What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

Intention

IMG_3667

“A Swarm of Bi

Thousands of jade bi (pronounced bee) have been unearthed in elite Liangzhu culture burial sites, varying in size, quality of stone, level of workmanship, and finish. Yet the meaning, purpose, and ritual significance of bi remain unknown.”—from display text at the Freer Gallery of Art

 

The bi in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asia Art (The Freer/Sackler Galleries) are 4000-4500 years old. Some of the other jades are a thousand years older. I like that bi are so old, and among the earliest pieces of art in all the museums in Washington DC. I also like that we do not know the significance of the bi—that over 4000 years, their meanings have gone missing. They had a significance; we just don’t know what it was.

What matters is what we leave behind.

IMG_3336In the other corner of the Freer Gallery, an exhibit of Hokusai’s paintings and illustrations includes quotations from the artist about what he intended—not just in the specific works, but as an artist. He wrote about discovering himself as an artist late in life. He was already an artist, but he claims to come into his own in his 50s and thought that he might attain his most complete vision if he lived to 110. He died at 90. His work is sweeping and intimate—monumental nature and quiet personal moments—fantastic and humorous—heroes wrestling demons and uproarious coworkers. Whatever else he meant to last in his work—why that hero wrestled that demon (as if one could easily answer such a question)?—he meant it to last. He aspired to capture a vision that would last long after he died.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

My students struggle with knowing what writers meant when they wrote a particular poem or piece of fiction. I try to help them understand that the question is nearly impossible to answer, that the writer’s intention is a mystery even to him or her self. There’s a parcel of psychology served with that lesson—the ineffable subconscious meets the unruly and unpredictable conscious mind. They get confused when I make assertions about what is in James Joyce’s fiction—and, honestly, I have no idea what the human being writing his stories intended, but I can perform some intertextual acrobatics that will catch many of the ideas that spin through his work—thinking that I am implying that Joyce intended one thing or another. I’m just making connections informed by study and a willingness to play with and without a net.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

https://archive.asia.si.edu/publications/jades/object.php?q=F1917.79#scroll-down
Bi, ca. 3300-2250 BCE

 

Of course, I tell my young writers to align their intentions with what is on the page. It is nearly impossible to write without a sense of the outcome. We, quite naturally, want our ideas and images to catch fire in the mind of our readers. I cannot help but think of the artist who chiseled an image into the side of a bi. The images are so faint that one can easily overlook them. Were they only meant for decoration? Someone, sometime knew. We can only guess. What excites me is that someone did know, once, 5300-4250 years ago. Imagine making a mark and that it lasts long enough to cause some stranger to wonder thousands of years in the future.

What matters is what we leave behind.

When I write about the djinn, I am aware that I do not know how or why they were called into being. What made us need or want an order of magical creatures separate from gods and angels? I am aware that our perception of the djinn changed over time, in some part, due to the influence of Islam. But Islam—as a formal religion—is only 1400 years old. Only. Djinn and gods existed in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Islam gripped the region—and a quarter of the world. But, for the most part, they are a mystery—as are the gods and goddesses I call into my fiction. While there are fragments of stories, the past has swallowed them.

What matters is what we leave behind.

I wonder, if in 5000 years, whether I will be a mystery. A friend commented that writing and reading are escapes, and I disagree. I read to reclaim the past and reframe the present. Knowledge of the past makes our understanding of the present more complex, more nuanced, and more true. I write to give life more weight, more depth, more of what the past holds, and what the present should hold. After all, that is what makes a good story a good story—a vision that makes us stop and take account of our present moment and our lives. If I have any intention that lasts past the next three months, let alone 300 years, or 5000 (5000 years?), that is it.

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

Reclaiming Enchantment

SAAM-1929.6.127_1It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other; and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterwards in the hope of being in Paradise again.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why did I think I would have to live without enchantment?

Maybe, because enchantment—sheer magic—seemed all but impossible. Or if not impossible, somehow immature. Children believe in magic, not rational, brilliant adults, and I am both reasonably rational and brilliant within reason. Still, I fell in love with reading by pulling every book from the shelf about myths from all over the world. Later, I would come to appreciate the ache of Hardy and James. I discovered that after reading James, I could write like him, plumbing the mind with prolix sentences. But I wasn’t enchanted, either by the reading or by what I was writing. These sentences were not mine, even if the ideas came from my heart. I found truth, and truth would have to do in a world that had banished magic.

And then…

“Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I had written some before I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year of Solitude. There was a story about a disaster in a mine that I cribbed from Conrad—or it felt cribbed—it had the same sense of urgency and dread that Jim felt before the explosion in the ship. But it wasn’t until every impossible thing happened in One Hundred Year of Solitude, combined with the steady implacable voice of that novel, that a work of literature echoed the voice in my head.

While growing up, I had read some fantasy and horror—Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy delighted my adolescent heart, and Stephen King was good for an easy shock—but for the most part that kind of writing calls too much attention to itself. The tone does not so much enchant as cudgel. And yes, I understand, some people like to be cudgeled. Marquez’s tone created a silkier enchantment—so much so that some of the sentences forgot that they had ended. It was all spell, but a spell told at the dinner table.

Art is enchantment and artists have the right of spells.  Jeanette Winterson

During the in-between years, I also read Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale, which begins: “There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.” The novel careens into twists and turns of incredulity—what the hell is that ship?—however, the horse that began the novel enchanted me as it ran over the streets of New York City, and became, years later, my horse, although of a different shade.

A friend gave me a copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which blends science with whimsy. Two stories, “The Distance of the Moon” and “Dinosaurs,” are touchstones of longing—a sure sign of enchantment. Calvino’s Invisible Cities remains unteachable for me because I cannot help but fall into its spell each time I read it.

If I am not enchanted, what is the point?

I tried to write impossible stories when I began writing, and instead, returned over and over to stories from my life. The examples of writers who had preceded me on that path were innumerable—and many of those writers are among my favorites: Joyce, Woolf, Dickens. Even Marquez, it turns out, was mining his past—a magical realist past, but a past that existed nonetheless. Reading his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale was surprising. Perhaps impossible things can really happen.

Magic is hard to write. Too often magic feels like a trick, some cheap deus ex machina to shorten the distance between here and there. I tried. I had struggled with a story about a father who became the Cat in the Cat in the Hat (a great absent father story), and that became another story, of all things, about a man driven by love to masquerade as a Russian carpenter.

I wrote prose poems about my city of origin, Philadelphia. Philadelphia, as much as any city, rises from contradiction after contradiction. I had lived in West Philly when the MOVE fire took place. I had worked in an Italian restaurant with dubious connections. I had done other things. Philadelphia seemed impossible enough. I wrote stories and poems in which the sun failed to rise or a girl shot the moon out of the sky or angels gathered after the end of the world or a man gave away parts of himself as he walked through the city one morning. One of my mentors chased me away, asserting that I was singing in one key. I was still young enough, and tender enough (my great flaw) to step back.

After all, it was simpler to write about disenchantment. It felt more realistic, more, what? truthful. Disenchantment and disillusionment are the foundations of so much literary work. Even One Hundred Year of Solitude ends on a thudding note of despair.

 Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth.  Jean-Paul Sartre

I took many steps back. I grounded myself, got a series of real jobs, and lost my sense of magic. No, of course, I did not lose it. I put it away. I attempted to replace it with something like a reasonable substitute—an honorable and valiant substitute. A wiser soul would insist that there is no substitute, no more valiant way forward. They would not have been fooled by my efforts at sublimation. I tried to fool myself, and threw myself into work and life, and lost sight of myself.

How did that work out?

There are times when we can feel destiny close around us like a fist around a doorknob. Sure, we can resist. But a knob that won’t turn, a door that sticks and never budges, is a nuisance to the gods. The gods may kick in the jamb. Worse, they may walk away in disgust, leaving us to hang dumbly from our tight hinges, deprived of any other chance in life to swing open into unnecessary risk and thus into enchantment.

 Tom Robbins

This time last year I was a mere 30 pages into a new work. It did not have a shape, and I did not know how it would end. I hoped that it would end with a love that persisted over thousands of years, but what did I know? There were some 270 pages ahead. All I did know was that I had allowed myself to become entirely enchanted by what I was writing. Was it good?  Was it bad? What did I know? I kept writing.

I began writing and trusting in enchantment—rough magic to be sure—because I changed my life to reclaim enchantment. I set aside a life I had lived. I left two jobs—and a career of sorts—that had made the distance between my heart and hands more pronounced and distinct. And I began calling enchantment back into my life.

There must be people, writers, whose lives and work can take separate but equal tracks. I cannot. One part of me still feels that is a failure. As a mature adult, I should be able to compartmentalize the various parts of my life and live with the contradictions between what I dreamed of in my fiction and what I did at work and how I lived as a father and husband.

One of the great attractions of writing is that one is in complete charge of what one does. And what one does is, in the end, something like the most profound and energetic kind of play possible. The only rule of this game is: play more. Play more precisely. Play more wildly. Play more passionately. Play more broadly, quickly, intensely, blithely. Play into and out of contradictions. Play. More.

Try and lead the rest of life with that dictum in mind. Especially when one is a principal of an Orthodox Jewish boys school, or the director of religious education for a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Or as a husband. Or as a father. It all worked fine while I played in graduate school and wrote essays about William Blake or Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens or George Chapman. Or dropped everything and sailed for a month. Or ran through streets at midnight. Or. Or. Or. The ability to take play in many different places became a strength. It even was a strength while I tried to write fiction and explore where my craft would take me—and the field seemed open and endless. It was also a field without guarantee, which can be daunting, even to a 34-year-old newly minted Ph.D. I had to learn to make peace with unnecessary risk and enchantment. It took a while.

I am in the middle of it: chaos and poetry; poetry and love and again, complete chaos. Pain, disorder, occasional clarity; and at the bottom of it all: only love; poetry. Sheer enchantment, fear, humiliation. It all comes with love.

Anna Akhmatova

Allowing myself to be enchanted again meant allowing myself, for the first time in a long time, to fall inescapably in love. I do not know if other writers struggle with this. If they are like the rest of humanity, they all come to their work from different places and with different impediments. I came freighted with years away from writing, years of attempting to lead a life that was a little more guaranteed—a life that would make sense to others. I let much of that go and, without ballast, took flight. For me, that meant opening myself up to love. I realize that you, dear reader and (possibly) fellow writer may have been able to balance life—your craft—and love more successfully. In order for me to fall back into writing’s long dark spell, I had to give in to the complete chaos of love. All of it. I had to be vulnerable to unnecessary risks. I had to risk everything—it was the only way that I could reconnect with the bright source of possibility that inspires my work.

Enchantment had to be unreasonable and total. I could not corral it into one part of my life. Or I could, and did. And I could not, not this time, not with everything waiting ahead of me in the gloaming.

I once argued with a friend that the whole point of writing (I was talking about critical essays at the time) was to praise. I know that many writers would strenuously disagree. They leverage opposition to create—resorting to a kind of perpetual Hegelian dialectic. My best work simply praised. Why note failure, when some more glorious success awaits? It is so much easier to look back in anger—or disgust or disdain. Looking forward means looking into something that does not yet exist. When I praised writers in my essays, I praised them for their forward-looking vision.  I praised the chances they took. I have been singing to the risk-takers for a long time.

How did it take me so long to hear my own old song?

At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding … are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart’s rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment.

Andre Breton

I am in the shadowlands. Looking back will not get me where I am going. Asking the questions only serves to remind me that although I lost my way, I also found my way. There are some parts of this journey that are beyond my comprehension. Part of me hates that. I am a bright man and should be able to make sense of what happened and what changed. I have written these short posts as a way of reminding myself—and with any luck you—that the way ahead is not limited to the past. We can—and do—move in and out of understanding. But we move guided by our deeper inclination—what Breton calls “liking.” Let me suggest “loving,” which seems more committed, and therefore, riskier. I learn to live with the obscurity, even to court it, at my own peril, and for my own reward.

Writing must take us toward some inexplicable place. We read to be surprised and delighted by what we did not know when we began. Affirmation is fine. Discovery is essential. And when we write, we seek that same experience again—something like paradise. And again. And again. And this is how to live.

 

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.

Breaking Up with a Novel, Falling in Love with the Next One

So, your brain works like this when you begin a relationship: a steady stream of oxytocin lasts about two years and gets you through the infatuation stage. During that time, you are giddily in love, and you do the due diligence (or you don’t) that gets you to something more lasting, something, possibly, permanent.

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Oxytocin

Here’s the trick. If you are still working on a novel after two years, it is time to throw it overboard. No, seriously. Part of what gets a reader to pass into the dream you wrote is a similar flood of hormones. Reading requires infatuation. Yes, you can pack a novel with drama and with exotic wildness, but somehow, somewhere the depth of infatuation a writer feels for his or her work will emanate from the page and enchant the reader. Or it will not–keep in mind that each reader will be enchanted with something different. But we tend to fall in love with willing partners. Enchantment breeds enchantment.

Novelists are oxytocin junkies. We fall in love—or we fall in love enough—to write and write against all expectation of a result, daftly believing in what we are doing in spite of no promise of permanence. And then, when we finish, we move on—or try to. Some novelists visit and revisit characters, unable to move on. There are a number of reasons: security (this stuff was published once, so why not try again?); habit (I already know these characters, this time and place); anxiety (how will I find another novel to write? I’ll just do this again—sort of).

Great novelists work the same material over and over. Think of all the orphans in Dickens, or all of his switched and hidden identities. Or all the women negotiating lives surrounded by powerful if vision-impaired men in Woolf. Faulkner built Yoknapatawpha County and then inhabited and re-inhabited it again and again. Maybe J.K. Rowling knew that she was beginning a 7 volume world at the start, but how could commercial success not have impacted that world? I could go on.

I could just as easily line up novelists who produced one, maybe two books and then stopped. Might I suggest that they were not prepared for the jarring and harrowing experience of finishing a book—of feeling bereft, broken up with? Their lives were intertwined with that book. It had been the one (as it should be, as it must be!). Yet, once the flow of oxytocin stopped, that’s where they were. Done. And done.

Would falling in love with the process be a solution? You get the oxytocin for two years, it doesn’t matter what—or who—you fall in love with. After the infatuation, you have to learn another way to love. Something more indelible. Love your process like that. I have been writing every day for years—fits and starts, fiction and nonfiction. I used it as a base on which I found a more fiery, single love (that book). After finishing it, I crashed hard, but I also had the writing, some kind of writing, to propel me forward.

I will find another, brighter love as I go forward. Another novel beckons. Before I berate myself too much for the difficulty of beginning the next, I must acknowledge that I am still haunted by the ghost of the last. My brain misses the rush of turning to those words, those characters, those places. So to will your brain. Be ready. It’s just the oxytocin. Just.

And so, I revisit places—the Calders at the National Gallery of Art remind me of the value of clean lines, whimsy, and balance (always balance!). In spite of the heartache, there is beauty—beauty made by hands, not simply discovered in nature. Although that beauty too—the changing fall colors, the scent of the season even as I walk on the National Mall—fills my sails with new wind.

I take my iPad to bed and write as I imagine Proust did, propped up among the pillows. If only the cats would bring me coffee. I have a table in a library on which I arrange my materials, and where I make progress. I wait for the next rush of crust-breaking hormones, chipping away with sad hands until that day arrives—when the glimmer becomes a fire again. I am ready.

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.

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.

New Year’s Day

Today is my New Years Day. Today school meetings begin in earnest; students return and classes resume next week. What that means in practical terms is that I was up while the clock had a “6” to start the time, and at work while it showed a “7.”

The time doesn’t really matter. As long as something like 8 hours of sleep happened before I wake, time is just a way to organize the day, so that people can make arrangements. During the school year, the events of the day begin at 8 AM, and I like to be present and pleasantly caffeinated well before then. I plan accordingly.

Nonetheless, it is a new year, with all the attendant joy that comes with beginning. This year, I begin in strangely excellent physical condition. I can swim five miles without stopping (a task I once reserved as a test before heading out on the ocean). I can lift more weight than I have in thirty years. And I weigh as much as I did when I was fit and in college. These are all old markers, but remind me that even though years may pass, I can still fight myself back into shape.

I have also finished a draft of a novel, and have started working on revision. These are new thresholds, and mark a significant change in my daily life. Writing every day has been a revelation. I did not plan far ahead, but trusted—blindly, confidently—that there would be wells along the way. I know that the way ahead is—as it is in my favorite Kafka short story (“My Destination”)—“fortunately, a truly immense journey.” I cannot carry enough water to get me where I am going; there must be wells ahead.

I do not know where that journey will lead. I do not know what the next books will be about, but I can feel the impulse to write, to imagine and . All that matters is the writing and allowing for the discovery—the thrill of the new and of exploration of a subject, characters, places, and ideas. I know that there will be a physical analog to that journey, but that it will be bound to psychological, artistic, and spiritual travel as well. All must happen, and will happen.

Once upon a time I wrote a poem about baseball (and not at all about baseball) that ends: “Each day the day begins again.” And so it does, except I am more aware of my old self, and of carrying him—that old hulk, but also that bright star—into this year. So I go, crafting a way forward, learning, reclaiming, and working.

This is the single greatest attraction beginning a new school year—as it has been since I was much younger. There is something new to learn, some new idea, some new book, some new inner and outer experience on the horizon. Even though I am now a teacher, I plunge ahead, building on what I know, and striving for something I do not know, and prepared to discover. Away we go.