something that makes people laugh.   But, sometimes in moments of distress, like when my teeth hurt, another bill collector gets my new number, or yet another girl dumps me, I wish I’d said, “I want to be a micro-systems analyst,” or “I want to administer Novocain to struggling artists.”  But I didn’t.  After that story, at 17 years old, I announced, “I want to be a writer.”
A writer.
I'm a writer.
I'm a writer.

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