I started this climb with a Pilot pen and a composition book. I had nothing more than expression in mind. I churned through pages, disgorging words whose meanings I could only guess at, worshiping pure verbosity, following any number of dubious lights. I was a kid in love with language, and if I had any goal in mind besides the almighty novel -- not its success as a salable object, just its impeccable creation -- I’ve forgotten it.
Then I met the writers whose passions changed my approach. They knew just what they hated about literature and taught me to sculpt a critical sense. I learned to say, “Not that.” Convinced that these young men and women would lap me, outwrite me, outlast me, I renounced my juvenilia and stopped submitting. (Not one of them still writes today.) I took on grand projects that I couldn’t bring to completion. I was twenty-odd years old, and I’d just learned enough to know that I was failing.
Failure was my tutor then, bequeathing me an ungentle but thorough education. Crying writer’s block, I filled a dozen notebooks. Abandoning an epic time and again, I plotted a dozen lesser novels, then abandoned them, too. Buried by debt, ingesting beyond my means, loving unwisely, I began to wonder if I’d be better off giving up writing entirely. I tried and failed at that, too. I turned away from my persona and began to pay what I owed.
Then one day a poem came, almost finished while the ink was wet. It had been banging around in my brain for years. I’d dreamed it and now I was reading it. It held the promise of my voice, like a melody whistled in the kitchen but heard from the yard. I wrote poems for the rest of that year, settling my beef with the English sentence. I decided to write one hundred and forty-four narrative sonnets in the name of a prophecy that Jorge Luis Borges had probably not meant literally.
In the midst of this minor madness I was thinking of a novel I’d plotted years ago when I realized I could see it, all of it, just as clearly as any of my poems. Enough horrors had befallen me by then that I’d cleared my life aside, not knowing why. I put the book in the middle of what remained and watched my life begin to flow around it. Right on time, my muse arrived. I wrote for the pleasure of watching her eyes on my words, and after many months of labor I’d given her a book.
When a book is finished, it leaves a space behind that one can fill with anything. Of course, writers generally choose to fill that space with hell. In moments, the vague delight of having written something good gives way to zealotry; it is not enough for the thing to exist, but to be waved beneath the nose of every literate man, woman, and child on Earth. As I lacked the wherewithal to accomplish this waving, I devoted my life to finding someone who had that power.
Then everything happened. My muse and I made a museling and began to raise her. A second book followed the first, and I got the taste for finishing things. These books failed to find their place in the world, and for two years I suffered, dreaming of burning houses, worrying over every syllable that reached me from on high. At first the publishing industry appeared to be an implacable monolith, then a parliament of fools, then -- inevitably, inexorably -- a group of men and women doing their jobs, often to the best of their abilities, while the world shifted ceaselessly around them.
A month ago I recalled the day I’d walked home from the Schenectady Public Library, the written words of Rilke ringing in my ears as I struggled to abandon the burden of writing. It felt like a bookcase stuffed with my imaginary works had been strung through my gut with a mile-long bungee cord that tugged harder with every step I took. This hallucinated agony ended the moment that I admitted my powerlessness. I couldn’t control my writing, I knew as I sweated on that sidewalk; I might never write well enough to justify the time I’d spent, but I’d write all the same. Making money never occurred to me. My only hope was that if I tried hard enough for long enough, I might one day produce a shelf full of books that made me proud.
They’re coming now, and that’s enough for me. Maybe a dozen of you will read them. That’s enough for me, too. I was happy when I was trying to reach one person, and now I’m learning to be that happy again.
There are women and men in this world producing great work under terrible conditions -- and I have a comfortable home. There are artists refusing medicine, insatiably gobbling substances, suffering the despotic rule of lovelessness -- and I’m surrounded by beauty. There are would-be authors torn apart by the disapproval of parents, wives, and in-laws -- and every page I write is subsidized by the time and patience of my family. Way up there, at the top of this literary molehill, there are men and women whose financial and critical successes are hollowed out from within by a nagging sense of inadequacy -- and I love what I do.
So I’ll keep climbing, carrying this blank notebook and this Pilot pen, and do my simple best not to bother with the outcome.
Here’s a tale of sex, drugs, and the American Dream, an excerpt from “The Chronicles of Scarecrow County” that appears in Le Zaporogue 13.