Wednesday, November 21, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 28 - Writing as Duty

By the time I got out of the army, 24 years old, I felt I had really made a start in living, which to me was the same thing as thinking I had made the right moves to be a writer.

For nine months I had been a wire service journalist, flown out to Indianapolis, at 21, the day after graduation from college to join the old United Press, for which I was immediately covering politics, which in Indiana meant very extreme right-wing politics, a situation that began to fall into place when I realized that nearly everyone whom I was following – the governor, both senators, most of the legislative leaders – had been around since the thirties, when the Klan ran the state and you could no more embark on a political career without the Klan in Indiana than you could, just a few years before this, have a career in government in Germany if you were not with the Nazis.

Writing news stores was fascinating, putting all these things into words that would pass my bureau chief, who had always been in Indiana. I had to figure how to get in my contempt for what was happening and still give the appearance of objectivity. Being a strict grammarian, he gave me some outs. When I was writing about anti-labor legislation, which went hand if glove with everything else the 4-to-1 Republican legislature was passing – such as expanding the death penalty so that it could be used on juveniles who commit night time burglary – I could get away with saying a bill just signed by the governor was for a new “so-called” right-to-work law. This union-busting bill. "So-called." I may have gotten away with it for to get a real feel for the adjective “so-called” you have to hear it said with a Brooklyn or Bronx accent. My editor, Boyd Gill (men I met in Indiana tended to be named Boyd), who was so a part of the place that his lapel pin identified him as a past president of Kiwanis, said “so-called” was okay because it just meant that something was called something.

From Indiana I, now 22 years old, went straight to Cuba, looking for Castro and his Robin Hood-like band. I was in and out of a Bastista jail on the edge of the Sierra Maestra, and then in and out of tiny fishing boats that went out of sight of land in the hunt for fish bigger than the boats, and in and out of brothels that put in the shade even the whorehouses in Indianapolis when the legislature was in session. Then I was in Atlanta, nominally in the draft-filled peacetime army but also working full time for United Press again. And on the edge of history, it seemed, here at the start of the civil rights movement.

I summarized my first years. A Klan-run state, a foreign revolution, the civil rights movement – the sort of things that should go on a young author’s dust jacket. And, moreover, a searing affair with a married woman, and to top it off, an affair with a call girl. How like a legendary writer.

And I almost started a magazine that had the immodest goal of supplanted the tired old New Yorker. And then I was living in New York on the Lower East Side, still a good deal of drama, and back to wire service journalism again. And for the first time since I had decided firmly not to go to law school I asked myself if this was really what I wanted. And then I got this idea that I could be like the man in that recent movie The Blackboard Jungle. I could go teach in some inner New York City school – for I knew the crucial racial matters that were in the air in this time, not just in the south but up here too. I would get into the middle of it as a real person, not as a bystander reporter.

No one thought this was a good idea. My former college roommate, who had been an outspoken near Socialist, was in the city starting as an associate with an old-line Wall Street law firm, Cravath Swain & Moore, working on corporate tax matters. He said that under no circumstance should I throw my life away like this.

That reaction so surprised me. Even Jim saying to play it safe. And then years later there was something similar. I had abandoned projects for which I had been paid advances, two books that were meant to be big books, and I, 44 now, was in a marriage with a girl I thought would be so different from what I came form, not only a non-Wasp but a non-American, a non-white person, a non-alcoholic – and then I had that trite experience I had heard so much about and thought this could never happen to me. I woke up beside her one morning and realized she was, for my life now, what my mother had been long ago under dark clouds in Connecticut.

And I thought for the first time in 20 years that now I must really make a break with what fate planned for me. I didn’t like what I was writing. I didn’t like my life. I just could not finish what I was writing. I didn’t like what I had become.

And now the old inner school teaching idea came up again, And all my old friends in the city – Walter, who was becoming a celebrated political writer, Alex, the very successful author of wine books, John, who climbed mountains and no longer talked of being a playwright – they seemed to recoil in horror, just like my old college roommate long ago. Alex and John were on the same page with Walter, who said firmly that “Writers are supposed to write.”

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