Willliam Burroughs once said a writer’s only possible subject is what is at the forefront of his consciousness at the moment of writing. Commercial novelists might throw that in his face, sneering that his nonlinear constructions didn’t sell because there was no mercenary craft behind them. No dead guy on page two. No standard plot. I’m sorry, but I get more out of The Western Lands and Naked Lunch than any airport paperback. I mean, it’s the same two hundred schlock merchants up on those racks. Burroughs took chances, pushed barriers. I’m drawn to outliers. Even if you outline and plan, imposing a blueprint, you wind up infusing your work with idiosyncrasy.
You have to be driven to be a writer. I wrote a novel about a rookie teacher’s first year. Though the editor at FSG praised it, he judged it too slow for the “commercial” market. Funny, I saw it as “literary” rather than commercial. Ah well. Working through having blown my shot, I uploaded the crazed mess onto Kindle. Whole dozens of old friends and family members praised it. I was humble enough to feel cured.
Why write? Kneejerk reaction to being raised by a literary father? Sure. Did I write to make money? I made some, as a journalist. Did I write to purge myself of angst? No doubt; that’s what this blog is about. But I also seek to entertain. If I am inextricably attached to the identity of Writer, I may as well make myself useful, do other people some good. I’ve learned lessons about this.
Fallout from ill-considered writing tarnished a reunion I just had with two old high school friends.
It was such a hopeful idea. A chance to break out of my hermit existence. My wife shoved me out the door. “Go be social.”
One of the guys on the trip, politely trying to catch up with my mad blog, emerged from his hotel room one morning to make it clear he didn’t like what I was blogging. I felt bad. I’d already entertained doubts about The Cactus Man and his acrid musings.
My previous post to this one, about smart Hispanic girls I’ve taught, I’d already pulled from the site, and I told him so. It was wrong to have named the girls, even in the spirit of encomium and the noble mission of sounding a counterargument to rampant hostility toward Mexicans. Those girls are still out there. I’d invaded their space, like a cyber-stalker. Shame has kept me from blogging for about a month now.
It was the post two before that, a sordid expose of my drug and alcohol abuse, that had affronted my friend — whom I’d named. In a bit about a drug experience I’d had in high school, I made him look like a square. In the end, I was the butt of the joke, this crazy kid messing with a dangerous chemical.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t blog about this trip.”
“Don’t worry. I never intended to.”
I felt a sinking feeling. I never meant to make him look like a square. I just needed a straight man to set up the laugh. Sometimes truth, history, or rightful memory assigns roles. I’ve played the square many times. But I got how he was mad.
When you write, things can get out of hand. Writing has a rhythm and logic of its own.
The three-day getaway had started so well! Behind the wheel of my doggy smelling Subaru Forester, I was playing Neal Cassady.
I’d picked up the other guy first. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. He’s a man of means now, did well in the medical field. He consults hospital systems on producing greater efficiencies in HMOs. Breaking a twenty-year silence between us, we talked about early sexual adventures and misadventures, sharing things that make you pull over to stop laughing. It’s nice to know someone other than me had the wrong idea about how to don a condom. And my admission about my embarrassing experience (un-divulged until now) on our visit to a Nevada bordello half a century ago, when youthful overexcitement prevented even the cursory engagement one might associate with the ten-dollar investment, he found suitably droll, as he did my reminiscence of the further embarrassment of my being short of the ten, and the gal having to query the madam, in my red-eared presence, whether to let me go with nine dollars and seventy-four cents.
The Three Amigos saw two Cleveland Indians spring training games in the Phoenix area. Sandwiched between that was a trip up to Williams and a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway. The canyon was rimed with frost from a late-spring snowstorm.
Even as we relaxed and reminisced, there were tensions. Not just about the blog.
I felt the heat of their wanting to know how I make ends meet, and why I hadn’t tried harder to get that gig grading standardized high school tests. I wished I hadn’t shared so much to begin with.
This has led to an important realization. My problems in life are not that I never seem to find the great metaphysical truth that resoundingly proves or disproves all my brave hypotheses. No, the problem is that I tell everybody everything. Then I have to answer to what they know about me. It’s a left-handed rather than a right-handed problem. I have been fighting this PR war my whole life, all because I let you know more about me than you needed to.
I licked my wounds, wanting them off my back, stared out the window of the rail car. They probably thought I was being boring.
The other thing – their anxiety over my anxiety about whether I should drink again (which they got from just having read my drugs-and-alcohol rant) – dissipated when, at dinner in Sedona, they had liquor and I had a Coke and they could see it didn’t matter. We sat there laughing, chatting up the waitress. We’d exhausted our shared viewpoints about politics and were like dogs enjoying the warmth of other dogs in their den.
And that’s it. That’s how I kept smiling, forgave myself, and wrung what I needed from the reunion.
The simple animal warmth of our being with each other has stayed with me.
We’re talking about getting together on a regular basis. I’m game.
But wary. Because the get-together I just had was a little harrowing.
Friendship, it turns out, is a resource to be managed as shrewdly as you manage your portfolio. If you know me and my grasp of the arts of finance, you can see how this might be a painfully apt comparison.
As with budgeting money, I’ve got a few things yet to learn.