Thursday, March 26, 2015

Performance Review

In the course of your employment at nearly every publisher or, for that matter, university, with whom you were on a salary or salary-plus-commission basis, you've experienced either a shift in management or a reassignment of the publisher to a new parent company, or the placement in the new change of command of a new dean.  Therefore, you know the drill of the after-acquisitions or management-shift interview, in which you appear before a good-cop/bad-cop team.

In one such publisher meeting, you were discussing your past performance and anticipated future performance with accountants.  You did not endear yourself to either of them because of the frequency with which their manner of speech reminded you of Henry Kissinger.  In one such university interview, you were dealing with either the chair or vice chair of the philosophy department who, noting your own daytime job status at the time as editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house, was pressing you for ways to present a book project.

Your meeting today with the good-cop, bad-cop team was the first such interview you'd had in nearly four years, at about the time you'd been given an appointment as visiting professor in the College of Creative Studies within the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Your examiners today had existential rather than academic or publishing credentials, which means among other things that you had difficulty telling the good cop from the bad cop to the point where you were open in your wonderment if a good cop were at all on the scene.

"We understand," Cop # 1 said, "that you were at one time quite a prolific writer."

"Roughly ages eighteen through the next ten or so years,"  Cop # 2 offered in a way that made you almost think you could hear him flipping through pages of a more pad.

Taking your nod as an affirmation of yes, Cop # 1 continued.  "Can you help us understand how this prolific performance changed?"

The answer was straightforward enough, or so you thought.  You'd begun to consider the implications and practice of revisions and rewrite.  To spare them the back-and-forth of banter, you added the beginnings of your experiences with teaching and your investigation of what revision meant.

You could see you'd lost them straight off; a wall of scorn and disrespect began to emerge, brick by brick, the hods of bricks and pallets of mortar beginning to accrue.  "You mean to say you published material that was essentially--?"

"--first draft,"  you said.

"We see,"  Cop # 1 and Cop #2 said simultaneously.

"I'm afraid you don't,"  you said, proceeding to paint yourself as the naive narrator you were fast on your way to turning in for a new model, one who would have to retrain himself, away from old habits and toward the unreliability of untested new ones.  How were you to know what effects revision would have on you, particularly when your idea of revision to that point had been spell and punctuation checking, looking for repetitions and unintentional humor?

These examiners also wish to know why you are so often late with assignments or barely arriving at your classes on time, and why there are so many notebooks and notepads, filled with your screwy handwriting that is neither cursive nor not.

Here you are, these years later, trying to have a conversation with these two, Cop #1 and Cop #2, who weren't that far removed from earlier inquisitors.  Although you've put on some miles and now rely on the kindness of titanium hips, although you now see the world through man-made lenses, your respective personal bests for ten- and twenty-kilometer races and longer outings such as half- and full marathons have lapsed into the shadowy other of the past, you are in many ways the writer you once were,after you'd stepped off the edge of certainty.

You know from reading the Nick Adams stories and the Alice Munro stories, but not the actual terrain.  You've never in fact been to the U.P. the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but thanks to Jim Harrison, you believe you could find some of the stray bottles of peppermint schnapps cached away by his characters, just in case.  You do know the area around Sunset Boulevard and Sepulveda, before the 405 was cut through; you know where to get glorious bunches of poinsettias which grow there, and you know the cheerful man who offers what he calls the student's special, a half-gallon of pulpy red wine for $2.50.  You know which of the medical students to invite to parties, because they invariably bring something to liven up the punch bowl, making for more expansive drunkenness now and more virulent hangovers tomorrow.

You know what and of whom you write as a man in his eighties, just as you often knew what and of whom you wrote when a person in his teens, partially indentured to Sherwood Anderson and John O'Hara, and Ernest Miller Hemingway, that grouch of a father of one of your classmates.

You know why you take so long these days to write things, even though you write every day.  You understand the signs and the feelings within while you are understanding the signs.  You frequently cannot recall if Ken's Hula Hut was on upper Beverly, Melrose, or Santa Monica, because you were so often drunk on your way and infused with a different kind of drunkenness when the last set was played at one, which gave the staff enough time to get you and the musicians out by closing time of two a.m.  You were living part time in the woo woo world of having musicians the likes of Sonny Criss, Hamp Hawes, and Teddy Edwards urging you to do the same thing with your studies and craft that they were doing with music--taking it somewhere it had not been before.

You remember that Ada lived on upper Melrose, and you practically had to climb a rickety flight of stairs next to a billboard to get to her apartment where, if you were fortunate, she did not send you home to sleep it off and next time call before you came and call sober.

Only this morning, you were telling your interviewers, you were making notes for a character in a story, and you realized that, much in the manner of Delmore Schwartz, who is known for one story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," more than any other of his stories and poems, your character, after a life of writing, teaching, brawling, and settling down into a long, domestic funk, was known for one short story out of an output of many.  You not only knew the name of the story, it became so intriguing and vital that you had to write it to fully appreciate the irony of its creator and, of course, the irony of you.

You try to explain this to your examiners, Cop #1 and Cop #2.  "This,"  you want to tall them, "is why it takes so long."  But they just look at you and shake their heads.

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