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GRACE UPON THE VISIT

Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.

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Finishing Things

Bound By Certain Forces Nolan Winkler Oil on Canvas

Bound By Certain Forces oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

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

“The human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” Theodor Adorno

In his famous essay on parenting, Punishment Versus Discipline, Bruno Bettelheim wrote that children do what their parents do, not what their parents say to do. My father, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was a big fan of Bettelheim, but he did not heed Bruno’s advice in rearing my siblings and me. On the contrary, my father rigorously did the opposite of what he said we should do, and the results were as Bettelheim predicted: we ignored most of what my father said and imitated many of his repeated actions. My mother also modeled behavior that contradicted her spoken directives, and we generally imitated her behavior rather than the dictates of her speeches. Thus we were initially formed.

My father loved to talk about things he was going to do, and once in a great while he would start something, but only rarely finish what he started. I made several determined efforts in my teens not to follow in my father’s footsteps, especially when it came to the completion of tasks, and thought I had succeeded in not imitating my father in this regard, but later discovered I had followed his example in many ways.

Because school was easy for me, one of the ways I imitated my father that escaped my attention and the attention of my teachers was my reluctance to complete tests and homework. I would answer eight of ten questions on a quiz, and three-fourths of the questions on big tests, but never all the questions. I rarely completed my math homework or essays for English, but I still managed to get B and C grades, my teachers would tell my mother I needed to make more of an effort, and life went on.

By the time I took (and didn’t finish) the SAT exam my senior year of high school pursuant to going to college, I was aware of my quirk of not finishing school things and told myself it was because tests and essays and homework were stupid and irrelevant and I was so smart I didn’t need to finish things. But the truth was I could not finish things, and I didn’t know why.

A few years after dropping out of college—speaking of not finishing things—I thought I’d try to get a job with the United State Postal Service. Two-thirds of the way through their employee exam, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, and my only recourse was to rush out of the building without finishing the test. I remember getting home and explaining to my girlfriend that I hadn’t finished the test because “I just wasn’t into it,” though many years later in therapy I saw my failure to complete the postal exam as part of a larger pattern of not being able to finish things I started.

“If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked.” George Carlin

When I was in my early twenties, I went to work for a man who had no trouble finishing what he started. I will never forget the day, early in our friendship, when this man and his four children and I took our sandwiches and drinks outside for an impromptu picnic and one of the kids said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a picnic table like that big one in the park with the benches and top all connected?”

And moments after finishing our lunch, we were building that table. Three hours later we were sitting at that beautiful six-person table drinking lemonade. The tools had been cleaned and put away, the sawdust swept up and added to the compost pile, and one of my boss’s children was sitting at the brand new table doing her homework. Making that picnic table was nothing out of the ordinary in the life of my boss and his family, but for me it was a cataclysmic event and the beginning of my transformation into someone who finishes what he starts.

For you see, my father spoke of building that very same table from the time I was a little boy until I left home at eighteen. He doodled countless sketches of that table over the years, and when I was twelve he and I went to buy the wood for such a table only to have him declare the people running the lumberyard crooks, so the project went no further. And now, with joy and ease, this confident man and his children and I had made this handsome sturdy table that would serve them wonderfully well for the rest of their lives. That which had been an impossible dream for my entire childhood and teenage years turned out to be no big deal.

“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” E.B.White

I am in the midst of creating a multi-volume work of fiction under the primary title Ida’s Place, and I am currently birthing Book Two. A couple days ago on Big River Beach, I found a comfortable perch on a driftwood log, watched a line of seventeen pelicans glide northward over the sparkling water, and then I commenced to write. After I covered a few pages with hopeful scrawl, I read what I’d written and realized my epic had jumped ahead to Book Three or possibly Book Four.

I gazed toward Japan and said, “I’m onto your tricks. Back off. First we finish Book Two, and then you may bring me Book Three. Not before. Agreed?”

Two ravens materialized in the proscenium of my vision and performed a breathtaking aerial pas de deux before winging away to the south, a performance I took as Universe and Subconscious acquiescing to my request.

When I was in my late twenties, over and over again, just as I was about to finish writing a book or play, my psyche would be invaded by a fantastically compelling idea for a new novel or play, and I would put aside the nearly completed work because this new thing was just too thrilling not to pursue. And there came a moment when every surface of my hovel was stacked with the pages of four nearly completed novels and two nearly completed plays…and when a fifth novel began to speak itself I finally realized what was going on: I was a prisoner of the imperative Never Finish Anything.

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” Marshall McLuhan

When I was in my mid-thirties I visited my parents at the house where I lived from six to eighteen, and my mother begged me to finish something my father had started building several years before—a small deck adjacent to their redwood hot tub. Soaking in that tub was one of my mother’s few unmitigated pleasures, and the unfinished deck was a minefield of accidents waiting to happen to anyone getting in and out of the tub, especially at night. So I informed my father that I was going to compete the job, and he huffed and puffed and said he would go to the hardware store later that day and get the things we needed.

My father’s tone of voice implied he had no intention of going to the hardware store, so I said I would be happy to get whatever was needed and do the job without him. Having built several decks by then, I calculated the work, including a trip to the hardware store, would take about two hours. My father then suddenly remembered he already had everything we needed to complete the job, and we got to work.

After an hour of my father telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, he said, “That’s enough. Let’s have a drink. I’ll finish this after you leave. You didn’t come home to work, did you?”

And I looked at him and said, “But all we have left to do is screw down these last few boards and put up a railing along the side there. I’m enjoying this and I want to finish in time for Mom’s evening soak.”

“Oh, I see what you’re doing,” he said, sneering at me. “You want be the hero, don’t you? Save the day.”

“Right, Dad,” I said, mystified as always by his contempt for me. “I want to be the hero and save the day.”

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The New Yorker

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com