Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

Know Your Audience

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

Two Love Stories

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

love story

love story photo by Todd

Here are two brief love stories from my new novel Magenta.

Henry’s Story

When I was a senior in high school at Fort Orford High and causing my God-fearing parents great distress by playing the guitar, I fell in love with Iriana Ceja, a beautiful Mexican woman three years older than I.

Iriana was a waitress at the North End Café, now Dave’s Donuts, and believe me, Iriana was the only reason anyone knowingly went to the North End Café. The food was bad, the coffee uniformly bitter, the décor ugly and uncomfortable. But Iriana was so lovely, so friendly, and such a sparkling conversationalist, hundreds of people made the North End Café a daily part of their lives, and I was one of those people.

I went there after school to gawk at Iriana and listen to her talk and laugh. I would buy a stale cookie and a cup of bitter coffee and stay for hours, supposedly doing my homework, but really just reveling in Iriana. My life at home was torture because my parents were so fiercely opposed to everything I loved, especially my playing the guitar and writing songs. School was drudgery and my peers were largely disinterested in the poets and artists I admired.

Iriana was my solace.

She called me Hank—no one else did—and when I finally got up the courage to ask her why she called me Hank, she gave me one of her darling smiles and said, “Como Hank Williams, por supuesto. I heard you playing your guitar at the beach. I love your music. Why don’t you bring your guitar here and play for us?”

Us meant Iriana to me, so I started bringing my guitar to the café and playing for her when she took her breaks. She would sit at the picnic table under the oak tree behind the café, smoke a cigarette, and listen to me play. She sang harmony if she knew the song and hummed harmony if she didn’t know the words.

After every song, she would say, “So beautiful, Hank,” or “I love that song, Hank,” or “You’re so good, Hank. Bueno bueno.”

So of course I wrote songs for her, and after I played her the third song I’d written for her, she kissed me and we were officially a dyad.

We had a hundred passionate tussles under that oak tree and at the beach, but whenever I asked her to make love with me, she would say so sweetly, “When we are married, I will make love with you every day.” So I vowed to her that when I turned twenty-one, if she hadn’t found someone else, I would marry her.

My parents were terrified I would fulfill my vow to marry Iriana. They were racists, not violently so, but they wanted me to marry a white woman, not a Mexican. I graduated from high school, turned nineteen, and went on a hitchhiking trip to Canada with my pal Gunnar Digs. Not long after we got back, I joined the Army.

When I came home from Germany two years later, the North End Café had turned into Dave’s Donuts and Iriana was married to Fernando Viramontes and pregnant with the first of their two kids. She was working at Stuyvesant’s by then and would work there for the next forty years. It was Iriana who encouraged me to go to Nashville and try to sell my songs.

“You have to go and try, Hank,” she said, sitting across the table from me at Stuyvesant’s, just a few weeks before she gave birth to her daughter Veronica. “God gave you a special gift. Maybe you won’t succeed, but you will never be happy if you don’t try.”

When I came home from Nashville three years later and hid my guitar away and took up the chainsaw, I ate at Stuyvesant’s three or four times a week. The food was good, but that’s not why I went there.

I went to be in the presence of Iriana, my dear friend who never stopped believing my music was beautiful.

Theodore’s Story

When I was living in Santa Cruz and working in a bookstore, my greatest joy was attending poetry readings in San Francisco. I enjoyed the adventure of hitchhiking up the coast to that great metropolis, but more than the journey, I loved the atmosphere of those readings and how everyone was so curious about new and original ways of using words to convey feelings and ideas. And I was most intrigued by the couples who came to these readings, for they often seemed, at first glance, to be fantastically mismatched.

One such couple was Janice Cleveland and Rufus Borenstein. Janice was a buxom black woman in her forties with short hair and red glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She wore blouses made of colorful fabric from Nigeria, tight slacks, and high heels. Rufus was a tall slender white guy in his fifties with a pointy white goatee and a monocle that was forever falling out of his eye. He wore a gray tweed jacket over a black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and white high-top tennis shoes decorated with red and yellow polka dots.

I first met Janice and Rufus at the intermission of a poetry reading starring two of my idols, Kate Fetherston and D.R. Wagner. Janice came up to me and said, “We heard you read at the open mike after Jane Blue’s reading last month. We totally dug your poems. You gonna read tonight?”

“I am,” I said gleefully. “And I want to kiss you.”

So she puckered up and we kissed.

“What’s going on here?” asked Rufus, joining us with two glasses of cheap white wine, one for him and one for Janice. “Hey, it’s you. Your poem about waiting for a ride on the coast highway. Brilliant. Can we get a copy?”

“Of course,” I said, giddy from their flattery. “Where do I send it?”

“You got one of our cards, Rufe?” said Janice to Rufus.

He fished in the pocket of his tweed jacket and brought forth two volumes of poetry—Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth—a rubber band, three small crystals, and a somewhat banged up business card:

Janice Cleveland & Rufus Borenstein  Tarot & Psychotherapy

I took the card and said, “If only I could afford you.”

“You can,” said Janice, laughing. “You give us some poems, we give you tarot and psychotherapy.”

So I sent them some poems and the next time I was in San Francisco, I had a fantastic tarot reading from Rufus and some incredibly helpful talk therapy with Janice, after which we went out for spaghetti. They became my good friends and remain my friends to this day, though sadly they got priced out of San Francisco and moved to Victoria, Canada five years ago.

Calliope of Hope

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

calliope-coverD1

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

On Saturday February 20 at 6:30 PM, I will be at Gallery Books in Mendocino reading from the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. I self-published the book seven years ago, and now the book will have a life in the larger world, so to speak. The paperback of Buddha In A Teacup from Counterpoint is beautifully designed and fits well in the hand.

Speaking of self-publishing, I just completed my first large work of fiction since finishing the four volumes of the Ida’s Place saga, and the new tome is now available from my web site. As with the Ida’s Place quartet, I present Calliope of Hope tales of the road in a handsome coil-bound photocopy edition, each copy signed and colorfully numbered by yours truly.

Calliope of Hope—tales of the road is both a collection of short stories and a novel. Any of these stories may be read as a stand-alone work, or you may read the book from start to finish and experience the stories as chapters of a novel.

Part of the inspiration for Calliope of Hope came from the late poet and translator Taylor Stoehr who was keen for me to write a companion collection to Buddha In A Teacup with a Sufi bent, which many of the stories in Calliope of Hope have, and many of the stories involve hitchhiking.

Here is the beginning of one of the stories/chapters from Calliope of Hope entitled Henry’s Expotition.

On a sunny morning in April, Henry Abbot, fifty-nine, tall and sturdy, his sandy brown hair cut short, his brown eyes full of mischief, stands on the east side of the coast highway at the north end of Fort Orford, hitchhiking to Portland, Oregon. Henry, who was born and raised in this town of three thousand hearty souls on the far north coast of California, is so well-liked, if he ever ran for mayor—which he will never do—he would win by a landslide, no matter who ran against him.

The last time Henry hitchhiked was forty years ago when he and his pal Gunnar Diggs, who was also born in Fort Orford, made it all the way to northern British Columbia before turning around and heading back to Fort Orford. Shortly after they got home, Henry joined the Army and spent two years in Germany fixing trucks, while Gunnar got a job driving a bulldozer for a local paving contractor, a job he still has today.

A few weeks after coming home from the Army, Henry moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he spent three years working as a truck mechanic and peddling his heartfelt ballads to record companies and recording artists large and small, to no avail. Upon his return to Fort Orford at the age of twenty-five, Henry embarked on a twenty-year career as a lumberjack, and for the last fifteen years he has been the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the one and only hardware store in town.

A widower with two teenaged daughters, Henry has never spent a night away from his girls, and though he only intends to be gone a few nights, this trip to Portland feels to him like the biggest adventure of his life.

Henry is dressed exactly as he does for work: brown work boots, red plaid socks, khaki pants, a black T-shirt, a blue jacket with a zipper, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. His luggage consists of a blue canvas knapsack and a large brown leather briefcase, and per the suggestion of the woman he is going to visit, he is holding a neatly-lettered sign: Portland.

Ten minutes after Henry takes his stand, who should pull up beside him in an old blue pickup but Arnold Collison, Henry’s neighbor.

Arnold leans across the seat and says out the passenger window, “Where you going, Henry? Car break down?”

“No,” says Henry, showing his Portland sign to Arnold. “I’m going to visit Jolene. Remember Jolene? Stayed with us for ten days last November?”

“Sure, I remember her. Pretty gal. Played the mandolin and sang like a bird. Why aren’t you driving?”

“Marie Louise is staying with the girls while I’m gone,” says Henry, laughing at Arnold’s stupefied expression. “Her car died and I want her to have my truck while I’m gone in case she needs to take the girls somewhere.”

“Borrow our car,” says Arnold, wondering why Henry didn’t think of that. “We hardly ever drive the damn thing. Practically new. We can get by with the pickup until you get back. How long you going for?”

“A few days.”
“Get in,” says Arnold, authoritatively. “I’ll drive you up to the house and you can take our car.”

“Well, actually, Arnold, I want to hitchhike.” Henry waits a moment for this to sink into Arnold’s famously thick skull. “I want to see how Jolene has been getting around for the last several years, and…I want the adventure.”

Arnold frowns. “Sounds pretty weird, Henry. You never know what kind of nut might pick you up. Better to drive. You’re almost sixty.”

“If I’m still here this afternoon, I’ll borrow your car,” says Henry, holding up his sign as a fancy sports car speeds by. “How does that sound, Arnie?”

“Sounds nuts,” says Arnold, shaking his head. “Seems like visiting Jolene in Portland would be adventure enough. Don’t you think?”

“Apparently not,” says Henry, losing patience with Arnold. “I’ll see you this afternoon or in a few days.”

Arnold drives away and Carlos Gomez pulls up in his ancient brown Malibu. “You hitchhiking, Henry?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, nodding.

“Car break down?” asks Carlos, the longtime chef at Rosa’s, the best Mexican restaurant in Fort Orford.

“No, I’m going on an adventure.”

Carlos nods. “That’s cool. I was in Stuyvesant’s having breakfast and Pablo came in saying you were out here with your sign, so I came to see if you were okay. You okay?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, realizing half the town will soon be parading by to get a look at him standing by the road. “Can I ask a huge favor?”

“Of course,” says Carlos, nodding. “What do you need?”

“I need you drive me to Gecko?”

“Sure. When you want to go?”

“Now.”

Carlos smiles. “I get it, Henry. Get in.”

Watching and Listening

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

1215beatsthinking350col

beats thinking ©John Grimes fizzdom.com grimescartoons.com

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel

Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.

By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.

Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.

As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige

Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.

Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.

Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.

A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.

Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”

That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.

Taste

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Thurber Django

Thurber Django photo by David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2014)

“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly, too.” Rodney Dangerfield

Years before the dawn of tweeting and texting, I ran a summer writing program for high school kids who wanted to become professional writers. The teachers I hired were accomplished, open-minded, inspiring writers who could clearly communicate their ideas about the craft of writing. My one piece of advice for my teachers was that they avoid saying anything construable as dislike of a student’s writing, and I cautioned them about making even mild editing suggestions during the first week of the month-long intensive lest our neophytes experience such suggestions as disapproval.

I also asked my teachers to remind our writers that the opinions of others about their writing, even the opinions of professional writers, are highly subjective and should be taken as such. The response of a reader to a story or poem often says far more about the reader than it does about the writer, and one person’s negative response to a story doesn’t make the story bad, just as one person’s positive response doesn’t make the story good.

To illustrate this point, I told my young charges about how the advent of photocopy machines changed my understanding of taste and helped me overcome the scourge of self-doubt. Prior to the coming of copy shops in the early 1970’s, making multiple copies of a manuscript necessitated the time-consuming use of a five-layer sandwich of carbon paper and typing paper rolled into the typewriter on which the manuscript would be typed, with typos requiring fixes with white-out on the original copy and a razor blade on the carbon copies, with the end result being the barely adequate original and two smeary copies no publisher would accept. Thus most of my early stories existed as single copies, and if the first person to read a story of mine didn’t like it, my insecurity would be inflamed and I might never show the story to anyone else.

Then one day, wanting to create a special gift for my best friend’s wedding, I fell into a trance and wrote a novella and a collection of short stories entitled What Shall The Monster Sing? and other stories. (That title is a line from a poem by Lawrence Durrell.) Completing my opus coincident with the opening of the first photocopy shop in Santa Cruz, I splurged and had ten bound copies made, nine of which I distributed to friends and fellow artists, one I kept safe for the newlyweds.

A week later, a poet of local renown came to the boarding house where I lived, stood in the doorway of my room and declared What Shall The Monster Sing? a disaster and most of the accompanying stories dreadful, though he did allow that three of the stories were gems.

Before I succumbed to despair, a fellow boarder shouted, “Phone for you, Todd!” and I ran down the hall to the pay phone.

What Shall The Monster Sing? is genius!” shouted a playwright calling from Los Angeles. “What a great film it would make. And Carli’s and Ophelia…magnificent!”

Returning to my room buoyed by the playwright’s praise, I found the poet arguing with a locally beloved chanteuse who was madly in love with Monster, as she so familiarly called my novella, and whose favorites of my short stories were the least favorites of the poet, and vice-versa. As I listened to these artists passionately praising and damning my writing, I had a revelation. Yes, everyone knows, intellectually, that taste is subjective. But to experience such extremes of taste from three intelligent and creative people in the span of twenty minutes was to have the revelation burned into my consciousness, which burning serves me well to this day.

 “A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.” Jessamyn West

My essays about my past, my family, my personal life and my creative life occasionally elicit comments from readers, some thoughtful and illuminating, some praiseful, and some from people who insist I am a very bad writer and a self-pitying self-aggrandizing narcissist who would do the world a huge favor by ceasing to write.

My great grandfather, an orthodox Jewish cantor, believed gossiping to be a variation on the sin of speaking ill of others and he steadfastly refused to gossip. Nevertheless, his friends and family persisted in asking him his opinion about what So-And-So did to You-Know-Who, to which he would reply, “There are all kinds of different kinds of people.”

“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.” E.M. Forster

One of my favorite movies is composed of three movies—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, directed by Linklater and starring Hawke and Delpy, the movies were filmed nine years apart and set nine years apart, too. Each film is composed of mountains of dialogue between Delpy and Hawke as they wander around Vienna, Paris and Greece. I love their torrents of dialogue, though many people I know find such verbosity intolerable. For my taste, the individual films are excellent, their totality a masterwork.

In Before Midnight there is a scene near the beginning of the film in which the characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy sit at a big table in Greece with three other European couples talking frankly about life and death and relationships. What I so enjoy about this scene is the real-seeming depiction of people from widely varying backgrounds, young, old and middle-aged, having a lively discussion full of insights and anecdotes and disagreement, with disagreement not only perfectly okay with everybody at the table, but appreciated as the spice of a conversation in which no one is attached to being right. How deliciously un-American! 

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.

Helen Gurley Brown

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Photo of 1978 Cosmopolitan by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

“How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.” Helen Gurley Brown

Why am I writing about Helen Gurley Brown, famed editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and a champion of sexual freedom or a promoter of sexual enslavement, depending on your particular socio-political orientation? Well, because Helen Gurley Brown just died at the age of ninety, and though many people consider her a traitor to feminism, and many others see her as a pioneering feminist and social revolutionary, Helen was one of the very few magazine editors in America in the 1970’s and 80’s who would publish my short stories about the challenges facing men and women in the chaos of sexual and social change that arrived with the birth control pill and the dawn of the feminist epoch; thus I have no doubt about where I stand regarding Ms. Brown’s place in the history of psycho-sexual discourse.

Ironically, or appropriately, I intended all eight of my stories that were eventually published in Cosmopolitan to be published in other magazines, notably Esquire and The New Yorker, for I did not read Cosmopolitan or have any great desire to be published therein. But I was not famous, nor was I a member of the literary society with access to the editors of those seemingly more sophisticated magazines, and so despite the valiant efforts of my incomparable literary agent Dorothy Pittman, I was never able to publish a story in either Esquire or The New Yorker, though we received many flattering rejection letters from editors at both magazines.

The very first short story I ever sold for actual money (as opposed to the mere glory of seeing my name in print) was to Cosmopolitan in 1975 for the staggering sum of one thousand dollars, with ten per cent of that fortune going to Dorothy. In one fell swoop I was lifted out of poverty, for in those days my monthly nut was seventy-five dollars: thirty dollars rent (I was living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon), thirty dollars for food, fifteen dollars for everything else. One day I was surviving on rice and beans and barely making ends meet with minimum wage work, the next day I was writing full-time and buying the occasional chicken to round out my menu.

Naively, I thought the publication of Willow, a provocative tale of a woman boxer who gets a shot at the male welterweight crown, would quickly be followed by more sales to Cosmopolitan and other magazines, but the gods did not so smile on me again until those nine hundred dollars were long gone and I had moved to Medford, Oregon to work as a landscaper. But oh how I relished that year of unfettered scribbling, a twelvemonth that saw the completion of my novel The Gimp that would be published three years later as Inside Moves, which publication procured for me a few more years to concentrate entirely on my writing and music.

And so I owe my fleeting success as a writer to Helen Gurley Brown, who, lest we forget, published her wildly successful and influential book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Ms. Brown is also widely acknowledged as the first editor of a mainstream women’s magazine to publish frank discussions about sex and sexuality as ongoing centerpieces of her editorial content. Speaking of which, in honor of Helen Gurley Brown, I unearthed my cache of ancient Cosmos so I might revive herein my story Annihilation, published in the American Cosmopolitan in 1982 and subsequently reprinted in the Australian and Italian editions of that fabled rag.

ANNIHILATION

“Annihilate me,” Alana whispered.

He tried to annihilate her. He tried to be brutish. He had to think of things that made him angry. Income tax. His alcoholic father. Alana’s former lover. He began to lose his erection. He opened his eyes, looked at her belly, her taut little breasts, her dark honey hair, her pleasure-wracked face. He was renewed, yet filled with feelings of tenderness.

“You were marvelous,” she said afterward.

“Thank you,” he said, unable to look her in the eye. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said.

“How am I being silly?”

“Love,” she said, shrugging. “We’re animals. The real pleasure comes when we don’t try to tame the animal with ideas. Just take me. That’s all I want sexually.”

“Which animals are we?” he asked. “Lion, tiger, hippopotamus, bullfrog?”

“Don’t spoil it,” she said, getting out of bed. “Just be the animal you are. And be wild.”

“I cannot be wild on command,” he said to his psychiatrist.

The doctor smiled over her glasses at him. “I like that. Would you mind very much if I used that? For my book?”

“Not at all,” he said. “Glad to be of assistance.”

“That’s one of the big problems, isn’t it?” she said, nodding. “I call it feminist backlash. They finally get the gentle, caring person they were so adamant a man should be, and they find him inadequate. They want what they were lobbying against. To a certain extent.”

“And the solution?”

“Be yourself.”

“And lose Alana?”

“Or lose yourself. And here you are just discovering what that is.”

“Do you wish for annihilation in sex?”

“I really don’t think it appropriate…”

“Sorry,” he said, biting his thumbnail. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Over breakfast one morning.

Alana: You were…you took so long. (A quick smile) I loved every minute of it, but I was wondering if…

Him: If what?

Alana: If you enjoyed it.

Him: Every minute of it. Though I must admit that lately I worry about…

Alana: You worry too much. Everything is fine. Isn’t it?

Him: Is it?

Alana: Of course it is. What’s wrong?

Him: (Blurting it out) Am I wild enough? Do I annihilate you adequately?

Alana: Yes. I was a fool to have ever started talking about it. Forgive me?

Him: Yes, if you’ll forgive me.

(She rises, goes to him, undoes her bathrobe, and cradles his head against her breasts.)

His friend Arthur, a notorious rogue, sat across the table from him at Chez Annihilation and gave him a rundown on the week’s activities.

“Monday night I destroyed the little brunette who sells skin cream. Massacred her.”

“Tuesday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Tennis for two hours. Early to bed. Saving myself.”

“For?”

“My day off Wednesday. Bombarded Sarah from nine till noon. Then, finally made it with You Know Who in the late afternoon. Decimated her.”

“Dare I ask about yesterday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Stayed in bed last night. Watched television. Great National Geographic show—Life and Death in Africa.”

“Anything on for tonight?”

“What’s Alana doing?” He laughed.

“Leave her annihilation to me, please.”

“It’s depressing,” he said, turning to the woman beside him at the bar.

“That’s an interesting opening line,” she said, winking. “But tell me, how did you know I was a neurotic?”

“Four gin and tonics at three in the afternoon?”

“I might just be an alcoholic.”

“True,” he said.

“What’s depressing?”

“The whole notion of sexual annihilation.”

“Nihilism?”

“Annihilation.”

“Ooh,” she cooed, her eyelids fluttering. “Sounds divine.” She moved closer. “You’re quite attractive, you know.”

“Why?”

“Well, among other things, you have very nice eyes.”

“No, why does annihilation sound divine?”
“Because to be annihilated is to be totally lost, and we only totally lose ourselves when we let go of everything, and we can only really let go when we are overwhelmed, when we simply lack the strength to defend ourselves, and have no choice. The decision is made for us by the overwhelmer. We escape our fears by becoming our fears. Ecstasy through annihilation.”

“You say that with such sureness,” he said.

“I know when I’m happy.”

That evening.

Him: (As he takes the glass of wine from her) Alana, have you ever…that is, since we began sleeping together, have you ever wanted another man?

Alana: (Eyeing him suspiciously) Have you?

Him: I prefer females.

Alana: Other females?

Him: I asked you first. Have you…

Alana: Of course. But as Mae West used to say, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, just so long as you eat at home.”

Him: And where exactly do you get your appetite?

Alana: At the movies, in the car, when I close my eyes, when I see you, when I don’t see you, when I look at pictures of naked women, when I…

Him: Really? Naked women?

Alana: Naked women. There is nothing so erotic as a beautiful naked woman.

Him: Naked men?

Alana: In my mind, yes. And you. Otherwise no.

Him: Why naked women?

Alana: Perhaps by seeing an idealized picture of myself, posed ideally, I can more easily see the ways in which a man might…

Him: Annihilate you.

(Alana closes her eyes, sighs deeply.)

Annihilate: To reduce to nothing; to cause to cease to exist; to destroy completely; to exterminate.

Professor Cardin was speaking on the sexual basis of war.

“Long ago,” began the professor, addressing a full house, “the connection between fighting and mating was obvious. One had to win a mate. Not only did one have to defeat other males, but the female had to be subdued, too. This is genetic reality.”

Several women in the audience booed.

“I am not saying that this need be manifested in a purely physical way. Courtship, after all, can be largely non-violent, but consummation must be satisfactory, and this usually calls for a modicum of physical strength.”

Several women in the audience applauded.

“With the advent of a social order wherein weak, as well as strong, individuals could survive, the population began to expand at the phenomenal rate that continues to this day. Yet, the genetic need to conquer, especially that need in the more aggressive males and in females wanting those males, began to manifest in warfare.”

Several men in the audience booed.

“Yes, gentlemen. It is threatening to realize that the major wars throughout history have been fought because of the inadequate sexual identities of a handful of men.”

Several more men in the audience booed.

“Furthermore, we stand on the brink of complete annihilation because a handful of sexually frustrated old men with severe personality disorders hold the reins of power in this country and abroad. What should be a fierceness and physicality in bed is transmuted into bullying and genocide on a global scale.”

Several people in the audience applauded.

“The solution may be in a true sexual revolution. One in which the frequency of intercourse becomes as important as the orgasm.”

The audience reaction was greatly mixed.

“Well,” said his mother, serving him a bowl of ice cream. “When are you planning to have some kids? Soon, I hope.”

“Kids are not so much the issue,” he said.

“No. What is?”

“Well, I’m not so sure I’m giving her what she wants.”

“You’re speaking of sex?”

“Not sex so much as the kind of sex.”

She sighed, then sat down and shook her head. “I never told you this, but your father…” She hesitated. “He was extremely tender when we made love.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He couldn’t help it. I learned to accept it.”

“You were taught to be accepting,” he said, pushing his ice cream away, his jaw tightening. “Times have changed.”

“Now,” said the instructor, a Burt Reynolds look alike, “hitting is not a good idea. However, shoving, grabbing, spanking, shaking, and pulling are all techniques we’ll be investigating and practicing.”

“What about verbal abuse?” someone asked.

“The entire third and fourth sessions are devoted to that,” said the instructor, nodding. “But the main thing we’ll be working on is attitude.” He pounded the blackboard with his fist. “The first thing I want to hammer into your heads is that through disdain and contempt, by learning to be an emotional brick wall, you’ll have women crawling all over you. It’s attitude, attitude, attitude.” He scowled. “Now, sure, some women want a little warmth, a little sibling give and take, but they’re the exceptions. You can handle the exceptions once you know the rules.”

He practically kicked the door down. He flung the flowers at her feet. As she knelt to pick them up, he placed a foot on her shoulder and pushed her onto her back. She looked up at him, her eyes filled with terror. He was undressing. She started to get up. He growled. She lay back down.

“Take off your clothes,” he whispered fiercely. She did. He dropped to his knees, took her roughly in his arms, and annihilated her.

“Darling,” she said in the darkness, “you exhaust me.”

“So?”

“I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said.

“Anything,” she said, pleading with him.

“Prove it,” he said. “Annihilate me.”

••

 

 

 

 

 

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.