Thursday, February 28, 2008
I was in Vermont for the summer. Vermont in part because it was not New Hampshire. And luckily, not knowing Vermont well, I had not wound up in one of those precious stage-set villages where you are given tours of hooked rug old houses, which in one room may have a cuddly sleeping cat that turns out to be a 19th century dead cat stuffed by a taxidermist – that kind of Vermont town were summer ladies come out of the antique stores talking through their noses in high-pitched fake British tones such as they would have earned long ago in Anglophile boarding schools. Those fake British accents that were so common in my family – whose base was over in New Hampshire.
Vermont at this time had a liberal-left woman governor, and in one of its cities a Socialist mayor. New Hampshire had recently has a governor who had been transplanted from Virginia and ran on a platform opposing the aging hippies, the ones still around from the sixties, and the new young hippies who were coming into life. He wanted to keep them on the Vermont side of the border. And they were not the only people he wanted to keep out. He talked of states rights, that old Southern code word for apartheid – even though few people in New Hampshire had ever seen a black person, unless you counted the servants some summer people brought with them. New Hampshire where the rocky farm land had become fallow, where, the land had been so bad to start with that people had always by their wits – Live Free or Die was the slogan now on the license plates made in the state’s prisons – whereas this year the Vermont plates said simply, “Green Mountains.”
New Hampshire’s roads were rutted, and although there had to be free public education because of old federal mandates, there was not a single public kindergarten in the state. And though there was an occasional village green it was likely to be bare of greenery – unlike in Vermont where there were trees and flowering shrubs and old-time bandstands on the very green greens, and on some evenings bands in the bandstands, and on many days both aging and young artistic-looking people playing guitars. And moreover the old bitter New England boiled dinners has given way in present-day Vermont to nouvelle cuisine restaurants and snack bars.
I went across the border to New Hampshire one day to see what I could get there for lunch now. I stopped in at the Littleton Diner – Littleton the place were my grandmother would go with a servant to shop for the food that was stored up by the summer people - who dressed for dinner in big formal houses with striped awnings and grounds dotted with marble birdbaths and benches. Rich houses beneath the White Mountains and in the midst of rural poverty. The White Mountains, the highest in the East, sometimes soft and green below the timber line, often gray and black – these mountains where people were forever being killed in avalanches or sudden winter storms that might come in August. Or lightning. Or Mama bears. But that was my childhood, and now I was somewhere near midlife and safely in the gentle green mountains of Vermont, both literally and in my head and heart. The special that day at the Littleton Diner was, I swear, cheeseburger quiche.
I had written a piece for Penthouse that covered me financially for the summer, even though I had pretty much stopped writing altogether in this time my life was changing. I was staying in Rutland with my old friend Peter Cooper, who came from the same Connecticut town I came from and who had been an extreme drinking partner in my first days in New York City but now wrote books and ran a state alcoholism clinic, and lived with his second wife on a road where you could smell the foliage but that was far being too quaint. It came to dead end where, if you walked few feet over grass, you would be on an artery complete with a Cumberland Farms, a Burger King, a Timberland outlet and also, right at the point where you stepped over the grass patch, an Esso station, where there was a gleaming old aqua Mustang with a FOR SALE sign – $1,200.
I was pretty broke but Penthouse, which was very right wing, had paid me far more than what I wrote was worth (I gave them a first-person left wing article about some wonderful Communist insurgents in one of my old Asian haunts, knowing they would never print it, despite all the sex in it, but would pay me anyway). Now, actually, just like a man with a real income, I pulled a check book out of my back pocket and, wrote a check on the spot for $1200. I liked that car and I had become aware recently that I had not owned a car for 17 years, during which I had been in cities or in territory too wild for passable roads. The last car had been a Humber in Singapore, the one before that a Rover in Bangkok, tank-like British vehicles that were nothing at all like this lighthearted Mustang. And though I felt lighthearted, I did check it out before I signed the check and drove it away. I made sure it had a functioning tape deck.
So I drive off listening to Judy Collins singing about how this girl named Suzanne who serves me tea and oranges that come all the way from China, and who takes my hand and leads me to the river and she's wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters. And the sun comes up like honey... I drive off in Vermont, the anti-New Hampshire, suddenly elated with the thought, as Judy Collins begins to sing, that I have broken a barrier by recognizing at last how important music is to me, who never sang. How fine that the whole landscape of my life is changing. And I want to travel with her, and I want to travel blind, and I know that she will trust me for I’ve touched her perfect body with my mind.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Words. Faith in words. I think of the saints, all of whom wrestle with faith in ways that mere pious people never do. I was no saint, in either life or literature, but I had wrestled with faith in words the way correct, orthodox writers never do. And I had fled writing for six years, like a monk fleeing a monastery.
I had lived on writing for thirty years and then come to despise writing, which came to seem as false and useless to me as would a failed religion. When I did come back to the written word after six years away there were certain things I did not anticipate – as in making the mistake of thinking I could also come back to my old faith in the logic of outcomes, logic being so tied to the use of words. I was back as if my return had been inevitable, my sudden need now for words as well as images to find out what had happened and who I was. And now I had to figure out what this return to words would mean in a life that had been so satisfying without words.
The changes that had come in my life in this period when I was not writing had led to many surprises, not the least being conscious awareness for the first time of spiritual hunger for realms where I did not have the illusion I could know outcomes before I stepped into them – real life being like real writing in which so much happens that I would be a fool, I now thought, to start with a fixed, untested if logical conclusion and think I could live my way into it.
My world had changed so much that at the time when I was returning to writing I was studying at a university – something I would not have gone near in my professional writing years and was very careful about now. But I did not go to study writing. I went to look into theology.
The university was this marvelously open and liberal Jesuit place, Boston College – part of a Catholic world that I had often respected when seen as an agnostic, and that I had been careful to avoid intellectually, though its intellectuals attracted me.
What really attracted me most, over the years when I was outside it, was its warmth and daring. I had missed warmth and daring in a self-consciously respectable Episcopalian family - though in adolescence I did have a loving Catholic girlfriend. Most of what I knew of Catholic worlds at first hand came later and had nothing to do with harsh nuns wielding rulers or silly anti-Communists or people who picketed worthy movies, but rather with people I encountered in dangerous places who did not fit the anti-Catholic clichés – especially quietly heroic clerical and lay activists in places like Taiwan and the Borneo part of Indonesia, and Somoza’s Nicaragua and the Haiti of the Duvaliers and the Philippines of the Marcoses.
And right now, as part of what I was doing at Boston College, I was across the Charles River at a place called Weston exploring the 16th-century Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and it meant writing again. For the exercises entail stepping right into stories, which might be stories from the past but will inevitably be the writer’s most crucial stories in the present. People I knew now had used the exercises to change their lives – to leave religious life or go into it – to leave or go into marriages – to leave or to take on careers and vocations – and I was captivated by the Ignatian proposition that you could find God’s will if you stepped into your story this way. It was not that I thought there was no revelation outside the Catholic church. And not that I had a liking for the right-wing Pope. But I went now for Ignatian spirituality. And I went now for the reassuring view of James Joyce whose definition of Catholicism, as reiterated by Tom Groome, was “Here comes everyone.”
Yet in conflict with what I was discovering, I made a serious error in my return now to writing. I thought that with words I could and should bring logic back into my life again. Some saints, after all, had spoken of logic as one of God’s gifts. And so I wrote with intense rationality to figure out something that concerned me night and day at this moment I was studying Ignatius.
I was on the verge of making a major move in my life – another marriage, this time to a bright and sexy woman with two children. The connection I was about to make meant I would have to come to terms with how one of the children, a coddled, sarcastic boy, lorded it over everyone as the designated prince in his family – the one who got the good grades and always managed to please his elders – which to me meant an insufferable good-boy, this potential step-son. This boy who took short cuts to please his elders, and spent energy on putting down his vibrant younger sister. It was so disturbing, the prospect of living with this guy, that I thought maybe I better drop the marriage, even though I wanted it. I was keyed up and horny and did not want to back out. And maybe was overreacting. So I decided I would write about the situation as honestly as I could, and see where I came out.
And I got a good part of the story right, including that the adventurous younger sister seemed to have the real potential in fields that were supposed to be her older brother’s alone – writing and drawing included . And that this was forbidden to anyone else in the family except her brother. Some members seemed to delight in predicting a horrible end for this engaging girl, who was just now entering her teens. The boy was skilled at putting his sister down and was not above lies and some larceny and at the same time, in the family version, he was still the good little boy – the good littlle boy even thought his actual age was 20.
And as I wrote about all this – about it more than in it – I began to see an overriding reason why the situation was so upsetting to me that it felt like unmanageable chaos even though I wanted the marriage. This son was a family policeman enforcing a false family version of reality. He was billed as the artistic one, but he was also, it seemed to me, the one stopping art and life from breaking out. It seemed to me as I wrote that he had exactly the role in his family and with his sister that my twin brother, Peter, had had in our family and with me. (Years after we had left home, my parents acquired two gray cats who were brothers and named them Good Cat and Bad Cat.)
Both Peter and this boy, I thought, had been forced into what they did for the benefit not of themselves but of their families. Fulfilling sick needs of others. But although I could feel, or at least thought I should feel, compassion for them as victims, these were situations dominated by the the most harmful sorts of false versions of reality.
And then I made the mistake of thinking that this insight, tying the boy to my brother and to ideas about false and also alternative versions of reality, was enough. I was thinking again, as I had before big changes in my life began, that insight ever could be enough. And so again I used insight to go against something I knew. If I could get to the correct formulation of what I faced, I could handle it all, I thought. And so I did what I had wanted to do in the first place. I went ahead with the marriage. And I really did want this woman.
And the marriage started to fall apart at the start, and despite energy and money and insight, and some inadequate couples therapy, it very soon fell apart altogether. And I very soon knew I never would have gotten into it if I had really stepped into the story when I wrote about it, which was probably what Ignatius meant – recreated the story so that it was in my bones, as opposed to burying it in insight.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The first few times I went into the story, I thought I had captured that strange time when I should have been on top of the world because my novel, an actual novel, was coming out, and did come out, published at the start of the seventies by a hot new house, Harper’s Magazine Press, which was half owned by the ridiculously venerable and orthodox Harper & Row, the other half owned by Harper’s Magazine, which was in turn owned by humorless Midwest newspaper tycoons and which also had been around since the beginning of time. But for just this moment Harper’s was between its old stuffy version and a stuffier new version, and for this moment it was the hottest magazine in town. It was run by Willie Morris, a young, celebrated Southern writer who was riding the crest and had recently become the most exciting and cool and irreverent magazine editor in New York City. He drove the nervous owners of the two Harpers crazy. His magazine caused talk all over town and way beyond, which to the owners was not a gentlemanly thing to do. Among those who could appear in the office any day might be Norman Mailer or some other famous writer, or some angry feminist, or somebody from the suddenly surging gay rights movement, or someone advocating bomb throwing – all the things most editors, as over at the New York Times, were sweeping under the rug.
Harper’s Magazine Press, run by another exciting editor named Herman Golub, was in with Willie’s magazine, not with staid old Harper & Row. The magazine office, in a Park Avenue South building with two bars down below, was where I spent so many of my days now. It was filled with boisterous, often drunk and famous people, and some famous ones who stopped with a couple of beers, such as Bill Moyers, who, like me, was on the small spring list,but did not drink the way I and some of the others did.
All these new and exciting friends to drink with. Which got me to front tables at Elaine’s and parties where a middle of the road celebrity might be Sargent Shriver or David Rockefeller. And there in the stores now was my mostly true-story novel, filled with eroticism and violence in Bangkok, a story that was up-to-the-minute topical since American soldiers were still at the time of publication getting five-day leaves to get laid in Bangkok, and spies of many nations were still racing around that sybaritic city, conning and assassinating each other. My name, which before I was ever published I had I’d made into a pretentious three-name author’s name, was nearly as large as the title, Where Dragons Dwell. On the back was me in a hungover Humphrey Bogart pose with a cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth. And in this time, first getting the book accepted, then spending the advance as I moved about the world wrapping up chapters, and then the prepublication months with all the parties that I was now entitled to, and finally the aftermath with the book in a few bookstore windows – all this just in time, for I was 36. And in truth this time was in so many ways one of the worst times in my life – the deep feelings of hopelessness, the crazed drinking, a new doomed affair with a publishing girl. And if alone after the drinking, middle-of-the-night international phone calls to ex-girlfriends and girls I thought might have been girlfriends. Anyone who might love me. So bad I moved in mid-winter to a waterside cottage that had no phone., Ever deepening depression. Remorse. Near fatal loneliness.
Then the end. Two months after publication, the book still out there, it was the week I was supposed to be addressing the formidable Middlebury Writers Conference, where I had hoped for groupies, or at least praise. Instead I went to the airport and flew to Beirut, which once in the past, when I was on my way to Africa, I had found it to be a profoundly discouraging city that rode on anti-Semitism and pretended to be like Paris. When I had been there before I had also found it so puritanical that my then girlfriend Vannie and I had had to claim we were cousins to get a hotel room together (incest was fine, but nothing else). This place, pre-civil war Beirut, the end of the world. What had gotten into me?
When years later I wrote about that year, 1971, the year I was 36 and being published, the story kept changing. The first couple of times I stepped back into that time it seemed crystal clear that my destructive depression then had to do, on a direct line, with the family of origin. As clear as that C follows B follows A. For so many years I had tried hard not to think about those people who qualifed as my nearest and dearest – my father, himself a publisher, sometimes generous but now telling me how bad it was that I had this novel, and how awful that I was living on advance money and did not have a regular job. My mother, the smartest one in the family, telling me, as she drank, and as my father told me, what a thorn I was in the family's collective side. And my old college roommate, who by now had married the widow of a publisher and moved into Upper East Side Waspdom, where he and his wife served popovers and floating island,was no more encouraging. And my twin brother was telling everyone who would listen that it was just plain wrong. So in my mind when I went back into the story there were, at first, no loose ends. In the version that came first, B followed A and C followed B, the villains were all in the family or close to it, and there were no more questions about the near suicidal despair that hit me just as everything was working out.
But I had to go into the story again and again, for I kept coming upon less easy to explain parts.This return to the story was more than 20 years later. The Authentic Writing Workshops were underway,and now I saw that what had happened to me was what I was seeing happen to so many accomplished writers. For whatever the specifics of the writers' life stories, there are always these demons who fly in from some dark,formidable place to tell the writers they are nothing. All of them, even writers who might have the support of a father and a brother and an old friend. Even writers who might be garnering Pulitzer Prizes and American Book Awards.
The demons who tell anyone who innovates to get with the program, respect the old accepted writers, respect the views of your teachers, and anyone who writes in the New York Review of Books, and anyone who belongs to the Modern Language Association, and especially anyone in your family, whether the family is literate or not. If someone likes your writing, do not trust that person. Even if that person is the person you most love and/or the literary figure you most respect. Do not trust them. Who cares about your version? Anyone who is honest with you would say you offer nothing but self-indulgence, whiney self-indulgence. Any success is a fluke.
When I went back into the story of that time with Harpers, the sad ending becomes more and more inevitable, and less easy to explain. My late father may have contributed, and maybe my brother and my mother and my old roommate did too – but when I went back into the story they were the least of it.
As I kept going back into the story – which is what a writer has to do – it was not just my father and brother and old roommate that made me want to kill myself just as my writing career took off. The demons hate the fact that stories with loose ends just hang there raising questions and bringing discomfort to the smug. Only really bad books sew everything up in neat if synthetic ways, but this is something the demons want badly. The demons understand that the only resolution, the only closure, that counts is that you must renounce what you have done. Burn your manuscripts or distort them beyond recognition. And try, you sorry little confessional twerp, to force into being writing that will disturb none of the nice people. None of your betters. Sew it up. Force closure. Final closure almost never happens in life, but the demons insist upon closure. For it is life, including life found in art, that they, with the help of human critics, are out to destroy.
To the demons life is cheap.