Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dangerous Books, Split Infinitives, and Scattered Throw Pillows

In your late teens and early twenties, you came across the work of William Carlos Williams in a Modern Lit course at UCLA, first in a lecture from one of your favorite instructors, then from one poem that at once seemed to slam you back against an imaginary wall, while pulling you forward to look at the importance of the details.

The poem was given a roman numeral heading, marking its order in a book of poems, rather than a title.  By the time you'd got to it, the poem was called "The Red Wheelbarrow."  Its simplicity and evocative presence drew you in, seeming to be the things you were seeking for your writer's toolkit.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

You focused for some time on that wheelbarrow because among other things of the straightforward manner in which its importance was presented.  You could see not only the wheelbarrow but the dependency it created.  You wanted books and poems to read and books and poems to write that would provide you with the tools you'd need to tell such stories as this one, a complete story in sixteen words.

Soon, you had a copy of Williams' booklength poem, "Patterson," which you soon filled with the penciled notations of the equivalent of markings you sometimes find on city streets before they are dug up to repair and repave.  No surprise then that you also found a poem  with even more focus for you than "The Red Wheelbarrow."  This poem:

Let the snake wait under 
his weed 
and the writing 
be of words, slow and quick, sharp 
to strike, quiet to wait, 
sleepless. 

—through metaphor to reconcile 
the people and the stones. 
Compose. (No ideas 
but in things) Invent! 
Saxifrage is my flower that splits 
the rocks.


In the midst of practicing general medicine, Williams went on to additional writings, one book that seemed to you to be as close to the revelatory book you sought as possible.  Williams' book is called In the American Grain, which speaks to and about American literature with a voice you'd not heard before and which, because of its voice and thrust, led you to the remarkable discovery of D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature.

Once you'd discovered that Lawrence actually admired In the American Grain, a collision or sorts  had its origins in your mind.  Some years would be needed before you heard the screech of metal, then saw amid the wreckage the ambitious notion that you would hope to write volume two of the Lawrence book.

In one of your many conversations about Williams with John Sanford, you mentioned In the American Grain because you knew Sanford had not only admired Williams, he'd had dealings with the man and been published by him in a literary review.  

Sanford held up a hand directing you to stay where you were, in fact, don't move, while he lurched to a shelf--goddamn hip's killing me--then lurched back with a copy that looked at once old and new.

Sanford explained that after reading two pages of American Grain, he knew he must read no farther because of the fear that it would cause a series of projects he had in mind to become derivative, abandoning any hope of originality.  "Some day, kid,"  Sanford told you, "you'll come across a book someone else has written that will put a similar scare into you."  You understood the new oldness of the book; he'd kept it as a reminder.


You already knew what he was talking about.  You'd gone from a person,seeking a book that would explain the process to you, into being a person who knew not to finish a particular collection of short stories for fear of the same thing.  In a sense, you were fortunate, because you had nothing but admiration and inspiration from your reading of In the American Grain.  The book that stopped you dead in its tracks was Thomas McGuane's collection, To Skin a Cat.

"Have you told McGuane?"  Sanford asked.

Not yet, you said.  You hadn't met him yet.  Time fixed that, and so you told him.  You have a bookcase set aside for short story collections.  To Skin a Cat, new and now, old, is right there, between Jill McCorkle's Crash Diet, and Leonard Michaels' I Would Have Saved Them If I Could.

When you began your search for your own voice and your own tool kit, you could never have suspected you'd turn out this way, with partial projects scattered about your life like throw pillows on a huge sofa.  But unlike some writers you know,one project at a time, it has turned out this way.  

"Doesn't it bother you to be so scattered,"  some have asked you.

"No,"  you said.  



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