Monday, August 26, 2013

Non Campus Mentis

Yet another way for you to have lost your innocence came when you sat across the desk from a man named Lou, who took a thick manuscript from you, handed you a check, then said the two of you needed to have a talk.

Until that moment, you'd had only one other kind of situation in which persons on the other side of desks told you of the need for some form of discussion.  "We'll have to talk about this.  But not just now."One or two of such conversations were enough to let you know that was code for the fact of you never being in the same room with the individual again.

When the man named Lou said you needed to have a talk, you braced yourself for the strong possibility of this being the last time you'd be in Lou's office, seated across a desk from him.  You went so far as to glance at your watch, checking to see if there were still time to get to the bank before it closed.  In those days, the expression hammer was code for presenting a check for cashing.  You had time to hammer the check from Lou, now in your pocket.

"I understand you're a fast worker,"  Lou said.  "I have no complaints about that, but I see a market opening and I need more product."  He hefted a hefty memorandum, beautifully typed, bound in a manner you'd come to associate with legal briefs.  The memorandum had cost Lou close to ten thousand dollars, which he'd paid to a man you knew as a shyster and con artist named Bentley.  In many ways, Lou wished to be Bentley, not understanding how he was in fact the shrewder of the two, that Bentley was all bluster and affectation.  But Bentley was Lou's weakness, and thus fare well, cool reason.

"You must know some writers who could write the suggestions on this list that you're too busy to write on account of you're writing one a month for me already and I don't see how you could do two."

You did indeed know some writers.  You did not have to hammer Lou's check.  In fact, you left his office with yet another check, a retainer, he called it, for you to recruit "some writers who could write the suggestions on this list" that Bentley had charged Lou close to ten thousand dollars for.  With that additional check, you stepped over the boundary of being a writer and became an editor.  If you had not fallen into that particular rabbit hole, you may not have become an editor at any time in the foreseeable future, if ever.  

As you well know, if you had not taken to being an editor, you might not have been asked by another editor, your competition from another publisher, in fact, to take his classes at the university while he attended a sales meeting.  And you know how that worked:  You became a teacher.

Being a writer is its own form of insanity.  You came of age at a time when it was thought to be uninteresting if one were to write about what it was like to be a writer.  One editor even asked you, "Who the fuck cares?"  Other editors asked you "Who would want to read a book set in Africa?"  And when you answered, "Ask Joseph Conrad," he said something to you your father often had cause to say, "Wise guy."

Other editors, still, told you that people did not wish to read books about South America or books written by South Americans, and you were once again called a wise guy, thanks to your responses.

This is not meant to suggest you were prescient, although you probably were, in particular given some of your then answers.  This is meant to demonstrate that as a writer who had to go out of his way to invent disciplines and landscapes other than writing to write about, you were suddenly presented with two turfs about which to write that have provided you with excellent character types, metaphors, and themes.

In short order, you moved from having to rely on research to being able to draw on experiences in the worlds of publishing and teaching at a university level.  You were also able to draw on the experience of setting the bar high on your plausibility levels for each discipline, push beyond it to what you considered exaggeration or hyperbole, then discover your hyperbole to have been exceeded by reality.

Publishing and the university taught you to write crazy, which is to say pick a level you feel goes beyond the plausible, then wait to discover the unthinkable has come to pass and that if you are to stay ahead of the curve, you must think beyond crazy.

With the worlds of publishing and the university in mind, you are able to watch such noir, unthinkable-come-to-pass cop shows as The Badge, Southland, Life, NY22, and the even grittier, Luther and Low Winter Sun for entertainment.

Odd things happen in the publishing world, challenging standards of rational behavior to the point where you, in publishing related situations, throw away so-called bottom-line or rational modes of behavior, then embark on the bottom-line of crazy.

Right now, as a result of a situation you find yourself in the world of teaching, you find yourself drawn to what appears the most apt metaphor with which you will ever be presented.

When you think of college novels, the first and in its way most distinctive that comes to your mind is Randall Jarrell's stunning Pictures from an Institution.  You also think of John Williams' wrench of a novel, Stoner,probably the first American novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fanshawe, Richard Russo's Wickedly funny Straight Man, Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and the Nabokov romp, Pnin.  Oh, all right; you think of Joyce Carol Oates's I'll Take You There, and of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe.

You do love them all, but now you see something that brings the matter to its most wonderful.  Start with Charlie Parker, Mr. alto saxophone.  Mr. Be bop.  Think of his side, "Relaxin' at Camarillo."  Think of his heroin addiction having him sent to the Camarillo (California) 
State Hospital, which was a repository for drug addiction patients, and for difficult-to-treat circumstances, not the least of which is schizophrenia.  Think of this facility finally closing down, its lavish features being taken over by, you guessed it, California State University, Channel Islands.

The original architecture and signature Spanish bell tower are now a part of campus life, but a campus of another sort.  Surely there is room in there for an office, the office of someone quite like your pal, Ernest, from the UCSB Department of French and Italian, appearing at the office every day.  Think of him being invited to sit in on meetings, his expertise being sought.  After all, an emeritus professor would know much cool stuf, no?  And think of this individual being a hold over inmate, and think of the things you have seen and thought you exaggerated that came true, such as an entire department in an entire university, tasked with the chore of writing condolence letters to wealthy alums on the death of their cherished dog or cat or bird.

Think.

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