Monday, August 25, 2014

Keeping Afloat in a Sea of Stories

When you look back at the times in your life before there were such things as hard drives, flash drives, or floppy disks on which to store writing projects, you see an ambitious succession of shelves.  Some of these shelves were gifts from your father, relics of moribund businesses of which he was, for a time, a referee in bankruptcy.

Two such shelves have remained with you, living out their time with you as a storage for your short story collections and a home for the whimsical collection of bedside reading, mixed with the remnants of your Mark Twain collection and a shelf for some of the many titles you acquired and edited as an editor for the various publishers for whom you worked. 

At least one other three-shelf cabinet, once a stained oak was left behind on the occasion of the sudden move from Hot Springs Road to here.  This cabinet had undergone severe editing, the result of one strange and wonderful summer when you still lived in Hollywood.  

You were out of salaried work, preparing for another binge of free lance writing.  Your next door neighbor, Ray Piatti, an interior decorator, was similarly out of salaried work. Such is the nature of being out of salaried work that a project, any project, becomes a necessity to keep panic at a minimum and the focus of sanity in the foreground.

You had a project in mind, a mystery novel with, at that point, a vague plot.  Soon, over a number of games of cribbage, the decision was made.  You and Ray were going to redecorate your apartment to accommodate your about-to-begin venture into the freelance life.

On day two of the project, Ray knocked out a room divider, set up a small work area for you, and bade you get to work writing so that you wouldn't have to see the changes he had in mind before they were fully realized.  Before you knew it, the three-shelf cabinet had lost height and girth, its stained oak finish now a glossy orange, speckled with purple and white.   

Once you got over the transmogrification of much of your then furniture, the Piatti effect on your apartment was stunning.  Even now, you visualize the results of the Barbara Court apartment with cheery nostalgia.  You can see no traces of the place in the two shelves you have left, but you can recall with sentiment the orange, pot-and-crockery shelf abandoned when you left Hot Springs Road to come here.

You had a collection of books at Barbara Court, and the entire garage had been turned into a library at Hot Springs Road, although by no means one with the Piatti effect.

Most of the shelves were used to store screen treatments, television scripts, and television proposals, all embodiments of the standard 8 1/2 x 11 script format, three-hole punched, the pages secured by brass fasteners at the top and bottom holes.  No one, except perhaps a rank amateur, would think to use a brass fastener for the middle hole.

True enough, there were a number of cardboard boxes, large enough to accommodate the 8 1/2 x 11 typing paper.  These had novel manuscripts, and at least one box held short stories, while yet another held nonfiction short form work, such as the pieces dealing with Western history you cranked out for Charlie Sultan, a publisher of Western History magazines; book reviews, and your columns for the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial-Enterprise.

However precarious your income from the novels, short stories, and reviews, you were happier than you were when doing what you then called script and proposal work.  Novels and short stories and even the Western history pieces for Charlie Sultan were, after all, writing.  You'd not understood any number of vital things about the writing and editorial processes; those awaited you in short order.  You did understand the frustration equated with the motion picture and television work, which was collaborative to a high degree.

Writing, then, meant things you did by yourself, without long meetings, without producers wanting you to find places in scripts for their girlfriends' dogs.  Of course you wre happy then. You loved the burlap drapes Ray Piatti sewed for you.  You loved your new work area, where books were close to hand, and in fact, the script and proposal work were filed in a mischievous set of shelves Ray built into your bedroom clothes closet.

Solo writing is a myth.  Even such varied writers as Roth and Salinger and DeLilo, virtual hermits much of the time, were not completely alone, nor was Georges Simenon, although his method of work was to lock himself into his rooms, making sure he had a supply of pipe tobacco, and that his wife knew his needs for coffee and meals.

Even writers who, as the saying goes, do not take edits, are not alone.  Sales and promptional persons are scheduling release dates, factoring which list the work will appear on, sending forth review copies.  There is yet more:  writers have potential individuals in their psyche, looking over their shoulder.  Writers have influences of numerous sorts.  Scratch any writer and you will find other writers and their works.  

At one time, you blamed Mark Twain for getting you into this lifestyle.  Then you blamed yourself and wondered how you had the courage and audacity to think of yourself in the same thought as Mark Twain.  Then you began blaming others because as you read them, the gap between them and you was a Sargasso Sea, wide, deep, unfathomable.

When you last saw her in person, she had shiny, long, red hair.  She sat two rows in front of you, come to Los Angeles to accept the LA Times Book Award for Love Medicine.  Seated next to her editor, Patricia Strahan.  So yes, Louise Erdrich influences you, if only in this sense:  You have to keep busy writing so that you will not be set a flounder in the enormous gap between her stories and what you consider stories.

How many others are there like that?  Bernard Malamud.  Willa Cather.  Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  John O'Hara.  Deborah Eisenberg.  Joan Didion.

Writers are not alone, but they are heartbroken wretches who must keep writing in order to keep any thought of dream alive.  Writers remind you of the time it fell to your happy-but-naive lot to interview the ballerina, Maria Tallchief, the morning after she'd done Swan Lake at the age of thirty-six.  

You were stunned by her devotion to her craft, being at the workout barre within hours of such a strenuous and demanding performance.  "Devotion has nothing to do with it,"  she said.  "If I werent here, doing this, I wouldn't be able to walk."

Every time you read the work of one of the writers of influence for you, you are aware of that relentless, wide sea in which you are afloat, and how, if you do not keep moving, you will sink.


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