A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:
“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”
I was now 30 years old and I knew I was going to be a writer. The only problem was that I had not written anything, outside of a few letters to my parents asking for money.
I nevertheless had a firm belief in the isotonic theory of artistic production, which is that the osmotic pressure would eventually reverse: For the time being, I was taking in all the influences — the life reversals, the sufferings, the travel … and the books I read, paintings I looked at and music I heard — and eventually, I would be so full, that it would reverse the flow and it would all come out in an esthetic eructation forced by a kind of intellectual back-pressure.
In this, I had a model: As I was reading, as I say, not books but authors, I absorbed through my skin everything written by Henry Miller. He had not had anything meaningful published until he was 40, so I figured I had at least 10 years to make it work out.
Miller helped me another way, too.
Everything I had written had a problem, capsulized by an episode from high school. I had written a play for a drama course I had taken. It was about suicide and it was told — “borrowing” an idea from John Updike’s The Centaur — as a kind of Greek myth. The play was supposed to be performed by the drama class, along with two other plays written by two other pupils, but the school principal banned my play because of its subject matter. I felt crazy proud of being banned. It was a badge of honor. But this pride was quashed considerably by my English teacher, a kindly and intellectual man who managed to see something in me when I was just a lazy C-student. I showed him my play and he said, “Don’t you think perhaps it might be a little too … literary?”
It had never occurred to me that “literary” might be a pejorative.
His kind criticism had little effect on me at the time. I believed that great writing should be literary. In fact, what I was attempting to write was the verbal equivalent of having a stick up my ass.
But Miller told me “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”
And, in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer, he wrote: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.”
In effect, I gave up wanting to be a writer, and instead needed to write. There is a huge difference. Many young people want to be artists. There is something romantic about the very idea; the issue of having to actually create something seems less germane than the idea of sleeping on a mattress on the floor amid a scruff of unlaundered sheets stained with sex and coffee or perhaps sucking the smoke out of a Gitane. It is all pose.
It came to a head with a letter from one of my college professors who told me to read Joe Gould’s Secret, by Joseph Mitchell. Gould was a Greenwich Village eccentric in the first half of the 20th century who claimed to be writing the compendious oral history of modern life — millions of words that he refused to show anyone, but shared his notes for. Of course, such manuscript never actually existed, but Gould talked a good game.
My professor was warning me that I was in danger of following Gould’s footsteps. I was unemployed and living off the generosity of friends. I needed to put up or shut up. If I was going to write, I needed to write. And it was Miller who showed me the way.
I gave up any thought of being a writer and instead began writing.
But sitting down at — at the time — a small, aqua plastic portable typewriter and pounding out something, anything, was in and of itself a joy. It was liberating. Mostly, it was letters. With no thought of publication, I spewed endless accounts of my days to friends, like William Blake’s Los forming a never-ending chain. It was my apprenticeship. In one month, in March, 1978, I wrote a total of 500 typed pages of letters.
It wasn’t the sex-saturated Miller that I loved. It was his ability to tell a story, one step after another, and his talent for character and caricature. The sex hardly seemed like sex; it was more like a Futurist description of steam pistons chugging and spurting. It was the other Miller that kept me turning pages. I loved Plexus, the large middle volume of his Rosy Crucifixion, with its endless tales of making do in Depression-era Brooklyn and all the dramatis personae that kept him eternally amused, frustrated and filled, like a well drawn from but never emptied.
Mostly it was the torrent of words, piling up. Yes, there were doldrums and I could hardly bear his occasional descent into surrealism — it was like reading an account of someone telling you his dreams, and we all know what a trial that can be.
I read his two trilogies, and all his New Directions anthologies of essays. The only pieces that escaped me were some of the late books put out by small arthouse publishers. It was just too hard to keep track of them.
There is still an entire shelf in my library filled with Miller’s work, although I have moved past them and no longer read them. They are more of an altar to a turning point in my life. They served their purpose for me and for that I am ever grateful.
NEXT: The wilderness years, Part 3 — Diving in