news for failed writers! I heard a bit on the radio the other day
about Katherine Hepburn. Whoever is taking care of her these days
said, "Well you know, her mind is almost gone." I thought back
to her performances in the classic movies she made. The wacky, eccentric,
sexy girl in "Bringing Up Baby." The courageous, passionate
woman in "African Queen". God, what a great actress she was! What
a mind. And now it's almost gone. So if such an intelligent,
witty, talented and generally on-top-of-it person can, by dint of
nothing more exotic than burned out neurons or possibly a diminishing
supply of some transmitter chemicals in the brain, get rid of all
those pesky memories, then it can happen to any of us. One more thing
to look forward to. Not only are we all going to die, but some of
us - maybe most of us if we hang on long enough - are heading for
a twilight where all the channels of memory will be silted up and
our past, the internal record of our lives, will vanish. Now the good
news! When your mind is gone, your lack of fame and fortune won't
bother you any more. You'll no longer have those nagging doubts -
"If I just hadn't gotten married and had the kids, I could have lived
in a shithole and spent all my time writing."
Who knows, maybe when the real
memories fade from the mind, they're replaced with the dotty certainty
that all your dreams have come true, just like Jiminy Cricket said
they would. Maybe as the reality fades, the fantasy shines brighter.
The downside is that we'll all be in Depends and have underpaid high
school dropout health care workers spooning applesauce into us and
mopping the droppings off our quivering chins. But who cares? We'll
all be sitting there basking in the phantom adulation of having
won the National Book Award, the Booker and - what the hell, why not?
- the big N itself. While at the same time enjoying unreal memories
of having been pursued and caught by film actresses, young and lithe,
with too much makeup and expensive underwear. Our sleepy little weenies
will stir and we'll utter a toothless giggle.
Except I also hear that medical
science has made another stride. Somebody's come up with a drug that
supposedly improves memory dramatically, if only temporarily. They
have tested this wonderful new drug and it allows old people to score
higher than young people on a test involving the memorization of nonsense
syllables that sound something like words but aren't.
Picture this. A young woman is
seated on one side of a table. On the other side is a male college
student with an assortment of metal pins and rings corkscrewed decoratively
through various facial features. Sitting next to him, a geezer. Both
of them have eaten a capsule, the contents of which they don't know.
The young woman speaks. "Now I'm
going to repeat some words and I want you to try to remember them.
In five minutes I'll ask you to tell me as many words as you can remember.
I'll repeat each word twice. Ready? Let's begin." She looks
at them in turn. She is serious, no smiles, no cracking up.
"Porge. Porge. Sliphinish. Sliphinish." Slowly, with a pause
between. "Plactrate. Plactrate. Illtillifant. Illtillifant. Slabbatt.
The kid's eyes are closed in concentration.
He's trying to do well. He's a psychology student and is here in the
hopes of improving his grade. The geezer is a little worried. A bead
of sweat forms and runs down the side of his face. He's thinking,
"Why has my mind chosen just this moment to turn to mush?
I can't understand a thing she's saying! Maybe it's my ears, not my
mind. What the hell is she saying? Surge? Elephant?"
"Predloe. Predloe. Sleech. Sleech."
He's thinking, "She has a speech
impediment. Or I've just had a stroke."
The science woman stops and leaves
the room. The kid, eyes still closed, keeps repeating what he thought
he heard over and over to himself. Silently of course, don't want
to help the old guy out, maybe this is a competition. The geezer,
worried and distracted, can't even concentrate. So when the woman
comes back five minutes later, the kid blabs out what he heard. Of
course the syllables have all morphed into something else and he only
gets two words. The old man repeats what he thought he heard, which
were normal English words only with a strange accent, and he gets
ten words. The developers of the drug are very happy and the pharmaceutical
company cranks up the marketing department.
Maybe I'm just a cynic. Roshi,
my five hundred year old Buddhist monk friend, says I'm cynical. "Being
cynical no good for you too. Cynicism is like playing with your own
I asked him to clarify that remark
but he wouldn't. He's not much for explaining what he says. I'm getting
sick of Roshi. For one thing, I never know when he's lying to me.
He says he's five hundred years old, that he's a Bodhisattva, that
he was head of a monastery in Japan in 1600, that ever since then
he's traveled around the world as a spiritual guide. Or actually,
he doesn't say any of that. But he doesn't deny it either. His story
comes out in dribs and drabs and when I press him on some particularly
improbable point, he just winks and laughs at me. Last month he came
to my apartment and pretended to be meditating for five days straight.
He sat in the corner staring at my goldfish bowl the whole time. There's
no fish in it because my cat Garbo ate them but I keep the bowl and
tell people it's my pet clam. See, there's sand in the bottom and
there could be a clam down there but it would be invisible anyway.
So it's my little joke and people always laugh. Of course there aren't
many people who come to my apartment but those who do think I'm intelligent,
witty, talented and generally on-top-of-it.. A writer, you know. They
Not Roshi though. Oh, maybe he
likes me. He comes around more than anybody else. He sat there staring
at my fishbowl for five days. Actually he must have got up and moved
around, ate and gone to the bathroom. It's not possible to sit still
in one place for five days. He must have moved and stretched while
I was asleep or at work. But he's cagey. He was always there in the
same spot for five entire days, even if I came home early or got up
in the night. Garbo slept on him and used him as a perch and he never
moved. It was weird. Then after five days of complete immobility he
chuckles and says, "Let's go get a beer." I nearly jumped out
of my skin. He'd become a piece of furniture and now he's talking
to me. So we went out and drank a bunch of beer, I got trashed and
Roshi carried me home. See how irritating he is?
I think he lies just to see my
reaction. It shouldn't bother me since I can't really know for sure
if he's lying or not. How do I know whether he actually lived in a
hut made of rocks and snow near the top of Nanga Parbat? Or whether
he worked in the fun house at Coney Island in 1930, operating the
air jet that blew the women's dresses up? Or... Oh right, listen to
this! This was the most incredible.
I was talking to him about the
situation in Arkansas where they recently executed three people on
the same night. Did it to save on paying the guards overtime, they
said. I am completely opposed to capital punishment. Not that I don't
think there are criminals who deserve to die. I just don't think anybody
deserves to have to kill them. It brutalizes the whole society. I
can't help thinking of the parties people throw outside prisons when
some one is being executed. Tail gate parties like at a football game
and they have count downs. That can't be good for people. And all
this apart from the way the penalty is applied, which is completely
dependent on your money, your friends, and your skin color. The whole
concept is entirely creepy. Sometimes I have dreams in which I'm about
to be executed. It's a terrible feeling.
I'm telling all this to Roshi,
when suddenly he blurts out, "You know, I was once executioner."
I was stunned. I sat forward in
my chair and just stared at him. "What did you say?"
"I was a executioner." He
took a sip of tea and stroked the cat on his lap. "Chop chop."
"No. No joke, being a executioner."
"You mean you killed people?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes hit em with
a stick until they cry. Pinch they toes with a big tweezer. Big crowds
come to watch. They bring lunch, sit on the grass. Just like a concert."
Roshi looked at me steadily. His
lips creased up at the corners as if moving toward a smile but I swear
his eyes were cold. I almost believed him for a second. "You're kidding.
"No. Big crowds of people come
to watch. They love it when the peoples holler, love to see the blood."
"When was this?"
"Long time ago. Was in, let's
see, I think it was, maybe, I forget what year. In Germany."
"How could you do that? You're
always talking about compassion."
"I never say a word about compassion."
"But all the books I read about
Buddhism talk about compassion. You're a Buddhist, a monk, a bonze,
a bishop or whatever it is, for Christ's sake! How could you...?"
"For you, books talk louder than
"Forget about books. You are telling
me you actually tortured and killed people?"
"Hard lesson but it teach em what
it means to be made of meat."
"What do you mean, made of meat?"
"Made of meat. That's what you
made of. That's what everybody made of. Most people when they die,
they think back about life, they think of good stuff. Way down deep,
what they really thinking about is orgasms. You think about coming,
seems like not too bad a deal, being made of meat. But if you die
while somebody setting you on fire, cut you open and pull you insides
out, break you bones and leave you on a wheel? That give you a different
opinion. That show you what it really means to be made of meat. Teach
a valuable lesson. Last a long time too."
Garbo stirred on Roshi's lap,
rolled over on her back and stretched her paws, exposing her belly
for him to scratch. He scratched and she purred. I tried to be cool
and realize that Roshi was lying to me to rile me up. But I couldn't
help it. I was riled. "You're saying you think torturing people to
death is good for them in some warped, pseudo-spiritual fashion?"
"Not pseudo anything. Very practical.
Breaking on wheel is best. Gives them a long time to think about things
before they die. One guy, he gets drunk, takes a pee in church. They
say, "Heretic," and send him to me. I take iron bar, break his
arms and legs. Shin bone, thigh bone, upper arm two places here and
here, down part of arm here. Fold him up like origami, his legs under
him with his heels up by his ears, arms in and out in spokes of wheel.
Leave him there, he don't die for three hours! How about that? Next
lifetime, I betcha he go in monastery when he's five years old and
I'm sure he was lying to me. Pretty
sure. I have to keep remembering that he is, or was, a clergyman,
a priest. Social control is obviously a big component of organized
religion. So he probably thinks lying in the service of, I don't know,
moral instruction or whatever is justified. Telling lies with good
intentions is probably a technique more than a character defect. When
you come to think of it, it's the same thing writers do. What is writing
fiction but telling lies with good intention?
For all us failed writers, it's
less of a problem. After all, can you be convicted as a liar when
nobody reads your lies? Probably not. And what is a failed writer
anyway? Every writer is a failed writer. Except for Margaret Mitchell.
She wrote one book - which I haven't read, by the way. But I still
think it's crap. Wrote one book, made a pile of money and called it
quits. Basked in adulation. Took vacations and drove a nice car. As
for all the other writers, some of them, a very damn few, write books
that sell thousands of copies and become rich. Since the popular taste
is obviously degraded, any book that sells thousands of copies is
obviously trash. So those writers are failures, unable or unwilling
to produce works of genuine literary merit. Failures. QED.
Then there's the ones who slave
and weep over important books, live in poverty or near it, read and
study and sweat and produce beautiful, wonderful stuff. But none of
the commercial publishers will have anything to do with them. They
publish these books, a few copies are sold, almost nobody reads them.
The writer makes no money, or so little that, if considered as an
hourly wage for the time it took to write the book, it would amount
to a tenth of a cent an hour. Something like that. Does that sound
like success to you? No.
I must admit there are some decent
writers who also manage to make a living at it. But if you're a decent
writer, you're always chasing that receding horizon. Always trying
to get something down on paper that eludes you. So there's one variety
of failure. Then there's a worse one, the "great man" fallacy. Some
writers get the impression that, having written a great book, they
become great men or women. They may try to keep their own high opinion
of themselves under wraps a little for the sake of false modesty,
or they may just say the hell with it and have "genius" tattooed on
their foreheads. Journalism perpetuates, not to say creates, this
myth. Even the high toned reviews with all the long words make heroes
out of writers. When the fact is, as any decent writer with a shred
of honesty will tell you, writers have no idea where the good stuff
comes from. They sit at the desk or the table with the notebook or
the computer or the typewriter and stare into space. That's about
the extent of their contribution. Things come into their heads, they
write them down. Where do those things come from? A debate is possible
between the "billions of neurons" crowd and the "still small voice
of God" crowd, but in either case there's damn little conscious direction
from the writer. Oh sure, after the fact you've got to edit and throw
out and rethink. But the original source is something mysterious.
That's part of the reason why art and the business world seem so far
apart. The businessman spends all his time making plans, having meetings,
drawing charts, all to obviate the very possibility of getting surprised.
If you're surprised, you're unprepared and nobody ever made a nickel
being unprepared. That's the last thing businessmen want, surprise.
Whereas I not only want surprises, I'd goddam well better get some.
Everything I write is a surprise ten seconds before it goes on paper.
I rely on surprise. If I don't surprise myself, I'm sitting there
doing nothing. If I don't get surprised, I'm a failure. But if I do
get repeatedly and delightfully surprised and manage to write a really
great book, that still doesn't make me a great man. It doesn't make
me an expert, a spokesman or a guru. It just makes me a writer. And
if I never get the damn book published, nobody's going to know that
Although nowadays there's a new
way for us to inflict our artistry on an uncaring world. The Internet,
and my, haven't we heard a lot about that, one way and another. When
anything is thrust constantly into your consciousness, you may be
sure somebody is trying to make a buck out of it. But among all the
ads, chat rooms, games, personal notices, blurbs and locations of
obscure information, there are places where the failed writers can
put their work on display. For everybody to see! And you don't have
to go through convincing somebody else like an agent or publisher
that the stuff is any good. You certainly don't have to deal with
any picky editor, as a single glance at most of this tripe will reveal.
You don't even have to spell check the thing! Call me reactionary
but I think it's pretty important to spell things correctly, given
how easy it is to accomplish that these days. I mean, if you're not
even interested enough in your own work to get the words spelled right,
how interested are you in the plot and characterization, let alone
the infinite questions and demands that go into making the thing function
as a work of art? But there it all is, right out there on the Internet,
in all its illiterate glory, ready to be read by - what do the ads
say? - millions of people all around the world. Maybe it was billions!
Somebody might be sitting in Paris reading my story right now! Having
stuff out there is like having it in a virtual library to which millions
of people have library cards. And you can experience virtual fame
along with fantasy riches and more easily become a legend in your
own mind. It's a little like getting into the Katherine Hepburn state
without benefit of biological decay.
The Internet, repository of information
and entertainment, as well as, reportedly, a ton of porn. I personally
have never seen any of it but I read it's out there. I don't go to
those sites because I think there may be a huge database somewhere
tracking exactly where people go on the Internet and developing a
psychological and moral profile of them, which is then fed back to
the FBI, police departments and right wing religious organizations
("Christers in Control", "Buttoned Up for Bhuddha"). I mentioned this
to Roshi and he laughed at me, as usual.
"That is Karma you're talking
about. Not a lot of computers and people with glasses looking at reports.
Karma, driving the Wheel of Rebirth. You worried whether police gonna
know you looking at a girl's tits. You ought to be worried how many
lifetimes you gotta spend before you wake up."
I don't look at porn on the net
but there is some strange stuff out there. There's a site for men
who feel they were traumatized by having been circumcised. They were
trimmed as infants and now that their lives are in the toilet for
some reason or other, they fix on the fact of circumcision as the,
ahem, root of all their troubles. They talk to each other on line.
And they have a solution. There are contraptions and exercises but
the gist of it is you lash some duct tape around your dick, stretch
it out so the skin is pulled down over the head and then strap the
other end of the tape to your knee. And leave it that way for a year!
I'm thinking, ouch. Of course you have to pee and do some hygiene
things occasionally. But, according to these guys, you do that and
after a year or so, you'll have something like a foreskin again. The
site is not solely dedicated to the mechanics of re-engineering your
penis. It also serves as a place to exchange confidences, feelings
of mutilation, fears, thoughts, aspirations.
"What do you think, Roshi?" I
was saying. "Do you think a foreskin support group could foster spiritual
Roshi sat in the rocking chair
in a patch of sunlight. He creaked himself back and forth with a gentle
pressure from one foot, at the same time folding little origami cranes
out of the pages of a short story I'd left on the coffee table. I've
asked him not to mess with my drafts but he giggles and says, "What,
you think I'm messing up progress of great literature?" And
I don't want to get into it with him. It's all in the computer anyway.
So I don't care if he folds little paper birds and then encourages
Garbo to bite their heads off.
"Foreskin support group sound
like you and your famous writer friends when you get together to read
stuff to each other."
"I never invited you to sit in
on my writing group. That was your own idea to crash the meetings.
And if you're just going to sit in the corner and fart and laugh at
everybody's manuscripts, I'd just as soon you stayed away. You don't
like my friends anyway."
"Oh, I like them people. Nice
people. But is all like a foreskin support group."
"What do you mean?"
"Trying to think. There's another
name for foreskin support group. What was that name?" Roshi
made a great show of scratching his head, pulling his beard. He bent
over and whispered in the cat's ear. "Garbo, you remember the name
of that word?"
"I don't know what you're talking..."
"Oh yeah! Now I remember what
you call it. Circle jerk."