Thursday, October 6, 2011

It's all about You

In a narrow sense, every book you have read, every author your have known and/or edited has had some effect on your life.  Mark Twain, whom you know only through his writings and your own imagination, had the most profound of all, or at least you’d thought so until your friendship with the man who called you a son of a bitch more often than any other writer.

Even when he was calling you a son of a bitch or inviting you over for his favorite cake, the Sarah Lee chocolate-covered pound cake, and the gritty, acrid coffee he made, you were aware of his cantankerous nature, his exquisite use of the American version of what we call English, and the fact of him having had close personal contact with individuals you to this day consider pillars of modern American literature.

You are speaking of Julian Lawrence Shapiro, who at age thirty-six became John Sanford—John B. Sanford.  The year you were born, Julian Lawrence Shapiro had passed the bar examination imposed on law school graduates as a pre-condition to practicing law in the state of New York.

Riding on the wave of future successes at his chosen profession, Sanford was aglow with pride.  Until he met a longtime chum, Nathan Weinstein, who answered the What’s up with you? Question by replying that he’d just completed his first novel.

The way John Sanford described that meeting to you, it was as though Moby-Dick had turned over in his gut.  He was suffused with jealousy, envy, and the sense of having wasted his time in law school.  Nathan Weinstein soon changed his name to Nathaniel West.  The novel he’d just finished, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, was ready to be sent to a publisher.  Weinstein already had in mind his next venture, which he planned to call Miss Lonelyhearts.

When Sanford told you about this encounter and what his next move was, you could feel your heart’s cadence step up its tempo; you could feel if not your blood circulate then at least your enthusiasm stand up and shake itself free of water, much like a dog out of a bath.  Weinstein suggested they take a cabin in the woods, from which venue they would write novels.  All this was happening the year you were born, but you wanted to be there.  Over many cups of dreadful coffee and Sarah Lee cake, you were there, hearing West trying out dialogue through the thin wall that separated him from Sanford as Miss Lonelyhearts came into being and as well, Sanford’s first novel, The Water Wheel.

That first novel brought Sanford in close contact with another writer you’d begun to revere, the remarkable poet, William Carlos Williams, whose In the American Grain had had a near similar effect on you and Sanford.

Where this particular reflection on Sanford is going is point of view.  At the time you’d crossed paths with him, you’d grown tired of writing about yourself in your journals as I, had come to suspect the first person POV more because you weren’t sure enough about the skills to keep it from sounding like you than any other technical reason.  Accordingly, you began a long sweep away from the I, even to the point of switching your journal point of view to the third person, thus you had become he.  Sanford pressed a number of manuscripts on you showing how he was writing autobiographical material in the second person.  Pages and pages, volumes of you.  Try it, he said, and try it, you did, hence he became you, at which point you were immediately able to begin a novel in the first person.

You owe John Sanford that, as well as an abiding fascination for the Merriam-Webster’s unabridged Dictionary of the American Language, second edition, which he regarded with more fondness than his Remington standard typewriter.  You wish, oh how you wish you had his copy.  You owe John Sanford inviting you for Sarah Lee cake to celebrate his ninety-third birthday, on which he’d wangled a three-book contract.  You owe John Sanford telling you to forget all the times he’d called you a son of a bitch, and you owe him working well into his ninety-eighth year, scarcely taking time from work to die.

When you mention John, most cock their head in a questioning gesture.  “John Who?”

When you were editing a literary journal, The Santa Barbara Review, you asked him for a contribution.  “You son of a bitch,” he said.  “I was wondering when you’d ask me.”

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