Having a Mentor

I said already that I more or less taught myself how to write. That’s not to say that I didn’t have a class or two along the way, nor that someone didn’t say or do something that may have influenced my writing. That is, I think I gleaned a lot rather than having been instructed.

I’ve also been influenced by other writers (mostly long dead!). Two poets who probably had the strongest impact on me early on are e.e. cummings and Emily Dickenson. Their freedom of form and conciseness of language really impressed me. Also Vachel Lindsay—somewhat—for showing me that a poem could have power, noise, drama—it could be a moving theatrical piece. Though I never tried to emulate these poets, I’m sure that I’m beholden to them in my work.

James Joyce probably influenced my fiction more than anyone else. My early book Peanutz in the Sun (short stories, 1966) is my very first work of prose fiction, and it was written in what I imagined at the time to be a kind of Joycean stream of consciousness. I never wrote again like that, but in the back of my mind I’m sure I felt liberated to use language a lot more freely than I might have otherwise. My last few novels probably show this more than the earlier ones, where I coin words, use spellings that suit me (sparingly), and don’t mind the odd incongruous though poetic metaphor. I do appreciate other novelists, especially Faulkner, Steinbeck and even Henry Miller—for their artistry and compelling point of view—but I never thought to try to be anything like them. Joyce, it seemed, armed me with an attitude—I am the master of my words rather than vice versa—and that was all I needed.

Intellectually, I think I owe a debt to existentialism and Buddhism, not dissimilar notions, as well as Nietzsche, especially his The Will to Power. He showed me that anything, even whole societies and the belief systems holding them up, could be questioned. (To tell you the truth, when I first picked up that book in my early twenties, I stopped reading it after about fifteen pages—he was pulling the rug out from under me! Only ten years later, when we were assigned it in my doctoral program, was I able to read it and appreciate its power—now that I was secure in my beliefs and couldn’t be frightened by any book!)

I’m also indebted to the New Testament, or rather the four gospels, especially Matthew. Even Nietzsche admired Jesus; it was Paul he took issue with for creating the Christianity he so despised. Also Shakespeare, for absolutely bashing me over the head with the idea of how much a writer has to know about the human condition and be able to express it well—in order to be called a writer at all; Martin Buber, for showing what real human communication could and should be all about, especially in his book I and Thou; Edward O. Wilson, for his groundbreaking Sociobiology—which proposed that au fond we are animals driven by our biology—in a way Darwin never dared; and finally (though I’m sure I could claim a thousand other influences—and bore you to tears while doing so), Jurgen Habermas, for stripping bare the technological society and showing it for the undemocratic and potentially soul-destroying system it’s becoming. And how do all these seemingly incompatible strands fit together into a coherent intellectual whole? It’s too complex to explain here but I think reading my Daytona Beach Reflections or The Meanings of Love will make it clear beyond a doubt. (For all you interested individuals!)

Having said all that, let’s get back to the subject at hand—having a mentor. The truth is, I never had one—a live one, anyway—and I sometimes regret that. Why? I had no guide but my own internal compass, and because that took years to develop, I went down endless byways and dead-ends, making scads of mistakes in the process—with the writing and personally as well.

I spent years (off and on) on the road; certainly not wasted years but maybe ones that could have been better spent building up something in one community that could have served as an anchor and more secure base of operations. A liberal arts college in New England? A ranch in New Mexico? An art school in Paris? A utopian community in Montana? I don’t know. I just know that when I finished a book, I was typically bored or disenchanted with the job I had, couldn’t find a publisher for the book, and so moved on to the next place. By my rough count I’ve lived in 45 or more houses or apartments (plus four months in a cabover camper traveling around the States and five months in a van traveling around Australia)—a veritable rolling stone! And never my desire to be one! I was always looking for that one job, that one publication, that one woman, that one piece of luck, that would have allowed me to settle—but it never seemed to come.

I should add here that I was with my ex-wife, Keiko, for ten years and they were without doubt the best ten years of my life. But even that didn’t seem to be enough to hold me to one place, as loyal and wonderful as she was. Maybe my loss of the woman at 19 (mentioned earlier in this blog) affected me more deeply than I imagined. I wonder if she was the Dulcinea to whom all future women would subconsciously be compared. Yet I still have great love for Keiko.

My fondest dream throughout: to have family and friends around; to work at the type of place (college or university?) where I could be of some influence on the leaders of tomorrow; to be published and have enough of a following that I’d be invited to speak at least monthly around the country; to have the name to be able to establish a summer institute in a natural setting where I could teach, gather a dynamic staff, hold seminars, invite guest speakers, integrate art, music and sport into the daily schedule—maybe like the mythical community I created in my Three Days at Albemarle! I never wanted to be a wanderer; I was always looking for the opportunity to stay in one place and build. Having a mentor may have steered me more in that direction, or at least that’s how I sometimes see it. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Let’s make lemonade out of that, then, as I have tried to do. Seeing the panorama of life in so many of its forms and expressions has certainly made me a better writer. Not stylistically, maybe, but in breadth and depth of vision. I know so much more about life than I perhaps would have by having stuck to one locale and set of circumstances. (Debate that if you like.)

And you might also say I know so much more about myself, never having had a consistent opportunity to see myself in the image friends and family are reflecting back to me. I’ve almost always been among strangers, so I’ve had to know myself well enough to express that without the support of friends around me, reflecting me. Few people know me, so it’s been almost entirely up to me to know who I am. Moreover, I think I know myself as well as or better than most, having constantly been challenged by the difficulties of new countries, new people, new ways of earning a living. You really get to see what you’re made of when you’ve got absolutely nothing or no one to rely on but yourself.

As I think I noted very early in this blog, I wasn’t wandering around looking for myself—I’d already found that. What I was wandering around looking for was the panorama of life and an accommodating place to hang my hat. I’m still looking!—though the scales have fallen from my eyes and I pretty much realize (though accept only begrudgingly) that wandering is and will continue to be my lot in life. And it’s far too late to find a mentor now—I became my own, years ago!

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