First Writing Desk and B.S. Eliot
My first writers desk was an aged stump of varnished oak that hunkered in the center of my room, brushing it's bulky girth against the wall of the bedroom that was once served as my nursery a decade before. The desk was a creative anvil; a wooded cutting board where every afternoon after track or cross-country practice I labored and peeled sliced syllables into pruned sounds; chaining egoistic thoughts together on very cheap lined paper.
I started writing in autumn of '94. The earth was a leafy nest of foliage the color of wet candy wrappers. I was just commencing with my Junior year at Manual High school. It was sixth months after Kurt Cobain dished a solitary anguished bullet inside his temple. I was romantically tethered (as seems to happen) with a girl I had met in Europe who wanted nothing to do with me.
And I started writing.
I come from a family of musical prodigies. "We're not the Vonn Traps, we're the Von Behren's," I would tell people in high school. "Although I feel 'trapped' in a symphonic cacophony sometimes!" Both my sisters coasted through youth and college tightly strapped to polished-wooden instruments. Beth sawed a rosin-laced bow across the frontal spin of her cello. Jenny whistled her limbs nightly across the bridge of a violin. From ages 8-12 all I remember is a tautly stringed nasal-suzuki squeal that somehow spelled out 'Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star" in a variety of contorted key changes.
My parents also possesed a zeal for music. Mom directed handbells at the Old Lutheran chruch we attended and played the organ. My Dad used to scribble and record christian folk songs on our front porch. My parents also (?) were dilettante dancers and even into the first years of college I vividly remember hearing my father galloping in his socks, swiftly trotting syncopating shuffle-ball-change steps across the kitchen floor.
I don't have a musical bone in my body and just last night, when I was driving around with Uncle Mike under a beautiful cholrine blue pre-autumnal sky and I started orally chiming out the refrain from Greg Brown's song "China,"Uncle Mike turned to me and wryly inquired what I did with the money.
"Money, what money?" I volleyed my nonplused response back into his ear lobes.
"The money your parents gave you for singing lessons." Michael said, smiling so I could see his silver fillings. Uncle Mike loves doing this. Everytime I think I say something witty or quote "profound" Uncle Mike triumphs himself in annihilating my ego; quashing my own menial wit as easily as one might obliterate a pineta on Cinco de maya.
But growing up there was always music. Translucent bulbs stuffed with rococco shaped key- signatures, slim horizontal black rungs, pear-heavy whole notes ushering the flagged stems of the saluting half-and quarter, all delicately levitating up, through the ceiling, into the bedroom of an earnest young writer whose body was hunched like a question mark over his writers desk, flogging out sounds in either blue or black ink--the color of a bruise.
I was a 'Poe-it' (dual-syllable) I wrote 'Poe-ems', I devoured Whitman and Emily Dickinson; I tackled Ezra Pound and James Joyce. I wore vintage coats and smoked cheap cigars rolled from sweetned cardboard and sauntered around my neighborhood at dusk quoting T.S. (B.S.) Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by heart, feeling all too certain at the duplicitous age of seventeen that surely Eliot had penned that particular poem with me in mind.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Still to this day, Eliot's overly-antholgized literary offering still crackles a cordial nostalgia inside my ears, chimming British bells within my chest, reminding me of a confusing time when a young man decided to chase the smudged lavender coattails of autumn into the dancing flicker of a homecoming bonfire.
In my late teens and early twenties, I sailed off on my writers desk, leaving the port and drama of late-teen histrionics (and the the musical squeaks that innocently tapped through the walls of our house like mice) behind me, steering through the sewage of the english language with honest (though pretentious) elbow strokes, using cheap plastic pens for my paddle.
I wrote in spiral notebooks. Each notebook I would write the month and the year on the cover. By the end of my junior year I was convinced that verse had cosigned me with the moniker of immortality and I fully expected to see my painted viscera posted above the Cafe in Barnes and Nobles invovled in a candid critque between Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
A decade ago I honsetly arrived at the rest stop of the english language for all the wrong reasons, namely to stroke my ego like a quill and to get people ( namely females) to acknowledge that I had a pulse. I was a failed athlete and like any high schooler, craved guidance and attention and an over all cultivating sense of purpose and life-orientation. I found that sense of purpose ( or at least sniffed it) in the inky drops those late teen age years offered. I found my minimum wage; found my freshman orientation, in those indulgent, overweight poems.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
I began to tack quotes by other writers above my desk. Little 3 x 5 inch postcards. I had Joseph Conrad's famous Heart of Darkness proverb concerncing work antics, " No, I don't like work--no man does, but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself." I had Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD infamous bee-bop mantra staring me straight in the eye every time I squatted:
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say an uncommon-place thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles."
|The author (age 2) at his first writing desk...found this in an album a |
couple of years ago with the quote, "Maybe i'll be a writer someday"
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'
I had a little known quote from Anne Sexton thumb tacked next to a picture of Walt Whitman. The quote was from a letter she wrote to a young poet in which she encourages him to quit behaving like a poet and concentrate on the craft of writing itself. "Just write every day and let the publishing aspect worry about itself....fight for the poem!!!!"
To this day that's by far the best advice I've ever received on writing and possibly on the craft of living as well.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
The oak desk began to get full with chopped slices of papers. My writing became more and more indulgent and so--called 'erudite'. Everything I wrote was planetary heavy. I took sick pleasure in exhausting the reader in a basin-vortex of blurred imagery. My vocabulary was riddiculous; ingesting copious amounts of James Joyce and glorifying the fact that my avatar Kerouac, also, was rather clueless when it came to punctuation, didn't help matters. My writers desk became a guillitone-- a syntax slaughterhouse where, all too-sure of my own genuis, I bludgeoned through sentences and storylines as fast I could, lacerating the eyesight of my diminutive (often imaginary) audience with sprinkled blisters and the occacional sty.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
In 1998 my writers desk got shoved into a side corner in grandma's basement, surrounded by moldy carboard squares with my Grandmother's name written on them. From early 1999 until last month, I've moved an estimated (count 'em) twenty times. I've lived in co-ed dorms where my room was always the designated smoking lounge. I've lived in boarding houses where my roommate was an ex-con and harvested psychedelic shrooms on the side. I moved back into my parents basement, lived in a historical 1844 Mansion (for 13 months!-note year of mansion), lived in the country, in between green sheets of corn and crakerbarrel dirt roads. I lived in a caretakers house in a run down Jewish cemetary that's ironically on the same street where Uncle Mike and I live now ( damn four year cycle,) I lived in a dilapidated house with God-knows how many cats, a Playboy pinball machine and numerous 'transients' who would come in and crash, eat all the chips, slurp all the soda and spend countless hours monopolized in front of my roommates playstation while me and a few others labored to make ends meet and afford rent.
Come 1998 I was completely indecipherable as a writer. I was purely a James Joyce sycophant; a verbal toady who somehow got off on belittling other human beings. I hurt many people in the name of "literature." I was exactly like that undergraduate professor we've all had who got off on publically correcting your grammar and took great pride in slathering blood-red comments in the margins of your thoroughly rehearsed term paper.
This happens to writers all the time. One truism that somehow slipped out from the final draft of The Artist's Way (along with 'Frugal Living for the Wayfarer Artist Tucked in You' portion) is that trying to market your art as a product TAKES TIME. A really good novel may take four to six years to complete and an additional three-four years trying to get into print. We live in an acclerated Starbucks-locomotive dot.com driven society where fifty percent of all marriages end in the first ten years. Pardon my candor, but if most people can't commit at least a decade to the purported 'Love of their lives'-how the hell are they going to rededicate and discipline themselves to serving the global literati?(Grade school kids even have "accelerated reader.")
Realize that most of the great writers (think Hawthorne, Whitman, and Mellville) never really made it in their lifetimes, but they never stopped writing. Being an impecunious chronicler of the human condition myself, I don't think it was " Posthumous Literary fame" or pedagogical pretension that madly drove them back to their writing carrels on a nightly basis (although I'm certain it drove the sporadic snootiness of Joyce and Pound). I think the writers whose corpus transcends the realm of literary conventions had simply fallen in love tinkering with their hobbies; and that personal joy culled from stretching out that perfect sentecne or polishing that serene image rivals any accolades or award that I know.
After slobbering fulsome sentence after fulsome sentence I realized that I never really wanted to write, as much as I wanted to be known as a writer. My hero Jack Kerouac was purely an image writer; he looked like an erudite fifties-greaser who'd debauch your daughter on his Harley outside the sock-hop inbetween gulps of Proust. I honestly don't believe the literary hoi poloi would have devoured his 'hi-brow' hedonism had Jack Kerouac been middle-age, over weight, slighly balding with B.O.
So I behaved like Jack Kerouac, emulating his so--called literary lifestyle. I fingered cigarettes. I twisted my syntax to elevate my own solipsistic view of the world. I volleyed my professors theories back into their faces. I coveted the english language to my own whims and madly scribbling vulgar xeroxes of life, which, like Kerouac's. were almost 100 percent autobiographical and sometimes stale.
When I finally did fish out my writers desk from my parents basement, it was moved into the 1844 mansion, where, with my new laptop, I would slap assaults and inquiries; turgid, feeble images into the brow of Microwsoft Word.
For a long time, my writers desk, the simultaneous manger and bridal-suite; that stump where I saddled my eleavted thoughts, became nothing more than a bar stool; it's author; it's sole inhabitant, the biggest lush on tap.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
A few months after my own father's death I moved out from the mansion and lived itinerantly. Mother had already denied me access into her house "I still want to know you Dave," although she allowed me to store my broken bookcases and what little furniture I owned in her (grandma's old) garage. A meeting with mother meant an appointment with failure. I love my mother very much but she's never once supported or encouraged my writing. Blithe Baptist that she is...it means very little to me that my mom doesn't support my hobby (or art, or writing) but it means quite a bit to me that she doesn't support me. I couldn't tell you what it would mean to me if mom would spontaneously drop by my work tonight, ask me how things are going and take me out for a cup of coffee. It would mean more to me than anything I've blogged or written this summer (even the bloggs I refuse to post!!!)
I haven't had a writers desk or a "conducive" writing area for over three years. I've learned to flourish around noise and studious fracas; learned to write in computer labs where no one speaks english. I've been blessed (Greatest greatest blessing) to have a job, where, inbetween calculating time cards and scanning out Reserve materials, I can slip into Microsoft word and drain myself empty. Even though the job pays shit (basically just pays for food and schooling), I honestly can't beat the benefits.
Most importantly I've learned (and continue to learn) as Stephen King says, "Life isn't a support- system for art. It's the other way around."
"Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself." Is a golden Baha'i proverb. My wish for those reading this is to never stop chasing that elusive autumnal sunset from that moment when you realized in youth, that a lil' bit of gold, a lil' bit of longing, a lil' moment of eternity, yearned to leak out from the tips of your fingers. To never stop dreaming. Never stop giving. Art serves as a catheter for life when we need spiritual nourishment. But Art, in all it's beautiful timeless facets, is subserviant to the needs of human beings. You yourself, my friends, are vehicles of the light (God knows you've helped me to see) and, in the words of my former mentor Kerouac, don't be afraid to burn, burn, BURN!!!!!!!!!!