Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Please, sir, may I have some more?

On one memorable afternoon when you were between jobs and writing projects, the world seemed too open for comfort.  You found yourself amid a similar group of between-the-cracks writers, gathered at an idyllic and hospitable park just off Coldwater Canyon in the affluent fringes of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.

The sun was still up, lunch was down, and so was your luck.  The most pressing need was the need of mid-thirties and forties men to play at baseball.  Before long, your group intentions broadcast themselves to others in the park.  You were joined by a group of younger players, in need of distractions from the angst and tug of their own generation.

Under most circumstances, having nine available players per team is its own grandness.  You recall being on a team that included not only the former President of the Writers' Guild (who reminded you the Volkswagen sunroof with a decadent FM radio you drove had been financed by the Credit Union), but as well a publicist who had only recently introduced you to a longtime crush from your earlier years, the actress Veronica Lake, by telling her of your amatory interests, and a writer whose screen play you had once attempted to acquire for a former employer who had authorized you to go as high as fifty thousand dollars for the rights to novelize the screenplay.  You were gently told by his agent, "Shelly, dear, Bob cannot afford to do anything for fifty thousand dollars."

These elements of the day and the game and the combined admiration and suspicions shared among the adults come to you across the years that are, themselves at the spine and heart of this essay.  "Don't fucking pitch inside to Irwin," for instance.  "Somebody has to fucking be catcher.  We could rotate; you know, take turns."  These and other forgotten voices are brought back from having been filed away in distant memory by yet another voice, one of the younger players, who was positioned at second base.  You had just made a routine catch of a fly ball in shallow center field.  The inning was still alive, with a runner at first, thinking perhaps to advance to second after your catch.  "Over here,sir,"  the young second baseman called.  "Throw it over here, sir."

It was the sir.  The advance guard of generational differences was closing in on you. You may have been a sir then but you did not feel like one, did not want to be recognized as one.  You wanted to be the young hot shot, able to sit at the table with the staff on sitcoms, contributing your share of ideas, then sneaking home after work to get at something truly solid such as a short story or a novel, working with real editors and publishers instead of producers who wanted girlfriends' dogs written into scripts.

It is somewhat of a leap to get from that game to the present-day activities.  The leap arcs over a gaping chasm in which you recall the storm of outrage Somerset Maugham drew down on himself when asked by a charming lady what advice she could give her son, who wanted to be a writer.  "Give him twenty pounds [which at the time was the equivalent of one hundred dollars] and tell him to go to hell."  You also recall individuals who were technical writers urging you to get a job with a defense company, allowing you to write technical manuals as a hedge against starvation.  You recall an earlier girlfriend urging you to take education courses because teachers had entire summers in which to write. You recall yet another chum who urged you to join him at the Department of Motor Vehicles, giving and grading drivers' license examinations, while a fraternity brother, after several miss-starts in careers, signed on with the post office and urged you to follow.  Think law, yet another urged.  You'd be good at law--you're argumentative.

You have in fact had any number of jobs, perhaps the one thing you have in common with your brother and sister writers.  You were a shill at a carnival, the manager of a Guess Your Age concession, a luggage repair person, and perhaps one of the best non-writing jobs ever, the manager of a parking lot at the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir in the Los Angeles Miracle Mile.  Even during the droughts between publication, even with such jobs as an auctioneer's assistant and a guard at a chicken processing plant, the word was out on you that you were a writer, that while others did things such as take vacations, have girlfriends, get married, follow career paths, you wrote, each page coming from a series of second-hand typewriters effectively burning a bridge in the conventional world.

If marginality had a crest, you could wear it sewn to your blazer pocket.  "If you had any money," the great trial lawyer, Melvin Belli once told me, "I'd sue you."  To which you replied, "If I had any, I'd let you."  It was over his failure to deal with edits you'd suggested for his book project.  You are in a real sense the kind of person written about in a play by William Saroyan, whom you knew, and Maxwell Anderson, whom you did not know.  You were the surfer of the sea of ideas, playing on your used typewriters with the abandon of the zither player in the sound track of The Third Man, all of which you confess not from some attempt at false modesty or any kind of modesty at all, but rather from the awareness that there is no true career path in the work you have chosen except the path of trying your damnedest to get things down as they come to you, take the consequences, and learn how to gauge the literary suspense needed in fiction from the suspense of gauging how to keep your check book balanced and alive.  Just the other day, a writing pal, Randy Weiss, who has worked his way well up the corporate ladder at Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, where you have indeed banked these many years. Randy gave you a green elastic bracelet of the sort you used to see worn by those commemorating Missing in Action service persons in the Viet Nam conflict and, later, on a happier note, the Lance Armstrong "Livestrong" campaign, which you were almost tempted to follow because you are now a few months from being seven years free of cancer yourself.  But the bracelet Randy gave you has more than a merry feel to it.  Placing on your wrist, he said, "Wear this and you will never bounce a check."  This was a joke.  Irony.  Magic.  You take it as recognition that you are one of a fraternity and sorority of greater meaning to you, those of the men and women who each as an individual has merely survived the process and continues in the process.  At this very moment, you have taken time from a job editing a truly dreadful project from a person who has goals and ideals every bit as lofty and grand as your own.  You can respect that just as you respect the splendid editor at a major house who this very day was so sorry she could not justify taking on and giving a home to a project of yours making the rounds like an actor going on audition call.

It is impossible to tell anyone how to make any progress or headway in this remarkable enterprise called writing without writing your autobiography because it is different for each of us, the paths slithering forth with every page we fill and sometimes even with every tap on the delete key.  Back in the day, typewriters did not have delete keys but they did have the ability to produce rows of X's.  A man in Los Angeles keeps sending me emails asking your advice about which school his son should attend and which courses he should take.  You think he comes back to you because you have a different answer each time.  Or maybe it is because of your writing style.

If you like something well enough and long enough, you will in some way have it, either as a reality or a blazing memory.  Over your bed is a water color done by Henry Miller, who began to notice you looking at it each time you visited his home.  One day he said he thought you ought to have it and you said you did not believe you could afford it and he said you could.  Some times in your mind there are events, stories, circumstances that seem somehow to be a part of a fabric, a sort of Bayeux Tapestry of ventures and misadventures.  Some of them you are not yet able to afford but by looking at them with enough intensity and belief, you are able to find ways to bring them down out of your head and onto your note pad or your computer screen.  Then, with some shuffle of energy and expectation, you find that you are after all able to afford them.

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