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.