May 16, 2005
I, I, I, I.
intones the Angel of "Angels in America", to Announce her Presence with Authority!
I, I, I, I have a degree in English (essentially a degree in critical writing); I, I, I, I’ve been a sucker for words since Day One. I, I, I, I signed up for a section of Journalism, and dropped it the moment the instructor said “The word ‘I’ will not be used in this class.” I, I, I, I don’t want to hear that noise. I, I, I, I’m outta here. I, I, I, I’ll leave the whats, wheres and whens to whomever. There are plenty of reporters out there gathering and arranging information in a coherent and readable fashion. You, you, you, you don’t need me, me, me, me for that.
I don’t want information, I want voices, I want rebel yells. I want able, supple minds wielding their power, daring athletic minds turning cartwheels on the page and firing verbal pyrotechnics. I want to open a book like you’d open a watch, to study the intricate inner workings of minds like Borges, Kundera, Calvino, Rushdie, Saramago. Let me have it, boys. Give me all you’ve got. I can take it.
Even so, I, I, I, I consider myself to be a kind of reporter, a documentarian and compiler, “one of those sent to earth to observe and record,” I wrote in “what alcoholics call a moment of clarity.” (What movie is that a line from?)
I, I, I. I AM A RECORDING ANGEL
“I gladly accept that mantle;” I went on, “thank you for the opportunity.” My sister cannily called me a “scanner.” She says I’m like a roving searchlight that occasionally zeroes in to illuminate some certain thing, then moves on again on its rounds. I live in a kind of suspended animation and she can never tell what my next reaction will be. Will I stop, or go on?
My high school world lit teacher, Morton Grossman was his name, author of A Rage to Die, looked at me shrewdly one day and said, “You’re just sitting there taking this all in, aren’t you?” Absolutely. I consider that to be my function. Have you ever felt perfectly sure what you’re all aboutand embraced it? It’s nothing to do with money. I saw a guy interviewed on the news saying, “I was born to do this.” “This” was barbecuing ribs. He’s been the County Fair champ since forever. My friend, pianist John Beck, told me, I belong on this bench (playing the piano). I was put on this earth to be a father, said an old boyfriend. And how often have I reflected to myselfwith myself reflected in the window, farmland or mountain passes or Small Town America flying by beyond meI was born to ride trains and write about it. Not only trainswell, the train of life, let us say, as it chugs steadily toward its unknown destination. I record raw data, filter it through my vision, and return it to the world “for whatever it’s worth.” I was born to do this.
Writing and talking to me are entirely different brain functions. Talking oils the social mechanism granted most people do use it as their main if not sole means of communication with the rest of the human tribebut writing is how I process things, how I sieve them through the mill of my mind. I’m a living word processor, a voracious, devouring one.
“WRITE EVERY DAY, IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH,”
said Joyce Carol Oates, and I would add, honor and obey your muse. That’s right, I’ve taken my vows and I’m goddamn married to this life. I have a double bed, but sleep on only one side of it. The other is covered with the papers and books of the day.
Right now, it’s Saturday night/Sunday morning, 4:53 a.m. I’m supposed to meet Gabrielle and her friends to do Bay to Breakers in less than 2 hours. It’s not only, reasonably enough, my lack of sleep that will cause me to back out, nor the cold that blossomed overnight robbing me of the stamina needed to make it to the finish lineit’s that I’d rather sleep in and get some writing done. A guy once told me I write like some people doodle. Off the cuff, whatever comes to mind, casually thrown off, even while thinking of other things. Where do your ideas come from, people like to ask writers. They just come. Unbidden. I snatch them out of the ionosphere. If they come anywhere near me, I just suction them right in. I’m not impressed by the output of geniuses. They’re born, not made. I credit Bach only incidentally with his mind-blowing oeuvre. Granted, he had to write the stuff down, but the man was born Bach! What do you expect?
“I wonder what kind of mad bug was planted in my brain that requires the continuous feeding of paper! To add to my journals the tonnage of my letters and scattered multitudinous bulk of the novel results in a Roman orgy of words one could vomit for months, ” I wrote in “The Molly Book,” composed in a 146-page blank book that she, one of my best friends, whom I first stayed with when I moved to Portland in 1981, had given me when we still worked together in Philadelphia. I decided to fill it up and give it back to her. I wrote in there now and then, between this and that, on the bus or in bed, from November 1981 to December 1989, and finally Fed-exed it to her for Christmas, which is also her birthday. I did not receive instant acknowledgment of its safe receipt, which I found odd; it was an original manuscript after all. I was in Portland, she had moved to Seattle, and finally through a brief series of brief postcards I discovered that she’d found it, a handwritten book not merely dedicated to her, but actually addressed to her, too personal to read. Say what? Time passed with no acknowledgment of or comment on the book’s contents.
For my part, say what you will, I was mortally offended. And so the book I’d written to honor our 12-year friendship instead effectively ended it. To this day I don’t know whether she ever did read it, or whether it still exists. It’s 15 years later, and I still can’t think of anything more insulting.
Here’s something I don’t see much any moredawn penetrating the curtains. I’ve been up all night reading old journals and writing. There’s a delicious last gasp of silence right now before daytime takes hold. Gabrielle came and went, adorable in her braids and running bib, fresh and smilingand I’m bloodshot and rumpled, getting ready for bed at 7:00 am.
DIG IT, DADDY-O
Now at 5:00 pm I am nursing a latte and digging the very tasty Sunday afternoon jazz jam at the Café International. I am in my place, San Francisco, and at my place, at the keyboard. Married to it. I have no greater love than the English language; it’s the one thing I’m certain I’ll spend the rest of my life with. It is my medium and I am its medium; I speak through it and it speaks through me.
But I have heretofore zealously guarded my privacy. For me it was all about the writingthe process of writing, not the result of it; taking it any further just wasn’t of interest. Plus once you cross that line into the public arena, there’s no stepping back. And now I find all that is just not important to me anymore. If a novel is written in the forest and there’s nobody there to read it, does it still speak? At this time of life I’d say no. At some point one must interact with the world, as a writer and a citizen. And you can’t hold back. If you’re going to do this thing, you’ve got to be fearless. You’ve got to be able to say anything to anyone. People can think what they want.
I dreamt that I walked into an orgythe scene was upstairs at the Red Dress Party, Portland’s answer to the Exotic Erotic Balland the theme this year was Red Light District, so the club was decked out with beds to look like a brothel. To be admitted you had to be wearing a red dress. Well in this orgy, you had to be naked to be admitted, and there were a lot of naked people there that I would gladly have and intended to have sex with, especially under the banner of “what happens in the orgy stays in the orgy,” but there were also many people there I’d never want anything at all to do withbut I couldn’t prevent them from being part of the orgy as well. And that is the crux of the conflict about the public arenasomehow you want to be seen and not seen at once, but you can’t choose who’s looking at you; your ass is hanging out for all to see.
HEY, LOOK AT ME!
“Would you play just as hard if no one was watching?” asks an advertisement.
Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, observes that everyone needs to be looked at. The way in which one wants to be seen comes in four flavors:
The first type of person “longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public.” Actors, performers, centerfold models, writers, athletes, runway modelsthese all indulge in some kind of exhibitionism to get everyone’s attention (and are always at risk of losing their public).
The second category is those people “who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes.” Local personalities and politicians, social butterflies, teachers, perhaps.
The third type needs to be “constantly before the eyes of the person they love”those who don’t know how to be alone, who must always be in a relationship, family members, co-dependant personalities.
The fourth is those who live “in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers.” I wonder if believers might not see God in this way, the God who “sees all” and will hold you accountable.
Though we’ve all got a bit of each type in us, the fourth category pretty much nails me. I operate under the watchful eye of someone so not present that he’s dead. Bizarre, perhaps, but for me that person is Jack Kerouac. He lives behind my right shoulder, looking over it and nodding his head. He is wearing the sweatshirt from that famous pic of him and Cassaday and has his hands in his jeans pockets and his weight on one leg. He’s wearing black loafers. When I went to Vegas recently to see his manuscript of On the Road, I signed the guestbook, “At last we meet, soul mate.” He personifies not any or all readers, but that special discerning reader who is also a writer, who knows what it takes because he’s got it himself. And he’s a scholar, the Alfred Apfel to Vladimir Nabokov, who sees the big picture as well as the nuance in what you do. (“‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book.”R.W. Emerson)
I heard this idea of living under the eyes of someone nicely put in the American remake of the charming Japanese film “Shall We Dance?” Susan Sarandon has posed the question of why people marry and answers it herself:
Because we need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything: the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane thingsall of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying, “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed, because I will be your witness.”
“I shall become more and more blind,” says Saramago in Blindness (read it!) because I shall have no one to see me.”
It’s not only people but things, happenings, phenomena, that deserve witness. Look at this little moment Jack bothers to notate:
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway
You have to be really attuned to the minutiae of your life to notice that and consider it worthy of mention. Such shared moments of his day lend an immediacy and sense of his physicality to the words he left on a page. It’s also a kind of obsession or compulsion to not let a single detail pass you by. Say you’re writing and you get up to have a beer; when you get back to work you even have to comment on your interaction with the refrigerator. Writers are nothing if not self-conscious.
The toilet gargles
And sucks up
The last of my beer
(I just went to the bathroom.)
I also love this little self-portrait:
Dawn the writer who
Poring over notebooks
Writers not only do this, they see themselves doing it and they tell people about it.
I witness things every day, and I consider them noteworthy enough to write them down so you can witness them too.
I, I, I, I was born to do this.
BOOKMARK ME NOW BABY
Keep your eye on this space. One of these days my searchlight might fall on you…
The author, writing away as usual, at all of nineteen
Borenstein’s Boarding House, Atlantic City, NJ, 1974
Short Attention Span Poetry Corner
The wander artist in me is bored
It wants to bust out and traverse the world
The starving artist
Demands to be fed
And be given a reason
To get out of bed
The hunger artist is craving the fuel
That will fire the imagination
To burn like jewels
The wander artist is combing the streets
Conducting a search it will never complete
I, I, I, I Wrote This For You
May 16, 2005