Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mad about You

Over the years, you have had frequent opportunity to socialize with writers, either in one-on-one editing sessions, impromptu lunches with a group of friends, speaking engagements at writers' organizations, the unflaggingly raucous dinner meetings at the Cafe de Paris, when you were regional president of the Mystery Writers of America, and back in the day when the LA Times was a newspaper, at the yearly celebration for their Books-of-the-Year Awards.  In more recent times, here in that exotic bubble known as Santa Barbara, you have the options of the Tuesday afternoon Wet Words gathering, the Wednesday Round Table, the First Thursday Lunch, and of course the Writers' Conference, interspersed with your regular Monday and Thursday lunches with Barnaby Conrad, and the Friday Morning Coffee at Peet's.  At earlier times in Santa Barbara, you were invited to Ross Macdonald's (Ken Millar's) Wednesday lunch group, as well as its splinter group that broke the gender barrier by inviting women. In many of these gatherings, fermented beverages were/are available if not an outright staple.  There were also invitations from the Santa Barbara Screen Writers' Association, where for a time, and on the basis of having once financed a Volkswagen Bug through the Writers' Guild Credit Union, you were an object of envy.

 With such sterling credentials, you believe you understand the permutations inherent in the writer persona, even to the point of seeing aspects of it in your own comportment.  It is a particular kind of madness, a landscape inhabited by literary agents, publishers, Quixotic dreams, stunning disappointments and depressions,confrontations, accusations, celebrations, and moments of stunning revelation and insight.  Even such unseemly behavior as you are likely to note in a writer whom you hold a particular disregard will cause you in final analysis to conclude, But he (or she) is our writer.

This has long since caused you to suspect that each discipline, say music or acting or dance or photography or fine art, has its own landscape of madness, inhabited by and familiar to its denizens, and in that sense we are as patients in a mental institution, each in his particular ward, sometimes escaping into another ward, say the film studies ward, therein to try the cafeteria and perhaps mis en scene of that landscape as a vacation from our own.

From time to time we are nudged back into the ward of the normal, the un-mad, those men and women who have had to take jobs of some other sort to meet their living expenses or to cope with growing children or aging parents.

By dint of furious work and focus, we have bent the rays of perception and reality to the point where we see a different reality although not by necessity a better one.  It is difficult to imagine, for instance, that Franz Kafka could have enjoyed his landscape.  Although he may have appreciated it, recognized it, accepted it, yet it becomes difficult to envision him thinking this landscape of conspiracy and uncertainty was any sort of cosmic promotion.  Yet still he accepted his landscape and wrote about it, leaving us a legacy we may have, each in our own way, passed through, recognized, and took steps to keep on riding away from it until it was little more than a glow in the rear view mirror.

From time to time, events and persons in the real world will try to talk us out of our landscape of madness, asking questions, needing our help, wanting the comfort of our presence as friends rather than as writers.  We accept these calls, secretly aware of their potential for use in our work, but no less ready to be a friend.

Many of us are not recognizably kidnapped by our madness, yet as we spend time with one another or even on a first-time meeting, it is possible to tell.  One former student of yours, a remarkably empathetic and generous woman, recognized at some point in her life that her sexual orientation wasn't what she had led herself to believe and thus, like a politician changing party affiliations, publicly switched orientations.  She spoke to you of a gaydar, a resident awareness one gay person had for distinguishing not only men from boys and women from girls but gays from straights and bi-sexuals.  Writers, you believe, have a similar detector by which one can assess the degree a professed writer has progressed into his or her necessary madness.  She's off-the-deep-end-nuts you think of a particular writer, by which you mean she has progressed well along the path she has chosen and is recognizably haunted by her visions, this assessment in opposition to one that indicates she still has some serious hiking to do in order to catch up with her madness.

Fortunately for you, both your mentors were flat-out mad, each shrewdly able to appear in public with the patina of normality, which, you recognize fondly, was not normal at all but rather an uncommonly deep kindness and empathy.  Rachel and Virginia have pulled you along into madness in their slipstreams.

In recent weeks, you've been writing letters and filling out forms from various universities for students wanting to enter yet another form of madness, the madness of graduate schools, the on-going madness of the great asylum we know of as the university.  In each case, you have found yourself tempted to use a shorthand you know exists and thus in your recommendation numerically relate him or her to the density of nuts in a fruitcake;  he or she is in the upper two percentile of nut case students I have known over my career.  You forebear to do so; you resort to the quotidian vocabulary, reminding yourself as you do of a mere mortal who has perhaps had a mystical experience, trying to explain it to an audience that desperately wants to have a mystical experience.

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