Wednesday, October 31, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 13 - Reality of Summer Days

When I counted them later while taking stock, it would seem like I had had a lot of dates in the museums – from someone I’d known in Beirut to someone I’d just met at the Art Students League, but in context these dates were so rare as to be outside the picture, for I was in the museums more than once a day, for many, many crucial months, and in memory I was almost always alone, seeing art works and my life in challenging and harsh and soft new ways.

I stood in front of one of the Met’s Hobbema’s while an escorted group came through and they were being told about how every leaf on the trees in Hobbema’s 17th century forest looked real and brought up a gentle summer day – this scene in very dark woods that I very gradually, realized were not at all safe and gentle and summery. I found myself complaining to myself about myself – how could I, a man so attuned to nature, I asked myself, how could I not respond to this moving evocation of a placid summer day in a clearing in gentle summery woods?

Right behind the Hobbema there was a door leading to a high balcony surrounding a bright and airy courtyard, many stories high and lit with real light from a sweeping skylight and a wall of glass that brought in the park from outside. A place with benches upon which to sit and contemplate in the middle of this airy courtyard what seemed to me light-hearted bits and pieces of popular art – an actual Greek revival bank façade from somewhere in the Middle West, colorful if rather nice-nice works in Tiffany glass, and an amusing carved church pulpit with circular steps and on the top an extremely tight-ass angel heralding some version of something with a trumpet. In this imaginative courtyard, which felt like a holiday place, I felt better. But then I went up on the balcony again and back in that door to old Dutch paintings, and I stood again looking at the summer day woods scenes, and I was no closer to being able to enter what I still thought must be the immensely appealing Hobbema world.

That night and sporadically for succeeding nights my dreams took me to those 17th century woods in the Dutch lowlands – those woods that in dreams were so very dark, so deadly dangerous, woods in which I became lost - woods that I knew now once existed in lowland Holland, but now for me were morphed with the dark high altitude woods of my often dangerous childhood in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.That place that in memory, as memory was meant to be in my family, was supposed to the mold for perfect summer days.

I kept returning now to the Hobbema’s because they had something I had to see – something that took me to dark places that lay deep in my heart and mind, so deep down they had nearly been forgotten, and now I was back there – pictures on the wall of museums taking me back. For the darkness and the danger were so clearly there now. And it was so freeing now that I could see it. Matisse’s Piano Lesson did this for me too – that woman hovering above the imprisoned child at the piano, whose child’s glance nonetheless goes to a smooth bronze woman, one of Matisse’s own small sculptures playing a role in his painting – the naked bronze girl as warm as the hovering woman is cold.

And then I hunted up the Arshile Gorky’s that had deadly sexuality – especially his non-representational paintings of exposed thorns and razor sharp edges, genital shapes of domination that are a diagram into the necessity for suicide – far more so than his early painting in the Whitney of his mother in Turkish-held Armenia, shown close to when she died of starvation in the genocide time.

Then I was drawing and painting myself, studying around the clock, and I tried to do a black, threatening lizard-like figure of what I thought I would find more threatening than anything else – a scaly black armor-wearing stranger who would stop me and torture me. But this lizard figure morphed into an enigmatic woman with a sweet but also strong face and luscious bare shoulders, the woman appearing from some strange place as I painted, appearing standing high above a perhaps mythical landscape that I found myself portraying, a landscape I was not aware I had ever seen before, just as I was not aware there was such a smooth bare woman who would, like a lizard, appear when I felt under threat. And she was standing, so smooth and bare, high above this unending landscape of jagged mountains and deep gorges with zigzagging waters rushing through.

This was when I was not writing because my writing had become so predictable, if saleable, that it was of no use to me and, I knew, would be of no use to anyone else. In my writing in the time when I decided to stop writing,the scaly stranger would have been set in place so there could be no surprises - like something dead.

But then I began to wonder what might happen in writing if I just let what was here appear, let the scenes and the connections come, get out of the way of my art in writing as I was doing in visual realms.

But at this time I thought of all literary things with distaste – control things that were in the world of rigor and order and forced conclusions, so rarely in realms of art. In this time when life had never been better, so soon after life had seemed to be winding down – this time now. I was in and out of museums and galleries and then painting classes and life drawing sessions from the dawn to the middle of the night – coming and going to and from my one-bedroom apartment with a view over rooftops in the south, this apartment that I had turned into a studio, wide shelves added for art materials, everything removed from the walls except my drawings and paintings, my perspective studies and my color wheels, my anatomical diagrams and soft flesh pastels, the main bed removed to leave space for easels and armatures and plaster casts of humans or their bones or muscles, and a drafting table.

I would wake up at dawn on a daybed and know what was around me. But also know how the landscape of my life had changed. How seemingly safe people in my personal landscapes past and present and future had been revealed as betrayers, even molesters. How neo-Victorian family members – intelligent, sometimes honored, cautiously Ivy League – family members who had seemed at worst comic in their stuffiness had turned into people who now seemed like characters in horror stories. Despite their veneer, they had left in their wake molestation and addiction and hopeless depression, and the often violent early deaths of sons and daughters.

In the early morning I would lie on the day bed for a time in a suspended state, as if there has just been a major death and as if, if I kept my eyes closed, I could pretend it had not happened yet.

Lying on the daybed in what was now my crowded studio, my eyes shut, remembering, then, other paintings visited and revisited for the hope they gave me. Matisse’s harsh but still connected piano lesson – Deibenkorn’s capturing of life-giving color, Joan Mitchell's exuberance, Manet's reality, and Daubigny, among the painters new to me - his use of green in river bank scenes causing me to breathe deeply with happiness, and remember something wonderful this time that I knew once and had nearly forgotten, and had not, in my professional writing life, had words for. Knowing now that this was what I wanted,both the light and the blackness. This I should write about, and to get to the light I had to go through those woods again.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 12 - Insomnia

I toss around. I get up, have a fake cheese snack, fake cheese so I will not die with clogged arteries, and then I try again. Back in bed I look at the old clock radio whose tape player has not worked for years. When I went to bed it was midnight, and I have to be up at eight so there had been time for a full nights sleep. But now it is 3, and then 4, and I see daylight creeping in from behind the shades. Almost no time left, and I have a lot to do in this day ahead. Better take a pill – though it might be even better to have a cigarette.

I toss and I turn, kind of drugged up now, and it would really be much better if I can smoke. I haven’t had a cigarette in over 20 years. But when I had my last one it was at the end of that day’s regular three packs. So who knows when the lung cancer will strike.

That past comes in. A cigarette on the edge of the desk. All desk edges had cigarette burns. A cigarette right after making love. “Fucking” was the word even way back when it first became relevant to me, a word back then, and sometimes now, more thought and acted upon than spoken. Leaning over to some night table somewhere and finding the cigarettes. Probably putting two in my mouth at the same time so that there will be one to pass on to the girl, in the style of Humphrey Bogart, who must have had an incredibly long list of women fucked. I am not getting any closer to sleep. Maybe I can try what I used to do for sleep when I was in an upper bunk at Ft. Benning in the silly peacetime army. I would think in chronological order of every girl I had ever fucked – which had been a very short list until the months just passed in Indianapolis at the time the Indiana Legislature was meeting. A sweet red-headed whore named Cindy in a flea bag hotel. And then the list got longer just before I was drafted, for I spent those last weeks in Batista’s Cuba. But the list is still short enough so that it needs women almost fucked, and then women I was determined to fuck one day, especially women whom I had not met yet, women in my imagination. But this is not helping at all. Could it really have put me to sleep at Ft. Benning fifty years ago? Of course I am now beside my beautiful wife whom and love and is sleeping peacefully – not in a bunk in the barracks.

I toss and I turn. There are still so many loose ends in my life, going back into the deep past. Was I or was I not molested as a child? Does Aunt Betsy count? Three months behind on the mortgage. Isn’t it time I made money from writing again? Writing is probably all over for me. And the old Volkswagen Golf, its left front tire has a not so slow leak, and there is a strange screeching sound that starts when I pull out of the driveway and does not stop for five minutes, and the whole car shakes and rattles when the speedometer passes 50. And my twin brother, with whom I have been through so much since childhood, my brother the good twin, not so much fun as me the bad twin, and really quite dangerous – the CIA and an even worse Defense Department agency – in Southeast Asia in two periods when I was there on the other side. And up well into middle age, well after I became published, he was still sending me ads from a Washington paper for door-to-door salesman jobs or entry level jobs in grim business writing. He has been sending me classified ads like this for thirty years. And what if it should turn out he was right about me all along. And an ear-nose-throat doctor has just told me that the ringing in my ears is there because something is “asymmetrical,” which calls for an MRI, and I know what that means.

I used to be able to lie in bed and my memory was so good I could put together whatever it was I was doing on any day in the year if I could figure out where the week started.

I groan at the thought of every book or magazine article or pamphlet or web article about how to overcome insomnia. Very light exercise before sleep. Use the bed only for sleeping! Tighten your head muscles, then neck, then shoulders, down to the tips of your toes. Take a hot bath. Have a snack, but not too much. Rid your life of caffeine. Go to bed at exactly the same time every night. Keep the window open. Always keep it shut. Use something from nature – valerian or melatonin or L-tryptophan or a homeopathic concoction. And nothing works. Nothing.

Everything in life open ended. Cathy, whom I loved, then Vannie, whom I loved, then Judy, whom I loved, then Bonnie, whom I loved, and my first wives, Anne and Brenda, loved them too, and then more of the might-have beens – Tina, the girl with net stockings, the pretty freedom fighter in Nicaragua, and on and on and then all the way back to earliest times, to Sandie, and most of all to Kitty. I could stay up all night dreaming of Kitty in that time when I was 15 and it looked for the first time that life would work out.

I wonder now if anyone but me has noticed that those giveaway pamphlets about how to sleep that you sometimes see in doctors officers are produced by drug companies that sell sleeping pills. Certainly everyone has noticed that a good percentage of the anti-smoking TV ads are produced by Phillip Morris, a company whose life depends upon people being addicted young to nicotine, and that the most visible ads for moderate drinking come from Budweiser.

I am feeling coldly logical now. Something is falling into place that should go into the book on writing I am writing. It goes like this: If the pill companies have an interest in promoting insomnia, and the cigarette companies in seeing that nicotine addiction flourishes, and Budweiser needs binge drinking for its bottom line, what about the hidden motives of the owners of writer’s magazines and publishers of how-to-write books who say all writers should sit for three hours a day in front of computer screens even when the screens are blank? Or that everything will be fine once you learn to use hooks and epiphanies and closures in all your stories.

I toss and I turn, trying one side and then the other. In my mind I see steel shelves at Barnes & Noble holding books with advice on how to write and how to overcome writer’s block. They must weigh a ton. You could get killed if they fell on you.

Monday, October 29, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 11 - Without a Family

For a time I had gotten away with writing without context. I of course ignored advise that I use my experiences from my childhood. When I wrote a novel that got published – that event that nearly all who write think will change their lives forever – I let my characters spring into life as if born as adults.

The novel had three main characters – the hero, his friend, and his girlfriend, and many side characters, many of them beautiful women since the novel was set in late sixties Bangkok, in a time of wild erotic happenings and cloak and dagger things, and constant assassinations - so much going on that neither my new agent nor the editor who accepted the book for publication seemed to notice that no one in it had had a childhood. The main character was me, living by my wits. The girlfriend was Marcy, an American who had dropped out of an Antioch Colete work-study program in Tokyo to work in a night club and had come to Bangkok with a CIA man who wanted me dead. Actually my twin brother was in Bangkok then too, working for a Defense Department agency geared to helping Southeast Asian armies work over their countries’ peasants. I was clearly on the other side, which made me and my brother to a considerable extent enemies – not unlike how it had been when we were children He didn’t appear in the novel, neither as child nor man, though so many of the people I knew in Bangkok had cameos. And I kept things moving so fast that neither the agent the nor the editor noticed that no one in the book could have had a childhood since no one in the book had a family.

I got away with this once, but soon afterwards – while living in a claustrophobic Middle Eastern place – I could not do it again. I had signed a contract, and took more advance money, to do another novel, using the same agent and with the same editor. It seemed to me a fitting sequel to the last book, but the opening chapters were sent back by the agent with angry letter. He did not question that the writing was mine, but he just could not believe the life I was portraying. It was as if I had made a clumsy attempt to make up an implausible story. Although this was a novel, although this was fiction, it still had to be more believable than what he had seen. The background of my main character – who happened to be in his mid thirties like me then, and who had done the same things I had done – was so unconvincing, he said, that the story was clearly based on nothing real.

And then the agent said he wondered why in the narration there was nothing at all about where the character had come from, nothing about his childhood, family or background. I did not think then that this was a significant question, though I did remember what Berta had said in Manila about my Florida childhood stories. Now, it seemed, the agent and editor were as off-base as Berta.

Actually this lack of a family of origin was the only part of that novel-in-progress not based on fact. It was only later I realized that the manuscript could not possibly have rung true to the agent, for in life there can no such gap. And maybe that was why the rest of the story seemed artificial to him too.

But where was the public, I asked myself, for anything so uninteresting as my family?

It was much later that it became clear to me that at that time I had not been writing so much because of what I needed to say as because I wanted to keep on having work published. I needed to be A Writer. Strange, I had thought, that this agent, who enjoyed a great deal of success with works that were commercial, should think I was getting it wrong.

The character in my book whom the agent said was not believable, the one who seemingly had sprung to life fully grown, had traveled to the heart of Borneo on the Kapuas River in a time of ritual cannibalism. He had been in insurrections in Angola, Haiti, Cuba, Greece and Malaysia, even though he was not a soldier and not really a war correspondent and did not work for any intelligence service. He had somehow crossed Africa alone from Khartoum to Fort Lamy, traversing a thousand-mile stretch for which maps showed small villages but no roads. Most recently, although he had a poor sense of direction, he had flown small planes for recreation in areas – Lebanon, Cyprus – where you might encounter anti-aircraft artillery if you went a few moments off course. At various times he had already, before coming to the Middle East phase, lived in Slovenia, Greece, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines – as well as the, to him, equally foreign Indiana and Georgia. And, after leaving a boozy, gray, socially correct college, he had gone through a rapid career in wire service journalism, then put in nominal Army time as a draftee while continuing as a newsman, and then gone on to independent adventure. And this was only the start of what had happened – jail in Mississippi in the Civil Rights time, for example, and an unexplained, even to himself, period moving between the Canary Islands and Malta

These were matters already dealt with in the opening chapters of that autobiographical novel I was writing. But there were so many other matters that were not in it.

Without a family, the character in the book again could not have a twin brother, like the author’s twin brother, who was in the C.I.A. and worse. He could not have a first cousin, maybe it was two or even three first cousins, who, like the author’s cousins, had killed themselves. Nor did he, like the author, have a cousin who had been an armed kidnapper, nor a cousin who was in and out of battered women's shelters and had been fucked and beaten by her brother from the age of 7 until she was 16. He did not have a father who as a child had been left with governesses at Christmas while his parents toured Europe. And he did not have a mother who had spent a crucial part of childhood in courtrooms where her father was on trial for political shenanigans. And he had not been raised being told he was slow and stupid. And, moreover, without a family there were no family drug and alcohol problems.

And my character had not spent the summers of his formative years in grandiose, quite beautiful and intensely formal mountain houses where most in these houses, isolated from other human contact, spoke with fake British accents. And he did not have a father who published light personal experience books about big happy families of regular people, nor a grandfather who wrote well-received sexless novels – writing that was so important that no others in the family, it was understood, need ever write anything themselves.

Friday, October 26, 2007


The one consolation when I did that final travel writing project more than 20 years ago was that there are even worse things that people do and call themselves writers. Most business “writing” falls in this category, for reimbursement goes well beyond the free accommodations given to travel writers in exchange for lying. In most, if not all, business writing you are being paid directly or indirectly to lie to promote clients who do harm.

The next step down is ghost-writing – which is a way out for people scared to death of their own stories.

And one step below reducing yourself to another person’s ghost is the pretentious falsification of what is real in the name of fiction.

At the bottom is falsification of your own story.

I speak not just as an observer. I speak with the authority only a once active alcoholic has when speaking of alcoholism.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 10 - Stories Told Once

If in my father’s side of the family there could be no stories beyond the stories long ago set in place and constantly repeated, in my mother’s side it often seemed to me there were hardly any stories at all that were repeated. Her great grandmother, she said once, had hidden in a barrel feathers in southern George when the Yankees came through. After the Civil War they had all moved to Galveston, but then the tidal wave came, and they wound up in Dallas, and then her parents had appeared in Long Island. That was about it.

My father walked in on my mother and me. He was red faced in a tuxedo, and it was like we had been caught out in something disgraceful. He was returning from a class dinner to this Perry Street apartment he had rented so they would have a city presence. He had rented it on his own and so never heard the end of what was wrong with it. I assumed the red in his face came from drinking with his old classmates, but I also suspected anger. And anyway there had been plenty to drink here on Perry Street too. For no clear reason my mother had been telling me, with hardly any specifics, about the kind of thing I had never heard anyone mention in connection with this fragile family – an affair she was saying she had had after she was married. And she was saying how it still hung over her life.

The story of the affair was something that – like all stories from her life – was told once and never again.

Like her abortion. My first wife was suddenly pregnant at what did not seem such a bad time to me, though things concerning career seemed up in the air and we were not established in the sense of being owners of property. I wanted the child and she didn’t, and at some point she phoned my mother, with whom she did not get on, and, she said, my mother told her that she, my mother, had once had an abortion. Something I never heard of before or later, and maybe no one else had either.

My mother passed through Greece when I was living a bohemian life there. She was on the way back from Cambodia where she and my father’s mother had been visiting my twin brother Peter who was doing the family proud, she said, in his very correct job as a Foreign Service Officer with the American embassy in Pnom Penh, where as part of the deal he had a big house and servants all to himself. She did not come my house – one room without plumbing on the side of the Acropolis. Instead, we met at a seafood restaurant for a long lunch with plenty to drink outdoors in Piraeus. A bedraggled young gypsy girl came to our table and held her hand out and stared at us. “No one,” my mother said firmly,” should look so hopeless.”

Later in the meal my mother told me how when she was a girl in Long Beach, Long Island, and her Texas father was working for the Republican machine in Garden City, she had spent many days in court seeing, she said, “Daddy on trial.” Like the affair and the abortion, I had no indication she had ever told any of this to anyone else who was still around. It never came up again. Years later she told me she could remember nothing of her childhood before she was in boarding school.

Once and once only she said it really had been hard on Dad to have her mother living with us – her mother from Dallas who sat in her room surrounded by antiques, and a decanter and a small portable radio that looked like a small suitcase, which she played all day and then at dinner relayed what she had heard, as if the commercials were objective news casts.

Mother almost always spoke highly of my father’s family, but once she said they had given him a horrible childhood. She said it once, and never again and no one else said it either. His parents would travel all over the world and leave him at home with a governess, she said – even at Christmas, she implied. This sad little boy, whom she had first spotted in the White Mountains from the small golf course at the Sunset Hill House, where she went every day in summer and could see him coming up the hill from his family’s place in his pony cart.

When she and Dad got married, she said, her father, who was always writing and wanted badly to be a published writer, came up to stay at the Sunset for the wedding. He was divorced from Grandmother Clark, who had been a Texas debutante when he was a Texas ranch hand back in open range days. He was excited just before the wedding, she said, because, he had already arranged to go on a long walk with the man who was about to be her father-in-law, who we called Gaga but was known to others as Ernest Poole as, you know, they always said, the famous novelist.

Before the walk, Mother said, Gaga and her father, Grandfather Clark, had a drink together. Gaga pointed out it was the Depression, and asked him how he would help the new married couple. He said he was broke. Gaga said well in that case I don’t want to talk to you, and he canceled their walk.

When I brought this up another time she kept to the pattern and did not repeat the story. Instead, she said, You should remember, Frederick, that Gaga was a wonderful man.

WRITTEN WORD 9 - Penthouse

There had been a message from someone named Sly from Penthouse on my answering machine. Sky’s words were slurred on the tape. But I caught “Marcos” and I caught “payment.”

I called him back and he said to come right over. The office was near Lincoln Center. I’d been there once before because another editor at Penthouse had bought rights to the Imelda Marcos chapter of the book I did with Max Vanzi on the horrors of the Philippines in Marcos’s last years when his and Imelda’s old friends Nancy and Ronnie Reagan had become the Marcos’s counterparts and sponsors. The Marcoses had gone wild sending out death squads through the archipelago, convincing tens of millions of Filipinos that with Reagan in power the Americans would, if needed, come out of their big Philippine bases to kill Marcos enemies.

Sly – dark, long black hair, black suit, black shirt – was sniffling as only someone who has just had a line or two can sniff – and was so edgy I thought Dexedrine as well as cocaine.

We had just about sealed a deal whereby I would spread Penthouse money around to secure a tape mentioned in our book when it occurred to him to ask if it was video – without video the conversation took another direction. The tape was of Marcos in the presidential bed talking and talking in a voice that reminded you of W.C. Fields, talking love and sex words to a Hollywood girl he had put on the government payroll – then singing love songs in his Illocano dialect – a great scandal in the Philippines. Someone had bugged the bed and I’d heard the tape and knew where to get a copy.

Sly went off to the men’s room, came back sniffling – said let’s go downstairs, meaning a plush bar in the building. Since there was no video tape he said he’d give me $5000 – at that time a rare sum for a magazine to spend – if I would give them an update of the Philippines story complete with all recent developments, such as the money pouring into the regime from sex tours and child prostitution. And I was saved for a time from hunting up further hack work.

I did write a piece. I flew out to San Francisco to get filled in by the New People's Army exiles in Berkley – bringing the Philippine horrors up to date. And I was paid. And, as I expected, they decided not to run it, not even in their foreign editions – for Penthouse was very right wing and I had noticed that, just as Sly almost forgot to ask if the tape were video or audio,he entirely forgot to ask if the piece he was buying would be pro or anti Reagan.

I used the money to spend the summer on the hunt not for what went wrong and led to cruel death in Southeast Asia that year but rather what had happened many years back that accounted for the darkness and violence in the present in the seemingly proper Wasp family from which I came.

WRITTEN WORD 8 - Clothed and Naked

The phone rang again and again in this new happy, busy, non-writing time, and though I screened I almost always picked up. But I never answered when I heard it was Myra Mindell, former school teacher and not so confident editor at this young adult oriented publishing house for which I’d been doing small hack-tinted bread-and-butter books for nearly 20 years. Books with low but steady royalties that sold mainly to school libraries and were easy to do and took up very little of my time. These were sometimes books on countries I’d known well – Indonesia, Jordan – but they were in the catalog side by side with other books on countries written by members of American government or corporate world families that are housed in gated compounds and so know almost nothing of the foreign places they are in. And my next to last little book for this publisher had been one in a bigger format with photographs which was about modern China.

And, to my horror, not long before I’d begun screening out the school library publisher, that China book had sat for several weeks in an outdoor display window of the Donnell Library – you could not miss it when you crossed 53rd Street from the Museum of Modern Art – and to my shame my name was on it in big letters, the pretentious three-name author name I had used a decade back on the published novel that was supposed to change my life forever – and I had not confessed to the low-advance-paying bread-and-butter publisher that in my last go-round in Asia I still had not gotten into China – and still worse, I wasn’t sure it would matter to them that a book on modern China was by someone who had never seen it – who wrote it because he had the contract from before he went abroad this last time and because he was in financial trouble and needed the second half of the small advance money.

The phone was still ringing and I was still ignoring Myra Mindell. It was as if those calls were meant in some petty way to pull me back from all the richness of the life I was in. So I had not answered any questions that appeared on my machine about my recent manuscript for that publisher, which was a little historical book about John Cabot and the northern route to the New World, which made me yawn. And I had not answered any of her written questions either, and then I had not responded to Myra Mindell's silly little editorial changes, and after that I had not responded when they had sent me the manuscript after it had gone through a copy editor and was ready for production.

And my sorry, faking-it China book had been in the Donnell Library window when I crossed from the Modern Art Museum.

Though now – months that felt like decades later – there was something parallel going on up on 57th Street.

As I crossed 57th Street from near Carnegie Hall I saw in a display case on the façade of the Art Students League’s wonderful old French Renaissance building two pastel paintings of mine – two portraits, faces of alive women, actual women I had just drawn and painted from life. Women I had actually seen.

And I had found while drawing and painting them that, as opposed to China, the fact that they had been there right in front of me posing without clothes on was my only hope of getting their faces right.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 7 - Writer at Play

I had listened carefully to that young man who was serious about his music, had been commissioned with an advance to write a book about disco music (which he detested) and was seeking help because mysteriously he was not able to write a word. I knew then what the trouble was. It was simply that there was nothing connected to who he was in what he was attempting to write.

I knew that because I realized that all too often what I had been writing and getting published had little meaning for me. And now it was a time when many things in my life were changing and I was finding writing of little help. And then, not quite getting the message, I was thrown into despair because I just could not finish the writing that I was so certain I wanted to accomplish.

It had seemed like particularly good time in my long career as a professional writer. A journalist friend, Max Vanzi, and I had this new book in the stores about the Philippines and its rapacious martial law leaders and its underground revolutionary opposition – the book a first-hand exposé which, now that it was published, was getting attention. Some people liked it. Foreign policy establishment people hated it. When a new book is getting attention from those who hate it as much as from those who like, it is an ideal time to get new book contracts.

I had not focused yet on how long it had been since I had written anything without a contract. But I had these plans, and it seemed like really a perfect time. I had a new apartment, small but light, looking down on a garden and out over miles of rooftops from West 25th Street. And I was just free of a slow-dying marriage. And I had ideas – a proposal for a book exposing with great irony bizarre but entertaining sex and personal development things in California, things that in life but not writing I might actually like. Or a book about the five greatest rivers of the world. Or a travel series based on the lie that all through the Bahamas and the West Indies there are magnificent vestiges of spectacular old mansions and forts and monuments from some grand colonial era, rather than sorry vestiges of a depressing and brutal and greed-filled slave labor time. Not an unusual lie in the world of travel writing, but a lie nonetheless.

The first of my plans to find a home was this one based on the outright lie. Some months later I returned form the Bahamas, and from a very blonde photographer who had gone there with me, in a depression so deep that at first I did not think of it as depression, but rather as a an objective and mysterious set-back. I continued to send out my proposals.

The one that now seemed on the way to a publishing deal was for a book that had been an editor’s idea about what he considered my amusing family. It would be about my late and distinguished Victorian-style grandfather who had been an internationalist early in the century and had won a Pulitzer prize for fiction. It would be about my years of travel and adventure and involvement in left-wing revolution. And also about my twin brother, the proper twin, who roamed the world almost as much as I did but not for the same reasons, since he was on the other side – doing his traveling for usually secret government agencies, most recently the CIA.

A light family experience book, much like the books that my father once published with considerable success. The editor said it should probably be titled Twins in the American Century. (This seemed plausible, in the mid-‘eighties, which no one except Gore Vidal seemed to know was the last point at which there would be non-ironic talk of “the American century.” The contract would be drawn up as soon as I could produce a sample chapter.

I couldn’t write a word. Writers block had never been this bad.

In desperation I looked in the library on 23rd Street for help, and found a book published by Writers’ Digest Press (which I had always considered a con operation) called something like The Natural Way to Overcoming Writers Block. It was by a woman who put forth the thesis that each writer has deep inside him or her a little boy or a little girl who wants to come out and play. Giving your little boy or girl permission to play was what would end writers block.

I had not thought till I read this book that my depression could get even worse.

And then there came from somewhere inside me an embarrassing uproar. Here I was well along in what I looked upon as a serious if checkered career of writing and adventure, and here I was, just turned 50, having never written a word about the first 15 years of my life. And now sadness was chasing out anger was chasing out sadness was chasing out anger was chasing out crying was chasing out fury and sadness and anger – with this surprising lost child coming from some lost place just as if he were and always had been real – and the last thing he wanted to do now that he was back was come out and play. He wanted to rage. He wanted revenge, and he did not care just now how many dead and injured would be left in his wake.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 6 - Arts Anonymous

There is a program that used to be called Arts Anonymous. That was not its full name, but it was offered under the 12-step umbrella and that was what people were calling it. In 1987 I went to one meeting of an Arts Anonymous group on St. Mark’s Place at the request of a friend of mine who wanted company.

By now there was a burgeoning number of different 12-step programs meeting in Manhattan – not just AA and Alanon and Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous but also Messy Apartments Anonymous, and Latecomers and Procrastinators Anonymous and Co-Dependents Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous (not to be confused with Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous).

This one however seemed like a parody of all the rest. The participants in Arts Anonymous introduced themselves as if they were confessing a dangerous addiction. Instead of saying "my name is Harry and I'm an alcoholic" or "My name is Harry and I’m a compulsive over-eater," in this new program the introductory line was, "My name is Harry and I'm an artist."

When I went to this meeting I did not for a moment think I had any problem with writing. It was probably the first time in my life that I did not think I had problems with writing. I had usually seen writing as hard – whether I was blocked or whether the writing was flowing. But that did not matter now, for I had in the past year quit writing. I was in art school – actually taking classes at many New York City art schools, and having the time of my life drawing and painting and working with clay. I didn't think I'd ever go back to working with words. I said as much, when it came my time to speak.

The response was kind of unpleasant. No one had a word to say about this happy development in my life, my discovery that I could draw and paint and even sculpt. I was actually having some early success, and I mentioned it. Before this I had never been a visual artist, but I was learning fast and in less than a year I had, twice in a row, had realistic paintings of women on exhibit at the Art Students League and up in the Catskills my painting of a blue tree was reproduced in the catalog of the Woodstock School of Art.

Still, the pleasure I was taking in visual arts made no impression on the Arts Anonymous people. What did seem to interest them was this awful problem they presumed I was having. No matter that I was getting great joy out of painting. They could not see why I would not be writing unless I was suffering from Writers' Block. "How sad," said an earnest girl in overhauls. "How awful for you," said a middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt with Proust's picture on it. "I'll pray for you," said another earnest girl, who then brought out a small tape recorder and played for us a song about hope sung by Pat Boone's daughter. A motherly older woman said, "We hope what goes on in these rooms will give you the courage to start writing again. Remember, 'Fear and faith cannot live in the same house.'” And another said, “This program works if you work it,” and still another, “Keep coming back."

Most of the talk that evening came from writers, none from composers, and there were only a couple of visual people, both of them joyless, both saying they needed discipline, both eager for commercial success, one as a portrait painter, the other as an illustrator, activities that clearly had little appeal to either blocked artist. They were suffering, but the writers seemed to suffer the most. The writers who said they could not write. Either that or they were writing a little bit and it was a painful ordeal and it wasn't good enough.

The most vocal was a man with long hair and wild eyes, Harry, who said he had been a rock ‘n roll journalist. Recently he had had a great break-through in his career. He had signed a contract and taken advance money for a book, his first book, which was to be a history of disco music.

The idea had come from a publisher and Harry had leapt at the offer – even though he hated all disco music. His feelings about disco were beside the point, he said, because the important thing was that until now he had never had a book published. And now he was in real trouble because the deadline was nearing and he had not written a word about disco. And that was why, he said, he had come to this place looking for help.

The reason he could not write a word, he repeated, was that he hated his subject. But he kept insisting he had to write the book. Some of the people at the meeting backed him up, saying writing was always an ordeal and all he needed was greater discipline. Others suggested he try to get the publisher to agree to another subject, which he said would be impossible, and anyway hatred of disco should not stop what he called "a real writer" from writing its history. I suggested he simply drop the project – something that everyone who writes knows is frequently done. That too, he said, was absolutely impossible. He stressed that it was not the money that kept him from giving up, it was that it was so important to have a published book.

"All my life," he said, "I've wanted to be a writer." It did not matter that the book he wanted to do had nothing to do with his own life, nothing to do with any music he cared about. He wanted to be a published writer.

It was a little like something I had encountered a few years back in Washington when working on a magazine article about the shockingly small handful of U.S. Foreign Service Officers who resigned in protest over American war criminal acts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. One of them, Tony Lake, a well-presented boyish man who put his interviewer at ease, would later become National Security Adviser but for the moment was in exile with a private museum featuring antique decorative arts. He seemed like one of those people destined to be successful at something very respectable, like becoming a controlling executive in public broadcasting, or president of a liberal arts college. Instead, he had risen to a post on the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger. He said that only after he resigned did he realize why he had stayed so long even though hating the work and hating the direction in which American foreign policy was moving – stayed on even while hundreds of thousands of civilians were being mutilated and killed in Southeast Asia because of stupid, vindictive things he and the others who ranked high in America's foreign policy system were doing.

The reason he had stayed on so long in the Foreign Service, he said, was not that he really believed there he could move policy in a decent direction. It was, rather, he said, that he liked the picture he had of himself as one day being a distinguished, retired ambassador.

It sounded to me that Tony Lake had been in the same sort of situation as that of a person who wanted not so much to write as to be A Writer.

A retired ambassador. A published writer. Not a person. Not something important unfolding. Just a title.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Singapore had its beautiful people and its sometimes wild night world but it was a relative place of calm in tropical Southeast Asia of the late l960s, for this was a region that, while erotic and exotic, had many war zones. Because of the relative calm it was in Singapore that I started what had the feel of a publishable novel. It was set in Bangkok, where I had recently been living, a much wilder place in all ways.

The book, which came out two years later under the title Where Dragons Dwell, drew heavily, almost to the point of being memoir, on what had recently been part of my life in Bangkok, including a just finished love affair with a Thai girl who, among other things, sang in night clubs. And it had as a central figure a daring and lovely young American woman, a true ‘sixties figure, who had arrived in town in the dangerous company of a C.I.A. man who was pretending to be a car salesman. This was the Bangkok of the Vietnam era when it was a camp followers' boomtown overrun with spies and con men of all nations, and American soldiers on "rest and recuperation" from the war, in town for drugs and drink and night world girls – a wildly colorful, sex-mad, anything-goes tropical river city of bright palaces and temples right on the fringe of the American Wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Night clubs and bars and huge new massage parlors, side by side with old teak houses on languid canals – and always smooth, smiling girls, their bodies often on display in sarongs, and sometimes in strapless gold lame gowns. And always danger, for almost all the resident foreigners were up to surreptitious activities, like the American girl’s recent C.I.A. boyfriend – foreigners working for intelligence agencies and also conducting scam operations such as selling worthless stock and underwater Florida land to American soldiers and to each other. It was not uncommon for one of their number to be assassinated.

I lived in an airy house built out over the half-mile wide Chao Phya River in Thonbury, across from Thai gunboats and Bangkok’s main temples and palaces and the shaded docks for the royal barges. Just the right setting, I thought, for someone who aspired to literary success.

One night, after I had started writing about Bangkok, I flew from Singapore to the Philippines.

Shortly after I landed in Manila I was having dinner in a well-guarded, walled-off compound with some old American friends. Hal, an amusing and brilliant writer a whom I had known in New York, and his wife Cindy, who had long sandy hair and was sometimes arch and sometimes bohemian and interested in everything. Hal, whom I thought was working beneath himself for the sake of foreign travel, now edited something called Free World, a slick U.S. government, Manila-based propaganda publication, that looked like a shrunken Life and went to America’s cold war Southeast Asia allies, some of which, like Burma and Indonesia, were under martial law, some of which, like Thailand and Cambodia, were monarchies, and some of which, like our puppet state South Vietnam, were out and out military dictatorships. Free World permitted Hal and Cindy, to live like rich people, and be generous to friends like me, in the Philippines, which was fast becoming yet another well-armed dictatorship – meaning nothing in Southeast Asia was free anywhere except in Free World magazine.

Hal and Cindy lived this way because they were being paid by the State Department at a time the dollar was hugely overvalued, and also they had been given – as a perk for the supposed hardship of living outside America – this big solid house fully staffed with servants.

I was surprised at what I heard myself saying here at their round polished mahogany dinner table, servant girls padding around us. I was not talking now about my recent life in Bangkok, where I had thought of myself as both a pillar of and the Boswell of its night world. I suddenly was talking instead about a time during World War II when I was nine and my parents had separated (though it was never called that). I talked about how we had all left Connecticut, my father for the city, my mother, my Southern Grandmother Clark and my twin brother Peter and myself to stay for some undefined period of time at a hotel in Florida that was built around a tile patio with old pieces of eight embedded in it, a place that appeared to be made of found driftwood and was called The Driftwood, a place where everyone was drinking on shaky porches and balconies all the time.

Back there in Florida, I told Hal and Cindy, my mother and her mother had quickly lost track of us. For no apparent reason they failed to put us in school. They brought along fourth grade textbooks but forgot to make us use them. Peter did find the textbooks and spent his days studying alone at the hotel, where he was often the only sober living human. Me, I wandered.

I had a small bicycle I rented out to soldiers billeted at a much bigger nearby beach hotel, a white stucco box building across from a beachside bar called Max's Tavern, where Mother and Grandmother Clark sometimes took us for hamburgers. It was a dark place, smelling of onions and stale beer, with a juke box always playing – "Stars at Night," clap, clap, "Are big and bright," clap, clap, "Deep in the heart of heart of Texas," along with "Praise the lord and pass the ammunition, For we're on a mighty mission...", and also crooner songs by Bing Crosby and a very young "Frankie" Sinatra. Soldiers drank and danced with tanned women who had long, bouncy hair and bright lipstick and sometimes wore only bright colored halters with their shorts or skirts. Along one wall was one of the best things I had ever seen – a row of slot machines. Even better than best, since Mother said this was illegal. "One-armed bandits," said Grandmother Clark, a gambler herself, as she downed a Manhattan cocktail.

Each day after this discovery I went to the back door of Max's with coins I had collected from the soldiers who used my bicycle – along with more coins I got by jiggling the receivers of pay phones I passed (the phone system so badly run in wartime that this was income I could count on). They let me in by the back in daytime so that I could play the slot machines.

Meanwhile, in my wanderings I made friends with a boy dressed in rags who lived in a shack in the orange groves, and sometimes we staged battles with rotten fruit. But mostly I wandered alone.

One day I came out of a dark palm jungle where I'd seen many reptiles and a wild boar, and often had fearful thoughts of death. And as I emerged on the main road, tanned and freckled, my hair bleached nearly white by the sun and hanging nearly to my shoulders – for, like school, barbers had been forgotten – a convertible stopped and people in bright clothes with cameras got out and took my picture. I was quite sure they thought I was a swamp rat, a colorful, backwoods, forgotten child who lived here alone in the jungle.

Many years later in Southeast Asia when I got around to telling someone this story, Cindy, my hostess in Manila, said, "Fred, this is what you should be writing about."

But I was not swayed from my view that my recent anything-goes time in Bangkok would have far greater appeal than anything in my childhood – as would the subjects of planned future books using, as background, my time underground in Portuguese Angola during Holden Roberto's guerrilla war, or in Borneo and Laos, or Syria and Cyprus, or Haiti and Cuba, or again my time in Bangkok, or right here in Manila outside this heavily guarded Manila compound, out beyond the walls in the cockfight arenas and wild brothel-dance halls nearby, places filled with sleek smooth girls of the night beside whom American women could seem pallid.

What did Cindy know about big exotic worlds? That I should write about that time in mundane Florida! It made me furious.

I was in my early thirties now, which seemed like I was well along in years, but it was another twenty years before I began to know, or dared to know, my deeper stories.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 4 - Beyond fiction

One thing that helped me bury my deeper stories for many years was respect for “fiction.” I was from a literary family. My grandfather, Ernest Poole, had won the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction with a novel, His Family, that was partly taken from his own life. Vital parts of what might be life to other people – especially sex that might be appealing – were ruled out. All of his couples slept in separate bedrooms whether married or not (which was the tendency in his own family, and in the families of his children and even with all but a few of us in the generation that came next ). In one scene in my grandfather’s best known novel, The Harbor, a boy in Brooklyn sees a naked prostitute in a window, as had my grandfather himself when young in Chicago, and the result is terror mixed with prudishness, without an apparent touch of admitted lust. The boy runs home to take comfort from his mother. I respected this because it was in a published book, because it was literature and because the author was my grandfather. But it did not seem quite right, and not because I could not picture the naked girl.

My father was a book person too. He was editor-in-chief of a publishing house where for a long time he had great success not with “fiction” but with light, personal experience “nonfiction,” stories of happy, again apparently sexless, families of regular people – Chicken Every Sunday, Cheaper by the Dozen, Excuse my Dust – families that were not from the same planet as the very formal family from which he came and where he had been a lonely boy with a pony cart, often left alone with a governess in one of his parents’ big formal house in the otherwise scruffy White Mountains of New Hampshire while his parents traveled abroad. There was no seeming connection between his own life and the lives of the regular people in the books he published. Here, it later seemed to me, was real respect for fiction, even though it was not labeled as such. These happy first person family-story books were taken by book clubs, made the best seller lists, sometimes became movies – and then it all came to an end with the rise of television. At that point all the happy, funny, too-good-to-be-true family stories, stories in which sex never reared its ugly head in any way that seemed real, were taken over by fifties television sitcoms that depicted the world as fearful people hoped it would be in the bland and repressive Eisenhower years. Soon my father was out of work.

What I first wanted to write had to do with things I read when I was alone at Holderness, my boarding school – gentle Georgian buildings, political and literary discovery and adolescent cruelty down in New Hampshire’s lake country. At the beginning, shunned by the world, it seemed, I was reading everything from adventure stories to Shakespeare, everything except books assigned in classes. Each night I had to go to evening study hall because I was one of the slow, dull students. I sat in a musty old assembly room in a building we called the Schoolhouse, which had once been an old-time one-room schoolhouse and now had individual classrooms added around the periphery of this central room. Here each of we 68 boys had a very old desk – initials from the deep past carved in the slanting, rutted, varnished top, which was on a hinge so that the top could be pulled up, leaving a box containing school books, and just above the hinge an indentation where a pencil or nub pen could rest without sliding down into your lap, and to the right of the indentation a cut-out circle where there was an old ink well, every inkwell checked for refilling every day.

I sat on a seat attached to the desk behind me. It was a little ghostly, since the vast marjority of the boys were on room study.

I read only from the first year English anthology. I was not doing homework, and I only opened my other school books so that it would look like I ws studying. But I was way beyond homework, for I was discovering, on my own, first Kipling and then Shakespeare and then Wordsworth, and then Conrad, taking in their words while trying to look like I was involved with Algebra , which was taught by the football coach, and geography and world history, where our teacher was the basketball coach and the books seemed like the baby talk books of elementary school, and Latin and French, which made no sense at all to me.

I had these books, and in time I was sent another book from home, my grandfather’s last book, The Nancy Flier, just published posthumously by my father many years after the book where the naked girl in the window made a cameo appearance. By the time it arrived I was still reading from the English anthology but I was also up to my ears in modern novels, which in study hall I hid inside the text books, which, designed for 14 year olds, were slim but tall and wide.

The Nancy Flier was an historical novel about a boy who worked on stage coaches in the White Mountains. It was set in a stage coach inn between Lisbon and Littleton which still stood, though long abandoned, and had been pointed out to me every summer of my life. In this novel there was a brief appearance by a young man from over in Portsmouth who was a cabin boy on a clipper ship. I decided I would take this minor character and make up a book-length story about him – a clipper ship companion piece to my grandfather’s stage coach book.

Except that I did not believe either boy had ever existed – not like the title character in Studs Lonnigan who lusts after his sister, or the narrator in Wolfe, who wants to experience everything in the world and pretty much does it with women, including one who is older and seems to envelope him in flesh, or Hemingway, who combines war and sex, or Fitzgerald, who writes of basically unattainable but sex-driven girls high on the social scale in societies that can seem as outwardly staid as that from which I came.

It would briefly occur to me that I might be writing about my own life, and the though was quickly dismissed. I couldn’t do anything like that in those boarding school years – write stories from life! Things were changing rapidly for me in this little school, now that I was living away from my family. Suddenly so much was opening up for me that I was doing as well as, and usually better than, my twin in this school. And I was bringing debating trophies to the school. And outside the school my life also now has girls in it.

But who in the world would be interested in real stories by such a shy person as me whose grip on the story he wanted to live was still so tenuous?

When J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye came out two years later it seemed to many of us – like me at Holderness and our friend from the summer Lou Cornell at Taft – that this changed everything – a matter about which my brother and I, so often rivals now, completely agreed. A book confirming the real place in the real world of a prep school boy. Something, it seemed, no one had noticed till now. Boys at many boarding schools were suddenly writing each other letters that were really letters of congratulations. At last our side was winning. The dumb and cruel but popular athletes had no idea what we were talking about. And the book critics were dismissing it all as vulgarity.

In my three years now at this little school I had been feigning disinterest in the bullies to the point where I almost, but not quite, believed they would not win in the end – and now maybe The Catcher in the Rye would be their death knell. Holden Caulfield was reporting on much of what had been my experience – family and school worlds where he was not understood, bullying and snobbery in a small prep school, a longing for actual sex with actual girls – surrounded by boys who operated from snobbery and physical cruelty. Holden and I were not exactly alike – he wasn’t a competitive debater. I had never gotten so close to sex as he did when a sad young prostitute came to his room at a sad Times Square Hotel. Moreover, I was not nearly so successful as him at putting my life into my own words, not words it was supposed to be in. But we were close enough. We loved girls. We hated phoniness. What a wonderful word, phoniness. It covered so much. We were real outsiders and by now I, like Holden, was no longer ashamed of it.

Still, there was something that disturbed me about the Salinger book.

In my last year in boarding school, when I was no longer seriously unpopular, a group of us met in New York on Easter vacation – got noisily drunk on gin – gin and tonic and something called a pink lady – moving around among the many places that would serve people under 18, which was then the legal age – the very formal dark wood and leather men’s bar at the Biltmore, the very informal Village place called Julius’s, which had sawdust on the floor, the Dixieland places Jimmy Ryan’s and Eddie Condon's, and the bar at One Fifth Avenue. Too drunk to go to any home, we decided to get a hotel room. We decided on an excitingly grubby place, the mildewed old Carter Hotel in a lost land between the movie theaters and across form Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd Street. This, we were sure, was the hotel where Holden Caulfield had met that appealing and heartrending young prostitute.

She did seem appealing to me, unlike to Salinger. And this low-life hotel seemed to me a place of infinite possible adventures. Holden had turned the girl down, which seemed to me not unlike my grandfather running home to his mother when he saw a naked woman in a window. It just made no sense, and I suspected it meant that even in Salinger there was a deep underlying prissiness that falsified life as life would actually be. That night when we were all drunk there were no girls for us in the hotel, though there may have been for older, more solid citizens. Still, I believed from whorehouse scenes in my reading that there was a glamour to prostitution, and I was determined that when the right girl appeared I was not going to run, and I was certainly not going to send her away.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 3 - Ban on New Stories

Set remarks always came fast in the course of the eight-hour summer trip from Connecticut's Fairfield County up to New Hampshire's White Mountains. That trip, crunched up in a fold-down back seat while locked in a pre-war Plymouth convertible with Mother and Dad and Peter...

The village green and bandstand at Avon, Connecticut are pointed out with the same words always spoken while going through Avon. Too quaint and too cute, Dad says, although Dad is in publishing and specializes in books celebrating big happy families in places where quaint and cute are compliments.

And what a silly name Agawam is, Mother and Dad and Peter all say, as they always say each time we go through it – and Thetford is even sillier – and how ridiculous, that concrete dinosaur outside Holyoke – and there's something really strange about a mosque dome on an office building in Hartford.

Dinner always at an inn with nearly no air nor light in Northampton – acidy tomato juice – called toe-mah-toe juice – mushy, bitter vegetables, tough lamb chops wearing paper socks, Mother and Dad eating raw oysters and arguing over whether this is one of the months oysters can kill you.

Then on, and many places not to stop – miniature golf, animal and reptile places, the place of 10,000 baskets. Mother and Dad call these places "tourist gags." And how about that sign for Sturbridge Village? How silly recreating an old New England village here in New England where nothing has ever changed.

These are not things someone says once or twice that could be remembered as being said on a certain specific occasion. These remarks are like stories repeated over and over but always as if they're being told for the first time.
When these set remarks are brought to speech there is no time context – it is always the same time.

As we ride along, my parents – not glamorous themselves – are constantly pointing out homely girls.

Vermont, and New Hampshire too, they say – meaning the people who live there always, not we summer people – Vermont and New Hampshire breed homely girls, they say – homely girls in homely towns –

Local homely girls, year-round homely girls, not girls who just come for the summer –

Look how homely that girl is, as we go through Bellows Falls (what a silly name) – look at that homely girl there at the Brattleboro bridge –

But there – I see from the cramped back seat – there is a very pretty girl we're passing this time in Bellows Falls. She's in shorts, not Bermuda shorts, just shorts, tight, very short, and I know without knowing how I know that this girl who arouses me is a girl who lives here in this year-round town all the time – lives in the midst of these beautiful places we pass through, these sweeping fields, these cows, these signs that say "Fresh Corn 4 sale", these old gray silos and old spotted cows and tractors and horse-drawn wagons.

Just before the covered bridge town of Bath a permanent sign warns "Bump." How New England, they say. Not change things by smoothing out Route 10 – just the blunt "Bump" sign.

Oh these year-round people, they say.

And they still see homely girls. But when we stop for gas at Bath (stop because the tank's only half full and you can't be too careful) I peer out from our car's tiny back seat, and there is another startling girl my age. She is on the porch of a small store behind the hand-cranked gas pumps. And she's in a bright yellow two-piece bathing suit, bright yellow holding actual breasts, and she's very tan and she's licking an ice cream cone!

Then through a lumber mill town, called, laughably, Lisbon – then past the Sugar Hill railway station (how quaint they say, that pretentious old station master putting out flower boxes, as he always does).

We continue up and through the little village of Sugar Hill with its picket fences, general store/post office and wooden sidewalk – just like it always was, everyone says – and another turn at St. Matthew's, the simple, understated little Episcopalian summer church where Mother and Dad were married and where our paternal grandmother Nana, our alert white-haired grandmother we call Nana (but not the way other children call grandmothers Nana, for our is a grande dame who is always in charge wherever she might be – which is often in major cities of the world).

After passing Nana's church, down a dense dirt road through miles of deep, dark, deserted woods that include white birches –

No houses, no houses, on and on, till our caretaker's cottage and barn appear. Then, next, our four big summer houses, all with names.

Up high, there is our dark, round, turreted House on the Hill. Then, below the hill and right on the dirt road, our very old 20-room Farm House. Then, set back, our long, rambling summer "cottage," White Wings –

Finally a turn down across from the Farm House to White Pines, the biggest, newest (though old) big house, built with stone on an iron-boulder bluff Nana and Gaga own, looking out over blueberry and thorn fields to woods they own – stretching all the way to the high peaks of the Franconia Range that they might as well own –

White Pines, reached by this mile-long twisting driveway through pine woods, planted by Nana and Gaga when they built this latest house but so tall I cannot believe these woods have not been here forever. Going through them now on this long driveway that is too narrow at all points for cars to pass.

Mother says something sarcastic about what she calls "Dad's humble origins." It seems to make her mad that this place is so rich and complete.

Dad leans on the horn. He is angrier than Mother. Much of his growing up took place here, and Mother has told me that sometimes at Christmas his parents opened White Pines and left him in it with a governess while they went to Rome and Venice.

He leans on the horn again.

Dad's angry, though anyone going down this driveway leans on the horn – blows the horn in case someone who does not appreciate the danger tries to come the other way –

But it seems like no one, at least no one who thinks other than we do, ever will. For this driveway leads to a house in which no change is allowed. A protected place. A place that, I think many years later, cannot survive if other versions of reality are let in.

In White Pines, the past filled every bit of space. So many rooms, and this main room so long and wide and high – every bit of space used, whether anyone was there or not – used by people of the past.

The Steinway was never just a stand for the Nefertiti head, for everyone knew that in the past there had been private concerts given here. Music once – but probably not now –

I could not look at the fireplace without remembered accounts of that long ago night, long before I was born, before airplanes and swimming pools, when a ball of lightning came down the chimney, scooted across the living room area, went between a brocade chaise longue, two brocade sofas, past tables with tasseled lamps and drawers for coasters, drawers for Chinese Checkers and Parcheesi. The ball of lighting going through the spots where Frances Perkins and Cornelia Otis Skinner and Herbert Hoover had sat and stood.

The lightning ball had gone past Nana's high fold-out desk with Wintergreen mints in a cubbyhole – brown Chinese screens, a standup wood radio with a glowing orange dial and a green light that winked if the reception was not clear –

Past the trash basket where Nana had found Gaga's crumpled up Pulitzer certificate (almost thrown away, he was so modest, Nana said) –

On past the Steinway with the head of Nefertiti, the ball of lightning shooting past dim stand-up lamps, a pendulum wall clock that showed phases of the moon, more dim tasseled lamps coming out from the walls with orange bulbs shaped like flames,

Past the bay-window, mountain-view alcove where tipsy Great Uncle John had put on a witch-burning skit with his old Yale friends Cole Porter and Monty Woolley.
Then the ball of lightning going on underneath the 14-foot long polished dining table, where finger bowls were always used,

Going below the twenty-foot horizontal paned glass windows that perfectly framed the only permitted mountains,

All the way from the fireplace where it came down to the fireplace at the other end of the room 100 feet away, where the ball of lightning had then gone up this other chimney –

Something, like everything else that counted here – like Venice before the First World War, like Gaga before the writing stopped – something that would never happen again.

Never again, it sometimes seemed at White Pines, would there be new stories. In the generation that followed Gaga and Nana's, people told White Pines stories to each other more than they told their own stories. And each time a story was repeated it became further reinforcement to barricades that were holding back new writing and new writers. In the old stories, the past was always a better place. The dwellings grander. The sensibilities more refined.

A new story always contains the unexpected, which can be as disturbing to families as it is to bystander literary critics and orthodox academic writing teachers. White Pines was a house and way of life founded by a writer but not a place for new writing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 2 - Deleting Childhood

In the opening pages of his memoir A Sort of Life, Graham Greene spoke out against something that then, like today, often prevails in self-consciously correct writing circles. "There is a fashion today among many of my contemporaries to treat the events of their past with irony," Greene says. "It is a legitimate method of self-defense. 'Look how absurd I was when I was young' forestalls cruel criticism, but it falsifies history. We were not Eminent Georgians. Those emotions were real when we felt them. Why should we be more ashamed of them than of the indifference of old age?"

I think of all the reviewers and academics today who rail at memoir just as they once railed at novels that are now in the cannon – Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Farrell and Wolfe – writers who plunged into the reality of their own lives much like the McCourt brothers do today. Memoir, which used to be a gossip’s account of people the writer had known is now, like those real-life novels of the past, about the writer’s own self, the artist’s true self – which is the center of all fine art.

Fifteen years after that horrific time I had as a toddler in the old railway train drawing room, I was thinking it safe to be the other side of childhood, I was at a basically silly, booze-soaked college that was a sort of Gothic Disneyland – replicas of 700-year-old Oxbridge buildings set down in New Jersey beside a segregated town that had a sort of Williamsburg façade. One of the few things I took seriously in that gray college was the almost professional newspaper we had, the Daily Princetonian. I was the Editorial Chairman, which meant I wrote most of the editorials and was in charge of columns on the arts and politics. One day at an editorial board meeting I convinced the board in this conservative place that we should run editorials advocating two things that were almost unthinkable in the 1950s – America's recognition of China, not Taiwan, as China, and an end to Princeton's exclusive and racist private eating club system.

I had argued hard, vociferously, for not giving an inch, and my side had won, though at the start of the meeting everyone has been against me. But I beat them down like the vociferous debater I had been before college. We would run both of these editorials, it was decided And then I heard a light remark that I took as a complement.The head of the Princetonian who as an adult would become a much honored author, said “It must be remembered that Fred never had a childhood."

Of course they were making fun of me because I was being so earnest, and of course I could take the joke. I knew I really had had a childhood. But somehow it seemed just as well that neither the world, nor myself, ever face the details. It was my means of self-defense.

Monday, October 15, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 1 -- First Person

Writers are constantly being told to write what they know, but they are often steered away from that they know best, the writer’s own self. In some very deep sense all art is about the artist – and this is most obvious in all writing the rises to the level of art, whether or not it is actually written in the first person. All art that goes beyond the surface is essentially first person art.

Right now Marta and I and eleven other writers are sitting around a fire in a spacious room full of color and light with wide windows that bring in the garden from one side, the mountains from the far end, and from another side a strand of woods that
cut off from view the outbuildings of a funeral home that everyone knows who lives in our Catskills, town, Woodstock, NY. In this group Marta and I write along with the workshop members as we do in the various weekday and weekend groups we facilitate here in the Catskills and every week in New York City, and at times at a range of retreat centers, colleges and resorts here and abroad. On this night Marta has opened the session, and the topic that has come to mind right away is “Helter-skelter.’

It came out of people’s verbal introduction in this first session of a five-part weekly series. Short verbal reflections, here at the start but nowhere else, reflections but not verbal stories, for there is a contradiction between stories told verbally, such stories being virtually impossible to tell without knowing exactly where they are going, whereas written stories, whatever the order of things may be in the writer’s head, will never go according to a set plan, will always contain surprises, when they make the transition from the head, where logic can seem real, to paper, where logic alone never suffices – never, that is, if stories are real, if the author – like a really good painter or composer or dancer – lets the material takes its own mysterious directions.

For unless writing becomes some sort of precious academic exercise, honoring approved rhetorical modes and rigidly following outlines, it will always contain surprises. No one is surprised that material comes in from mysterious places when someone is painting a picture or composing music or working out a dance. And the same way matters of mystery and spirit lie behind fine writing – as opposed to the predictable orderly writing that feels safe and causes no surprises at all – writing that relies on the head only and rejects the heart.

“Helter-skelter.” I had no idea I had anything to write until I started to write, and hit on a crucial story I had not written, a version of which is in my last blog entry – that first memory, from before I was two, when I am sitting on the edge of an upper bunk in a Pullman drawing room on a train taking me into the heart of the family into which I had been born. Something horrible is happening in the drawing room. And now I am realizing as I write what I knew at the time, and why when many years later I was near a murder scene in New York City I knew what I was smelling when I smelled fresh blood.

Friday, October 12, 2007

GRANITE STATE XI - The Smell of Blood

There were always many worlds in my head as I drove through these places from the past, which here in 1986 looked just as they had looked so many years ago. It would have been 1936 when I was first up here in the mountains, certain scenes still vivid though they had taken place when I was not quite two years old. It had been my second summer trip to the mountains but I did not have clear pictures from that first summer – only a family story about a black car driven by a uniformed chauffer all the way up form New Rochelle -- bug that was their story, not mine --nothing like the scene in the drawing room compartment of a Pullman car on the steam driven train that was the favored, though not only, way to come – for sometimes we would do it by car. It is night. I am on an upper berth. In memory I am happy to be o the move, leaving something that might not be right for something that might be better. But it is all falling apart. I am sitting on an upper bunk, my legs dangling. I am fixated on a button up here that I know you can press to summon help. The excitement the excitement of this new place, my pleasant anticipation of new things to come, has given way to terror.

Nearly 50 years later I came upon a crime scene in New York – someone slashed to pieces on the ground floor of my small apartment building in Chelsea just months before these trips of expiration in the aqua Mustang. There was a frantic appearing local TV reporter doing a near hysterical on-camera report from the building’s stoop (which in itself did not mean much for I knew from my own journalism days that such reports were always frantic – the flip side of TV happy talk and not necessarily connected to anything real. I did not see the body. I did not see the blood. But I smell. the blood, Fresh blood. I had seen deal bodies in many parts of the worlds, but always from a distance. I did not know till this light I found a hysterical sounding journalist on the stoop, I did not know I knew the small of blood.

I knew the victim, who was not, it was becoming clear, a pure victim. I knew him as a kindly old and unwell retired teacher who had sat in the building’s garden most days. Before he needed a walker, other tenants told me, he had been the one to keep up the garden, which now ran wild.Such a kindhearted man, it seemed.

Though now the murder was being rapidly solved. He was an important figure, the journalists learned, in Namboy, North American Man-boy Love. Old men and little boys having sex. And the murderer was a young man who before he was caught traveled down the East coast, making taunting phone calls to the New York TV stations, saying he was a long-time victim of pedophiles. Nothing had been what it appeared to be – the kindly old man in the garden.

And now in the aqua mustang in which I was traveling through the past, windows rolled up, tapes turned up loud – all those songs I had missed during my years abroad as often as not in what a journalist would cal l war zones – now having not so long ago passed 50, which I had once thought would be an unlikely ancient age to attain – feeling as if my life was starting – but with so much to clear up – here in the aqua mustang, listening to Cat Stevens as filtered through a very safe happy singer named Roger Whittaker whose world seemed as simple as America filtered through the fakery of Ronald Reagan, who was well into his second term playing president, no one sure if he was senile or not was really believed, or just and almost no one apparently caring – Roger Whittaker who would do a verse or two whistling and ask his audience to whistle, happily whistle, along with him – Listing to Cat Stevens and James Taylor and Joni Mitchell through this Roger Whittaker – or through the sweetness of Judy Collins the toughness of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and deep singers from the past so deep that their songs now could only be attributed to an entity called Traditional – slowly connecting to who I may or may not have ever known I was, I am halfway between what feels like a time of rebirth and halfway absorbed in the set-in-place place version of the world whose center for may family had been the White Mountains – here in the Mustang, putting it all together, I am suddenly less than two years old, dangling over the upper bunk – looking at that button the way, is seems now in memory if not at the time, a child would look at a mother – my mother down below is crying so hard it seems like screaming, and so too her mother, her flabby Southern mother who I already know prefers my twin brother Peter to me, already see how she exalts him – and Peter is down there too and he is wailing as if his world too is at an end.

What happened in mystery but it seems now, inside the Mustang, I have enough information. The smell of blood is enough.