Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Written Word 65 - DEMONS: a story changes
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.