You might notice gaps between the dates of the books in the blog entry above. It’s not that I didn’t write during those times or that I spent an inordinate amount of time on any one project—a book usually takes me 14-20 months, from first page to edited manuscript. When you see gaps, that usually means I was writing but for one reason or another didn’t finish the book (this happened three or four times, as I’ll describe below) or I thought the project wasn’t publishable material.
While all of the books mentioned so far in this blog have been typed in standard form and are saved on a USB flash stick (except The Art of Basketball), the following material hasn’t and most of it remains handwritten and sits in a large cardboard box. Busy as I am in archiving my work, still polishing a bit of the recent stuff, querying literary agents about specific books, as well as working to put food on the table, I don’t have time to transcribe what’s in the box—so I don’t quite know what to do with it. I’m probably not going to be around long enough to do it justice, so I thought I might send it to Keiko—my ex and owner of the copyright of all my work (except The Water Book) upon my demise.
However, what’s she going to do with it? And when she passes on, what happens then? If only I had made a name for myself, so that when I kick the bucket, my publisher or maybe some English department grad student would have at it, collate it, and somehow preserve it with the rest of the work. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t think there was something of value there, maybe not necessarily as a publishable book but certainly as a partial record of my total output.
Right now the box is sitting on the floor by my front door with a note and $40 attached, the note saying that if anything happens to me, please deliver the box to the director of the Institute of Modern Letters at the nearby university, and the note inside asks him to please save part of a life’s work by finding someone to give it some care.
My first book (age 18) is in the box somewhere. It’s a collection of twenty poems called Peanut Butter Folly, or Roses Are Red, 1965, a title I’d remembered someone in high school joking about once, probably in reference to someone else’s book. I had just dropped out of the University of Michigan and wrote the poems then. Thinking I had something, I arranged them in order and printed and bound about ten copies myself. There might be a clever line or two, but probably nothing too memorable. I was just getting my feet wet.
1966-67 was a momentous time—me a college dropout, the Army trying to send me to Viet Nam, the country awash with psychedelia, demonstrations, what an era! I wrote like crazy during that time—I had plenty to say! I produced another couple collections of poems (with essays), The Runaway Clown and Words and Worlds, written in more or less conventional form, and Out of the Wilderness, interrelated freeform poems emerging from a remote woods canoe trip, with drawings by a black guy I met at university, Jon Clark. Here’s a sample poem from the latter (if my memory serves me correctly):
robin and worm
After that, I wrote a book of short plays, The Number Three Jonesey. I couldn’t get back into the University of Michigan because their term had already started but I was able to squeeze myself into Eastern Michigan (and get the Draft Board off my back). They had a university press there and I paid for the publication of the preceding four books (average length, 50 pages). I hated Eastern—instead of talking about big issues in the dorm after class like at Michigan, most students seemed to be playing cards or sitting around shooting the breeze—and as soon as I could, I transferred to UCLA. But while at Eastern I made somewhat of a name for myself by reserving a hall on campus and giving a series of poetry readings. I loved doing that, and sold some books, too.
The next orphan in the box is I Am the Sea (1976—all dates in this section are approximate), a themed poem of about 30 pages that was, in fact, typed but the format was such that the archival company I used said was impractical to put it on disc. The words extend in one line like waves of the sea across two pages, like this:
poem poem poem poem
poem poem poem poem
poem poem poem poem poem
poem poem poem
The story: I’d gone to a rocky cove along the California coast with a tape recorder and recorded my thoughts, then went home and transcribed them. Of course the words above only show the form on the page—obviously I don’t repeat the same word again and again! And the result is pretty cool.
In addition, there are about thirty or forty other short poems, all apparently unrelated, handwritten on various pieces of paper in the box, dashed off over about fifteen years. I think I stopped writing poetry around 1980. (Maybe I’ll say more on that in another post.)
Jamaica Morning (1975) is a half-finished novel I started while I was in Jamaica. I got about 120 pages done when I called the woman in Florida who I later ran away with, and that’s when she first professed her love for me. A week later I was in Florida; a week later we were in Oregon, and the Jamaican mood completely left me. That Southern belle was fattening me up on fried chicken and mashed potatoes after work and wearing me out dragging me off to the bedroom after dinner (I wasn’t complaining at the time, at least at first), so I didn’t have much time (or inclination) to think about it.
Jamaica Morning is about an American ex-pat trying to get the girl but finding himself at a disadvantage competing with a (vacuous but daring) American gun-runner. Maybe I was writing this story because when I started it, I hadn’t gotten the girl (the Florida woman). This situation may even have tapped into my earlier mourning (in 1966) when I lost “the love of my life” to the upstart with the Corvette (a tale I alluded to in an earlier blog entry). In any case, when I did get the girl (albeit only for a matter of months), maybe the possible sense of loss driving Jamaica was cooled beyond rekindling.
Sunday Night Walk Problems (1978) is a strange little collection of essays about life and society. I was a doctoral student at the time. To relax, every Sunday night around sunset I’d take a 45-minute walk up the hill, through some quiet neighborhoods and a public rhododendron garden and then head home again. By the second walk I realized that one particular issue or another would inevitably be on my mind, so I decided to record these thoughts, thinking someday my reflections might be of value to someone somewhere. I stopped after seven weeks (40 notebook pages or so), the last essay entitled, “The Problem of the Sunday Night Walk Problems.”
Just a few of the issues: teen suicide, fame in America, must we kill to live, etc. The problem I identified in the last essay: I was looking at mostly negative issues in too negative a way, I think—maybe because I was under tremendous pressure at school and was also reading a lot of rather deep and difficult studies of society for my classes. And because I seemed to be highlighting the bleakness, I came to the conclusion that these essays would probably be of little use to anyone, other than to depress them. Thus I stopped writing them—though I kept up the Sunday night walks.
Sandusky, Ohio (1980) is about six or seven handwritten pages of my attempt to describe my introduction to the world of sex and my reflections on it. I reread it about ten years later and it really has some fascinating insights into the whole American boy-girl thing, short as it is. But I was writing it while parked in my camper on a causeway siding in Sandusky, couldn’t find a job, any job, and finally ran out of money. I limped on to Detroit without writing any more about it. In the Motor City I gathered a handful of students who needed a ride to San Francisco, collected the money in advance, visited my relatives for a week or so, then drove (with students in tow) back out West. And no, I didn’t borrow any money from family while I was there.
China Story (1994) is an unfinished novel (100 notebook pages or so) about a young Chinese girl during the Cultural Revolution. I was writing in New Zealand at the time and I had a Chinese girlfriend, so the mood was right. Moreover, I’d always been interested in Chinese history, had read plenty of it, and had been to China three times. In the novel I was trying to show another side of the Revolution story—most books about it seem to be by middle- or upper-class refugees who emigrated and then aired their grievances by writing books about losing their status and possessions. Frankly, I have less sympathy for them than I do the peasants and intellectuals who, in their idealistic but ultimately tragic way, tried to make a go of it.
Well, that’s about all I remember about the stuff in the cardboard box. Oh, there are some clippings of four or five articles on culture I wrote for The Japan Times, plus one on the apparent inability of some of us to appreciate wilderness that I wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Also, a few letters I wrote now and then to people in positions of local responsibility who failed to take action on (or even recognize) a problem. For example, while doing two months research at Indiana University, I was struck by the incredible number of cars and buses on campus; the noise, the fumes, the distraction of a “motorized campus.” A new president had just been appointed, so I sent him a letter suggesting in some detail how he might consider closing off the roads and instituting a shuttle bus system dropping students at the edge of campus instead. He passed my letter off to the head of the university’s transportation department, who replied to me that they’d tried that once but nobody took the shuttles. Of course they wouldn’t if they could continue to drive their own cars to class and hop a bus from one building to the next! Any new plan has to be incentivized!
Well, that’s about it, to my recollection. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, Rain, why don’t you go through the box carefully, just to make sure you covered everything?” Good advice. But to tell you the truth, any time I’ve gone back to read what I’ve written long before, it opens up a veritable volcano of emotions and it takes days (even weeks) before the ground stops shaking and the ash settles. The writer’s life is never easy—the serious writer, that is—and I’ve got so much work to do now and a limited time to do it, so I’d rather just go from memory here instead of digging through the box and rocking the boat at this point. I’m a steady guy—always have been—but I’m in no mood for roller coaster rides of any sort at this particular time.