A re-creation from notes
Down at the Kachemak Bay Writing Conference an literary agent named Jim Ruttman scared many novice writers with his frank honest appraisals of the current publishing scene. Among other comments, he observed, “you must be equipped to hear no an excruciating number of times.” But, he also said that we must believe: “I am worthy of an exception.” Suspend these two truths in your mind and hold them there in dramatic tension.
I saw Footnote this week, an Israeli film buy Joseph Cedars, about a pair of scholars, father and son. The premise of the film is that the father is mistakenly awarded an important national literary prize that was intended for his son. The father is old, isolated, and embittered. The son is the opposite, plus he’s productive.
The scenes that struck me were the responses of both father and son upon learning they have won the award. The father cuts the announcement out of the newspaper, places it in a folder, puts the folder in an envelope and files it, hides it really, among an indistinguishable stack of folders. The son, is informed of the mistake and receives an official announcement that he is the winner. Not wanting to steal his father’s thunder he, too, hides the announcement from any one’s eyes. These scenes are not at all the point of the film, which is more about sons and fathers.
There’s another film, and please forgive me that my first two references here derived from film rather than literature, that has left a scene in my mind, and it’s called Light Sleeper. I remember nothing whatever of the film except for one image. Its main character was Willem Dafoe. In the story he might have been a pimp, or something of that nature. But all I remember of him was that he was a compulsive writer. He filled up notebook after notebook, hardly removing his pen from the page. And when he filled up a notebook, he opened the window and flung it out into the night and picked up a blank one and resumed scribbling.
There is some quiet message here about the nature of awards. If you’re writing for recognition, publication, the hope of external recognition: you will be disappointed. And yet, if you’re writing solely for yourself, as some sort of therapy, as was the Willem Dafoe character, you hardly need an MFA program, just go to it, no one’s stopping you.
When in doubt it is best to remember Jim Harrison’s adage: “To be an artist is to be a member of a 10,00 year guild, not a competitor on a horse race.”
When students ask, as they often do, why writers write about such depressing subjects, I turn them to Borges who said, “ I have always known that my destiny was, above all, a literary destiny, that bad things, and some good, would happen to me, but inn the long run all of it would be converted into words. Particularly the bad things, since happiness is its own reward.” But this line can also tell us something about writing, that it, too, must be its own reward.
I want to shift gears here to remind you how necessary it is for a writer to be a passionate reader. Also, at Kachemak Bay was Barry Lopez. One of his offhanded remarks—I don’t think he was stressing this at all, but it really struck me––was that before he turned sixteen he had read Moby Dick six or seven times. He added that whenever he went to new country, he went to bookstore, and bought that language’s translation of Moby Dick. He said he found this reassuring. (By the way, Lopez was not reassured by much—that is a different subject). This led me to think not just about Moby Dick, but of all the texts that I have read repeatedly over and over again. How many of you own books that you have you read at least three times? How many of your favorite books do you own in translation?
I think of my life long love affair with The Great Gatsby—I never tire of reading it. I think of my multiple copies of Lowry’s Under the Volcano—I have to read every new introduction—Spenders’ and Vollman’s. Or translations of Daumal’s Mount Analogue, leading finally to the original French (which I do not even speak or read!).
The point being: without this passion for reading, your chances of writing anything your readers will be passionate about will be greatly diminished.
Finally, I wish to say something about influence, and in an backhanded way speak personally a little about our guest, Gary Snyder. When I was finishing my graduate work I had a tough time with my oral preliminary exam. I was practically struck dumb (by which I mean mute, though the other sense of dumb applies as well). Probably I was over-caffeinated to the point of paralysis. But one of the interlocutors took pity on me and lobbed me an easy pitch, the obvious question: “Who have you been influenced by?” Even on this question I hesitated, and François, Camoin, kindly added, “besides Gary Snyder, of course.” Now, I had never thought of myself as influenced by Synder, whose work I had known for years, but as a prose writer I didn’t necessarily think of him as a literary influence. However, this was enough of a “clue,” that I was able to speak, with reasonable lucidity about the influence of Gary’s Han Shan translations of the Cold Mountain poems as an influence, which to that second I had never understood before. Later, I realized that Snyder had indeed been an influence, although the influence might be more personal than literary.
Which reminds me: I don’t quite remember meeting Gary for the first time. This is odd, as I had known his work for so long, forty years now—I must have felt that my relationship with him was already intimate, if not personal. I know that we met within a three year period when I was teaching at UC Davis in the early 1990s, me as a kind of slave laborer in the galleys of the good ship Composition and Gary in a sweet chair that enabled him to commute from his mountain home (and most importantly, provide him with health insurance—which a poet needs as much as any other person).
But I do remember being fortunate to introduce Gary to someone else. We were holding a literary event featuring American writers who had written about their Viet Nam experiences. They gathered at Davis to mark the twentieth year anniversary of the fall of Saigon—the end of the American presence in Viet Nam. I was teaching an undergraduate nonfiction course and I arranged for one of the guests, Larry Heinemann, to visit my class. Unfortunately Larry is best known for winning the American Book Award for his novel, Paco’s Story. Unfortunate because the context this appears is usually to mention that the award should have gone to Toni Morrison for Beloved. Paco’s Story is often cited as some kind of racist or sexist flouting of literary quality. But, I have to say that literary awards depend on human judges and Viet Nam probably had more of a stranglehold on the American literary imagination in 1977, than Morrison’s issues did at that historical moment. Note: see Harrison, above.
In any case, Heinemann and I were talking after class and he said, not out of the blue, I realized, that the biggest influence on him as a writer was Gary Snyder. This caught me even more off-guard than the news that Snyder was my own most obvious influence, as the violence which could be seen as Heinemann’s subject was basically nowhere present in Snyder.
And, Heinemann said, could I arrange for them to meet?
But I couldn’t really introduce them—Gary and I moved in separate universes, and he was seldom present on campus. Just as I was about to explain this, up bounded Gary; he had a jaunty stride yet was ion no hurry. And I left them there chatting happily outside of Sproul Hall home of the Department of English and tallest building in Solano County.
So, influence. It comes at you in surprising ways, it will strike you sideways from an angle you don’t expect. Watch for it.
At this point I probably closed by advising them to work hard, get some rest and exercise, and not drink too much, though these admonishments are not in my notes. In the end, the only advice they took was to work hard, which is really, all I could hope for.