Dumping Heroes: Gatsby, Manhattan, and coming to terms with it all

After watching Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and his introduction of Gatsby to Rhapsody in Blue, and reading Fitzgerald’s description of New York as Nick and Gatsby cross into the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world…

 “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

I cannot help but recall Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan. Manhattan elates and saddens me.

I first saw Manhattan in 1979, when I was 19 and thought myself precocious. I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a school full of young people who rebelled in their precociousness. Tracy’s relationship with Isaac simply echoed my sense of myself. Who among my friends would have put a limit on the seventeen-year-old Tracy? We were only steps away from that age; we were not intimidated by 42-year olds. What did we know about power dynamics or anything more than our own blossoming worth in the world. Blossoming? Fuck that—we were valuable and powerful as we were.

If anything, we looked at the adults: Isaac, Yale, and Mary, as failures. They were warnings against what adulthood held for us. How many of those warnings were broadcast directly to us—adults, even bright, hyper-intellectual, and connected adults, failed miserably at the single focus of life: true and abiding love. (Is that the focus of life? Should it be?) They were even willing to ensnare us in their tangled ruin. And yet we were becoming those adults.

I still hear Rhapsody in Blue as flirtatious, triumphant and orgasmic—just as Allen used it to begin his movie. It starts with the clarinet ensorcelling the listener, almost drunk, almost like the opening of “West End Blues.” Then it is answered by the horns—overwhelming in their insistence, and unable to be subdued even by the speedy-fingered piano that interrupts the answer. There will be horns. There will be crescendo and climax. Yes there is more. It is hard not to feel movement through that city when hearing this music, but that city is full of sexual vibrancy, and sexual competency. We do it, and we do it right.

The sadness with Manhattan comes, of course, with the knowledge of what happened to Allen-—that youth and vigor swept him away. That romanticization won out over, what? Adulthood? And couldn’t we see in Manhattan all the signs of that? Where was there a space to be an adult in his work? Who knows what Tracy was going to come back to the city as—still full of possibility? or wrought into something, somehow less?

And here’s the thing—we are all going to be wrought by life, by struggle, by disappointment. It’s what we do after the first act that determines who we will be. Or the second act. Or the third.

Life contains an element of the bipolar—there will be elation and sadness. I embrace both. I struggle with both—or I try to. I tell myself to get ready for the fourth act; Agincourt, after all, takes place in Act IV. Still, the bitterness of disappointment is hard to set aside. And there have been so many disappointments, so many sadnesses, so many disenchantments. Heroes fall. I fail. What was once sweet on the tongue no longer pleases. My knees hurt. “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Cohen, and he sings in spite of his indelible croak. “Born with the gift of a golden voice,” indeed.

Manhattan elates and saddens me because it lays bare all the trouble to come and makes a statement about the seductive power of the city—a power I felt every time I visited it, every time I visit any great city. Life—like the city, the film about the city, and the novel by Fitzgerald—is rich and dense and confusing—and infuriating. I wish it was not so, and yet, it must be.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

Hurt, Pain, and Agony (swimming and writing)

At the end of a day at work, I had a low grade fever on Monday, and so I had a choice to make—go home or go to the gym.

When I was in high school and college, I swam competitively. I was a good swimmer, not a great one, but I had made myself a better one and took pride in the effort. I enjoyed practice, in spite of the fact that practice hurt. The predominant swim coach of my youth was James “Doc” Counsilman. He prescribed—preached, really—the progression of hurt, pain, and agony as the single lane toward improvement. I gobbled up his Science of Swimming, and pushed myself into agony and better results. I never became an elite swimmer. I came to the sport too late and without the technical proficiency needed to excel beyond my willingness to work to the point of physical failure, but I did become a much better swimmer.

I hated to miss practice. I went when I had a fever. I went my my shoulders felt shredded. I went if I had the flu. I pushed my body hard enough to compromise my immune system, and plunged my body into a staph infection that ravaged me for a month. I kept at it.

I briefly considered quitting when I was in college. While Swarthmore was a place to be committed to study, most of the swimmers on the team joined to be fit, or to explore the sport. I was maniacal, and therefore, felt more often than not alone on the team. I missed the hard driven team of my high school. Also, I was not used to being out ahead of everyone else. This is not a boast, just the nature of the circumstance. There were other teams on which I would have not made the cut. I knew that.

I rejoined the team, refocused my effort, and pushed on.

So, I felt under the weather on a Monday. Let me put this into context. Nearly every day at my job, someone calls out sick; I have enough free time in my schedule that I am able to cover other people’s classes. I do not understand being sick and missing work. I know it happens—I have had migraines, back spasms, and bronchitis in the past fifteen years. I had knee surgery fifteen years ago (torn meniscus). I get it. Illness happens. I admit to being stupidly judgmental about this.

For many recent years, I worked seven day weeks. If I got sick, my body, as if on cue, waited until I had a break in the school year. And then, I somehow avoided being ill on Sunday; I worked for a church. It just happened that way. The little stuff—a headache, some intestinal discomfort, a low fever—was just part of the day. Buddha might have said that desire causes suffering, but it seemed to me that a small amount of suffering was simply part of life. Swimming had taught me that.

I claim that swimming taught me that lesson, but I am not so sure, because there were—are—aspects of my life that suffering has upended. While I could fight through a workout, or endure lengthy stretches of difficulty in a relationship or job (perhaps endure too willingly and for too long), when it came to my writing, I backed away from the agony. Agony for writers, I think, is a bit different from agony for swimmers. Muscle pain and, what? brain pain—I hesitate to call it heart pain—are different creatures. Physical pain ends—for most. Certainly the kind of agony I courted in the pool stayed mainly in the pool, at least until my knees needed surgery. Mental pain permeates the day—you can stop writing and still feel the agony of an unsuccessful scene—anything less than glowing prose. And when even the good writing does not find a reader, then the agony feels for naught.

Writing does not quantify the same way swimming does. More writing does not necessarily guarantee better writing (There is a correlation, but it’s more slippery) the way that more (more yards, more effort) swimming leads to faster times. Nor does it compare well with work, where improvement and accomplishment have monetary results. Does a higher salary indicate a job better done—or for that matter a more valuable job? I guess that depends on how you ascribe value.

Maybe because good writing—whatever that means—is dependent on the reader, if one seeks to write well, one either needs a fairly reliable ability to dissociate from the absolute creative process and read one’s own work as a stranger might, or have a reliable enough reader to sort through her—or his—work. But more than that, one has to engage the work almost without a thought for oneself. There is a second dissociation—and this is like swimming: one must be attuned to the pain and the pain cannot matter.

For instance—and this is an insight into my judgmental brain—I described a character whose skin turned browner while he worked for weeks and months outside as “brown as a berry.” This is an old cliche, and one that I first overheard in the British Virgin Islands while sitting at dinner. Some old man—I was 12 or 13, everyone was “old”—described me in his British accent as “brown as a berry.” I did not know then that it was a cliche, and the phrase stuck, because my experience of berries tended to berries of red and blue and possibly black—the blackberries that grew wild on bushes near my home. It felt foreign and I enjoyed that the phrase had some unexplained—for then—British origins. The phrase dropped into my work, and I knew it was hackneyed when I wrote it—a minor disaster, I suck as a writer—and when I revised, I took it out. I knew that I would. But I had to move on while I was writing, I could not spend five minutes, let alone twenty-five, figuring out some turn of phrase. In the end, I let it be simple: “his arms turned brown by the sun.”

Does that sound like agony? Sucking as a writer is agony. The realization that my work would not please everyone—and that I still had to do the work—was not easy to accept; secretly, I believe that the whole point of writing workshops is to learn to ignore critiques as much as to learn from them. How does one know when the work is “not good”? Or, for that matter, “good”? Rickie Nelson sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” (more hackneyed advice from my childhood). There is agony in those questions.

And so, on Monday, I headed to the gym. I shortened my workout, burning down 500 calories in 23 minutes. It was shorter, not less arduous. I was in various forms of discomfort through the first half of the week—my insides disagreed with something I ate. I kept at the gym anyway. And then—always and then—I read the first chapter of my novel out loud at an open reading on Friday, and sent off the first set of query letters to agents on Saturday. The book, for now, is done. I wrote this. And I started the next book.

I am prepared for the work, even if it hurts, even if I am in agony. I have trained for this all my life.

Why the Djinn?

A friend asked where I got the idea for the Djinn. Here is the long story.

I wrote poems when I was in ninth and tenth grade. They were lengthy works with regular rhythm and rhyme. They told stories. When I asked my school to allow me to do an independent study in poetry writing, I was turned down, but one of my teachers suggested working with him to write sonnets and other formal verse. Stung by early rejection, I refused his offer.

I started writing fiction in college, and was accepted into a workshop in my senior year. After graduation, I started writing an espionage novel that had something to do with Monet’s Haystack paintings in the Hermitage, in St, Petersburg. I started work on a story about a baseball player. I started something about two friends who decided to go to college and pretended that they were ten years younger than they were.

I had a sense of the novel, and novel length stories, but at this point in my life, I had only read a few hundred novels—and many fewer short stories. Even though I started writing with poetry—blame A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss for the sounds in my head—I had been enchanted by folk tales, fairy tales, and mythology at an early age. I took out book after book of myths (Greek, American—Native American and regional folk tales, Indian, Chinese—I was only limited by the selection on the shelves) from my the local and then elementary school library. My other interests in the library were the Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock anthologies of horror stories, atlases and encyclopedias.

I did not start reading adult novels until I was in 7th grade and a friend lent me his copy of The Guns of Navarone, after which I read everything that Alastair MacLean wrote. I made a mad dash through Kurt Vonnegut in 8th grade. I read all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books before 9th grade. All this is a fairly slim bit of literature. My parents were not big readers—we had collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels on our few bookshelves. My mother did read to us, sharing Beowulf and Poe stories. But we were not a bookish family. My brothers and I found what we looked for with relatively little guidance.

I was an able enough reader in high school, but short of Billy Budd, little of what I read stuck with me. On my own, I read all of Neil Simon’s plays, and other plays, and took up with science fiction and fantasy (Asimov, Tolkien, and a little known writer named Zenna Henderson). I read and reread Robin Graham’s account of his trip around the world, Dove. Mostly, I spent long hours listening to progressive rock, watching old movies, swimming, and driving the family car as far and as fast as I could.

In college, I discovered William Blake, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert. It was also when I read all of John Le Carre’s spy novels, The Joy of Sex, and the only Daniell Steel novel that ever passed my way—The Promise. The main focus of English Literature courses was exposure to more—and I share the story of having a short novel assigned between a Tuesday and Thursday class with my students now. I read widely and gleaned what I could as quickly as I could. In my junior year, I switched focus to Art History (same deal: memorize as many works of art—in order and with an understanding of importance—as fast as possible), which, fortunately included a Cinema class that greatly expanded my limited knowledge of film.

So, what does any of this have to do with Djinn? I suspect that strains of all this—and of all the events of my life to date—appear in this work. Mainly, there is the myth, the early fascination with and appreciation of the fantastic as a genre, and the long interest in things that were away from here.

I encountered the djinn—as genies—in Sinbad and the Tales of the 1001 Nights. This book re-entered my life while I was in graduate school, in large part because of John Barth’s insistence on non-western sources of and for stories. But also because, once I encountered the djinn (or jinn), I was impressed by their wiliness and cruelty. I wondered—right or wrong—whether they had been mis-portrayed by the writer of the 1001 Nights. Why would such power need to be cruel? To refer back to Blake—“…what shoulder & what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I wondered. But I did not pursue the djinn, not yet.

I wrote in other ways. Although I have a set of prose poems set in Philadelphia that delve into the fantastic, I followed the realist tropes of my time. Perhaps this is what kept me from finishing—I was writing away from the story in my heart. Last year, when I dropped everything to take on new responsibilities—to myself and my work—I set aside the piece I had feverishly labored over for over ten years. During that ten years, I had written down a brief thought about a character who was keeping a secret (secrets will be something I grapple with forever). Five years ago, I was waiting for friends in a Mexican restaurant, and dashed out to buy a composition book, wrote a couple of pages before they arrived , and promptly forgot the book at the restaurant.

That story became the story of the Djinn.

I was dating a woman who shared my appreciation for the 1001 Nights—you have a copy too?—and that was enough of a spark to light the fire in this book, because the kindling, and the logs, had been waiting all these many years. Suddenly, I had a character whose secret was so closely held that he did not even know he was keeping it. He had forgotten that he was a Djinn.

There are other connections to other parts of my life and my studies that fueled this fire. Some of those will remain secret. Others are perhaps too obvious for me to mention here. For those of you who wonder how novels—or anything—gets written—by others or by your own hand—the short answer is that we tell the stories that enchant us. The shorter answer is that we sit down and write every day. No matter what. Perhaps because we are enchanted and under some infernal command—I wish that you write a novel, Djinn. So be it.

The Vision before the Travel

It seems impossible to me that when I finally see the cathedral at Rouen, I will already know the shadows of the late afternoon sun, and the way the morning light illuminates its porticos. How much of the world do I already know through the eyes of artists—the representations and words of painters and writers?

And not just buildings, but people as well. How have Uriah Heep, and Cassius, and Peter Walsh shaped my understanding of certain kinds of men? Or the countless representations of “The Man of Sorrows”?

If I have not traveled, I have imagined, and born witness to hundreds—no, thousands, more—of depictions of the world. I know that I have only traveled through the eyes and thoughts of others, but what others!

And yes, each place I have traveled enters my work, makes it larger, gives me insight to reveal some feeling in each of my characters. However, the travel out into the world is like practice for the travel I must do into the imaginary world I wish to create. I write, again and again, about the gifts that the universe provides, but, in the end, I must make something of them. I must use my imagination to recreate the world.

Which brings me back to the two views of the Rouen Cathedral by Monet at the National Gallery of Art—and all the other renditions I have seen in books and projected onto screens. I see these, and begin to build—in my mind, based on all the cathedrals I have seen in my travels, on all the slants of light, on all the play of clouds—a vision that will become my own. I look forward to seeing the actual building—soon! soon!—but I also know that it exists, somewhere, in my mind already.

Horses: Memory and Inspiration

This past fall, I went horse riding for the first time since I rode at a neighbor’s farm when I was 6 or 7. I rode on a horse named “Old General,” a sleepy footed follower of faster horses, but a step up from a rocking chair. Or so I was told. At one point in the ride, our trail guide asked if we wanted to run. It was actually the second time she had asked us; the first time I had gotten my sense of it. The second time, I was ready. Old General and I dashed, finding speed where it had not been before, and we covered the field ahead of my riding companions. Yes, I am competitive. It was one of the best days I had had in a long time.

Deborah Butterfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Deborah Butterfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The horse made it into the book. Lots of horses made it into the book. I find inspiration where I can, and the museums in Washington DC (the National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian American Art Museum) include sculptures that snuck into my work. At the very least they gave me ideas that acted as guideposts for the work.

I’m sure that there is some significant invention in this book. I am also certain that I used as much as was provided, whether it was experience or image from the world around me. As far as invention, I recall someone making the claim that all we experience in the first years of life is enough to fill several novels. Perhaps all invention is simply reforging those first few years—shifted through fractured memory.Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art

Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art

And, perhaps, there are deeper memories, deep from within our genes, stored among things like eye color and height. I know the Celts came from Central Europe and further South in Asia Minor. I wonder what they brought along in their genes, in their deep memories. I wonder if these stories are just what were, once, somewhere. For now, here is the horse, and a ride I will not forget.

“The horses flew through the forests without urging. With no path to follow, they crashed through low hanging limbs of trees, over bushes filled with thorns, and in and out of muddy streams. Their riders crouched low in their saddles, reins held close to the great sweating necks of the stallions. They rode like that, blurs against the dappled light, until the sun had set, and the sliver of the moon had risen, and the lead horse had slowed, finally, to a mere gallop. What pace they had been keeping has no name.

“Behind the other two riders, Thomas rode on the balls of his feet, crouching forward as his companions had done, but lifting himself out of the saddle by inches. The black horse beneath him felt him there, out of the saddle, and remembered a journey made by such a one as this, when she had run eastward toward the sun, when the sun would not rise. Then the rider had guided her to the edge of the world, and with a rope made of salamander skin, impervious to fire, had pulled the sun into the sky, and started the day. After that, it always rose, bright and warm in the east. When Thomas reached down to stroke the neck of the speeding mare, the touch of his hand confirmed the horse’s memory. ‘He has returned.'”

Libraries

I attended an event at the Meridian International Center last week. One of the rooms at the Meridian House is a library. There is a strange surprise about a library in a foundation. The odd assembly of books—all the Russian history (because the foreign service world centered on Russia for decades), a case of biographies of men and women important in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and then the random exception, a book by Carly Fiorina (published as she was making a run at the Republican presidential nomination), and then a shelf that jumps from A Woman in Egypt to Lee’s Lieutenants to The Great Influenza. Organization sometimes struggles when books are added.

I notice, besides John Barry’s book about the pandemic of 1920, there is also a copy of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club; both these books are on my shelves at home. I will guess that if I looked more meticulously that I would find other overlaps in our collections. I wonder about the constellation of editions that connect library after library, and how I have felt a kinship with those who share editions with me. This person, this place, is not so strange.

I have written about my books before, both about the joy of having—and unpacking them—them and the burden that they signify. My books are a kind of roadmap, both the orange Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3 and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Some books I have not opened in years, others I revisit with uncanny frequency. They all point to something, somewhere.