Humor in My Writing

Do I have a sense of humor? Unequivocally, yes. If that’s so, why isn’t there more humor in my books? Or even in this blog? I’ve thought about that a lot.

In person, with people I know, I can be very funny. I tell jokes, make up puns, have (sometimes) cleverly phrased reactions to events, news stories, etc. On not infrequent occasions I tell a good joke to my students. If word hadn’t sometimes gotten out, I think people around me would never know I was a serious writer. I’m quite sure I seem like an ordinary guy, not too deep, with the normal interest in women, fast cars, sports, scotch and all the rest. I’m sure nobody knows the tears I’ve shed. Only rarely might they get a glimpse of that.

I sometimes make up bilingual jokes, particularly in French or Japanese and English. I like to have a good time. I smile easily. I’m fun, it seems. (Or stupid.) Am I hiding my seriousness? Trying to deny it? I’m really not sure, but I can say absolutely that I don’t hide it in the writing.

Of course my topic is serious—I’m trying to tear down much of the way we’ve interpreted Western civilization because it’s killing us—but that doesn’t preclude using a little humor to do it, does it? My funniest book, The Water Book, looked at water and the natural world through stories, jokes, literary anecdotes and humorous drawings (my own). The substructure of the book was serious but I tried to enhance it with as much clever and funny stuff as I could—and it was the only book of mine ever published. You’d think I’d take a hint from that and keep laying it on so that the reader would feel better entertained. But even that book didn’t sell well, so what’s the point? Add that to the fact that, as I’ve said here so many times already, I don’t actually write my books—they write themselves—so it’s hard for me to say that I’m going to try to be funnier. I’m just the guy holding the pen, remember?

In fact, when humor does emerge in my writing I say, “Well, would you look at that! It’s funny, isn’t it!” Then I pat myself on the back and move along. Maybe the writing would benefit more from such moments, but they come when they come. What this says to me is that I’m a serious individual and dead serious about what I write. Why, then, am I usually so jovial and easy-going in person? It’s a puzzle, for sure.

I’ve often thought that if I did get published more, I’d have to get out there and dance (book tours, lectures and so on) and could finally integrate my writing and my personal life. It might make me act more serious as a person, but it could just as well inject more humor (since that’s a big part of me) into my writing.

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What It’s Like to be Unknown

I’ve struggled all my life to get published, to little avail. How do I feel about that? I’ve already spoken about it, though only in bits and pieces and generally considering only the negative aspects. There are times, though, that I’m happy about being unknown, and feel almost lucky to be so.

When one doesn’t have a track record, there’s nothing to live up to (or live down). If one of my books became well known, of course I’d be tempted to read what people were saying about it. With so much at stake, how could I not? If reaction was negative, I’d feel compelled to more clearly explain the work. Not because of ego but simply out of belief that, as I’ve suggested before, the work is important. I might even feel moved to hit the road and interpret the book, but as a steady diet I probably wouldn’t like it—I’m always into the next project and would hate to take much time away from that to wrangle with critics, people who I suspect wouldn’t change their opinion anyway. Still, I might feel like I had to do it.

On the other hand, if reaction to the book was positive, then there’s the excitement of the breakthrough and the pressure to succeed with the next one as well. I think I know what writers must face when their book is a big seller—there has to be strong pressure to repeat the success. I’ve never felt that pressure. When one book is finished, I can get started on the next without feeling like I have to write a salable successor. Nor do I have the hassle of promotion, incessant travel, and all the verbal dueling I’m sure my work—being controversial—would encourage. In other words, my mind can remain clear, my schedule free, my nerves on an even keel. This doesn’t do much for the bank account or the reputation, but it does afford me the luxury of being able to work unhindered. I finish one book without all that anxiety, and start the next one reasonably level-headed. Surely that has to be considered a gift.

In younger years I loved traveling, speaking to audiences large and small, fielding questions, debating critical points and all the rest. I’m a born lecturer and never feel as good as when I’m in front of a group discussing big ideas. And though I wouldn’t shy away from a book tour today, it seems a lot less attractive to me now. I might do it—to get the ideas out there—but more and more I question whether short-term “promotion” is really that crucial to the long-term value of a book. I’m wondering now if it all doesn’t just come down to money. I’m hoping that’s not the case, and that somewhere out on that royal road I might actually touch people, give them hope. But things being as they are, I can never know the answer to that.

A final consideration is that I have a private life that is just that—private. No one cares what I look like, who I go out with, what peccadillos I have. I never need fear having my picture taken, especially when I might not want it to be. It’s a good feeling. I know too much about the private lives of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac, Mailer, Kesey, even Waller, and what I’ve shown are too often their weak points, their mistakes. In my case, it’s nice to be able to work most days in peace.

So though I might well be seen in these blog posts as lamenting my lack of publication, the truth is, the benefit I’ve received from that very lack has been inestimable. In some ways I guess I really am lucky. Sour grapes? Maybe, but I do think I make a credible point, wouldn’t you say? You can’t put a price on peace of mind. And although life has never been smooth-sailing for me—ever—at least I had no one’s expectations hanging over me and no one looking over my shoulder. I was free to write.

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The Minor Works

I’ve focused on my major works and my feeling about them in this blog and hesitated to talk about other, mostly earlier stuff. I suppose I didn’t want to complicate my premise too much until I actually established it. But in fact if one winnows the chaff from the wheat in the so-called minor works, there may be something of value there and I’d like to offer a general description of each.

Peanutz in the Sun (1966) was a short collection of story fragments, mostly about half a page or less each, really just playing around with the language. Here’s a brief example:

                            Fish glory comes to those who grab the glint in the water before

                            itz gone and then suck itz blood dry, throwing the nowtarnished

                            half glint back into the water, gord of all person, all identity. 

                           The blood iz evrything now, maneaten and still throbbing threee

                           beats a minute—rocken, murken, so thin then—and becomes man

                           glory.

Shaking the Foundations (also 1966), a short collection of dialog fragments. Again, I didn’t have any theme in mind but just put pen to paper and let it write. Sample:                                                                

                                                                 I You You Me

                                                                He: I saw you.

                                                                She: You saw me.

                                                                He: I watched you.

                                                                She: You watched me.

                                                                He: I read you.

                                                                She: You read me.

                                                                He: I discovered you.

                                                                She: You discovered me.

                                                                He: I knew you.

                                                                She: You knew me.

                                                                He: I wanted you.

                                                                She: You wanted me.

                                                                He: I cast you out.

                                                                She: You cast me out.

Or this one:

 

                                                                  Canto XXX

                      Bluejay:            Just think about the properties of things! Each has

                                                its own design, all things in the universe. Warming

                                                substances sometimes makes them become soft and

                                                sticky, and as they grow cold they harden and lack

                                                stickiness. Just think if substances would harden as

                                                they grew warm and softened and became sticky

                                                when they grew cold! Think upon the wonder of it all!

                      Hummingbird:  Hmmm.

I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just doing, like a kid learning to ride a bicycle.

Heroes of the Yellow Wood, (1967-74) consists of four novels I decided to assemble in one volume, though they’re all quite different. Maybe I lacked confidence that one of them could stand on its own, I don’t know. In any case, I thought I was finally ready for publication (!) and looked for an agent and then a publisher directly, but no luck. My first experience with rejection! (I don’t count my high school principal—that was kid stuff.)

The novel from that volume I wrote first was called Radius, which is the protagonist’s name. (He’s only halfway there.) Radius is an introvert who has a girlfriend but whose real lover seems to be a tape recorder, which he talks to daily to record his thoughts. It might be significant that my first attempt is about someone who tries to withdraw from the world—a reflection of my own disenchantment with society at the time?

The second is Children at Play, about a six-year-old boy who is the neighborhood hero (among the kids) who rebels against school because it’s trying to mold him into someone he doesn’t want to be. In the end he gets hold of a gun and although he doesn’t shoot anybody, it effectively brands him as a troublemaker and the full weight of the adult world comes down upon him to make him conform.

The third novel was an attempt to create a less introspective story: Heroes, Monuments and Toys, the tale of a family living in one of the canyons of L.A. (Beverly Glen) when enemy soldiers from an unknown country attack the city. It’s all action—the world is falling apart— as they try to cross town to get to safety, but with my own quirky commentary implied throughout. Maybe the most “cinematic” of my books, this no doubt the result of the action-oriented plot.

The last of the bunch, Witchmen, Let Them Go, is about a psychologist working at a clinic who’s fed up with the whole therapy system. One night at a club he meets Wendy, an alluring sprite of a woman (and her eccentric friends), making him think that sanity is not necessarily what he thought it was. He falls for her, her uniqueness, her otherworldliness, her purity as a human being. In the end she jumps to her death from the balcony in the club. She wasn’t meant for this world.

What to make of these stories? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it was my expression that something was very wrong out there—how we saw and interpreted reality—the same reality we had a hand in maintaining—but I had no idea what the source of it was or what to do about it. That came later.

Europe Notebook (1969-70) is about seventy-five pages of short, numbered paragraphs, my observations and reflections as I hitchhiked around Europe. In general, the naive musings of a 22-year-old. Sample:

                                                                          70

                            I looked into a mirror today, really looked, for the first time

                            in months, and I saw, for the first time, a man. And I couldn’t

                            stop looking, for all the wonder and curiosity, and maybe a little

                            looking back.

                                                                          71

                                                                 And I smiled.

                                                                          72

          I don’t want a girl who wears jewelry and reads Brigitte Magazine.
  I don’t want to carry that kind of baggage through my life.

                                                                          73

      I’ll never forget my dad’s words to me:he who travels light travels fast.

                                                                          74

                        Back in Greece. I’ve been traveling with this Hungarian girl and

                        her mother for over a week now. She thinks she’s part gypsy, with

                        all her trinkets, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and colorful clothes.

                        I told her that every time she sees something shiny in a store

                        window, she is immediately drawn to it. I want to tell her that if

                        you look into the sun too long, you will go blind.

                                                                          75

                                               Her name is Hedda, my first Hedda.

                                                                          76

                                         She is cold as ice but when I threaten to leave

                                         them to travel alone, she is all tears and touches.

                                                                          77

                                               And I hate a girl who sleeps til noon.

                                                                          78

                                                    And she doesn’t like camping.

                                                                          79

                             And she was a model once so she knows how to play with men.

                                                                          80

                              And she must have her tea, christ, three or four times a day.

                                                                          81

                                              She is lazy, self-adorning and lovely.

                                                                          82

                                                    Other than that, she’s okay.                                                                   

                                                                                                                    

           Saharan (1970) is a journal of my 10-day crossing of the Sahara. I was alone in Mali at the south edge of the desert (though I had various traveling companions in the weeks preceding), waited about eleven days for a truck (the sandstorm season was coming so there wasn’t any traffic) and finally an Algerian sheep truck came through from Niger and I got on. On, not in. Two Algerian Arabs rode in the cab and I rode in the back with two black Malians—the mechanic and the factotum—sitting on two boards about five feet over the sheep. There was no road—only tire tracks in the sand. And always, the heat. It was tough, but one of the most interesting and memorable experiences of my life. Sample:

           April 18  Last night we hit sand. After the spectacular scenery and the tea and the rice with meat, we hit sand. It was a short stretch, maybe only a half mile long, but we didn’t get through it until 3:30am. We had been moving right along, the tracks were plenty firm, but soon the tire marks ran deeper and sand had begun filling them in. Moving a loaded truck through sand is probably one of the hardest and most frustrating things in the world. Wilma [the name given to the truck] carries seven steel planks, each one eight feet long and two feet wide and weighing about seventy pounds. The wheels had to be dug out and the planks rammed beneath them. Omar [the driver] then banged the clutch and jammed the gas, diesel smoke blackened the air and the truck lurched ahead eight feet. The brakes were hit, the planks moved forward one position each, the clutch-gas routine was repeated and the five-ton vehicle advanced another eight feet. We did this in the darkness for six hours. Toward the end we couldn’t carry the planks at all but had to drag them through the thick sand. We tried to speak, to joke around to keep our morale up, but inside you have that sick feeling that you’re never going to get out. Our hands were raw from lifting the planks, our legs rubbery from constantly plunging into the sand, our throats parched from the dry night air. We had to free ourselves before we settled for the night, because no one would be able to sleep knowing he had to wake up to the same nightmare he went through the night before. We’re heading toward Tessalit, and Gilbert [the mechanic] told me that after Tessalit lies six hundred miles of sand. No trees, no rocks, no wildlife, just sand. One can only keep his chin up and take each day as it comes.

           We’ve got a brute of a black Malian to do much of the heavy work (though everybody works). If I say he has the strength of ten men, believe it. He’s six feet tall and moves like a rogue elephant. He calls me ‘camarade’ and I slap him on the shoulder. I hit rock. His fists are twice mine and when we were all groaning under the weight of the planks, he hefted them on his shoulder like an ox. He’s loud, he’s crude, he argues like hell with Omar and Gilbert over just about everything, but he’s the kind of person it takes to power this 18-wheeled hunk of metal over nine hundred miles of the roughest country in the world. He speaks Arabic and a brand of French a Parisian wouldn’t understand; he’s ignorant—there’s no doubt about it—but there’s not a man on the truck who doesn’t respect him and who doesn’t breathe a little easier when they see him lugging those planks or breaking chunks off trees for firewood. His name is hard to pronounce so I call him Ox.

           We arrived at a little adobe town about 50 miles south of Tessalit, where we prepared couscous and of course, tea. Ox likes a lot of pepper on his food, and whenever he cooks, I know to fill a large water can to take with the meal. Dinner was good, though. After three cups of thick green tea, Gilbert took out a little packet of blue paper and unwrapped it. Inside was a tablespoon or so of a green leafy mixture—it looked like kif. He took a cigarette out of his pack, rolled it between two fingers until all the tobacco was gone, then packed the paper with his kif. He lit it on a coal from the fire, and he and Ox got stoned together under the truck. It was a pleasure seeing them enjoying themselves. I’ll be out of the desert in a week, but I know they must remain here to cross and re-cross the same long route. Justice must come from somewhere, and a small blue packet of paper is cheap and available, and very little else is in Africa.

Coming Up Clean (1970-71) is a fascinating (ahem) book of fictional interviews I wrote while a first-year teacher in L.A. after my return from Europe/Africa. Seeing America with fresh (and more objective) eyes now, I had the narrator of the book “interview” Americans from all walks of life and ask them to comment about what was wrong with the way things were and how they thought it might be improved. (This is purely fiction, remember—I wrote the interviews.) In the end, the interviewer realizes he’s got information from the grassroots that the powers-that-be don’t have access to and he feels it’s his duty to walk across the country to Washington, D.C. to present the book to the President (who was Nixon at that time).

This was my second attempt at publication but no one was interested. However, I was in a Master’s degree program then at the University of Southern California and my advisor said, “Let’s whip it into academic form—chapter headings, table of contents and all that—and submit it as your thesis!” Which I did. Anyway, this book might be seen as my first real attempt to come to grips with what was ailing our society and the germ of my notion of how to deal with it. Thus I think it’s a direct forerunner of Daytona Beach Reflections written ten years later (and far more mature in outlook), and culminating in The Meanings of Love ten years after that.

Mr Bojangles, Dance, (1972) has an interesting story behind it. I was bored to death as a teacher—a junior high school in L.A.—and something had been gnawing at me for some time. In the book I just told you about, Coming Up Clean, the narrator/interviewer decides he has a duty to walk to Washington to present the book to the President, and it gradually dawned on me that if I really believed in the book, I’d have to do that very thing. So I sent a telegram to Nixon to tell him I was coming, quit my job, packed a backpack and set out on foot, the radio station KRLA asking me to call in once a week to let them know about my progress. Mr Bojangles is the journal of that walk.

Unfortunately Nixon was in Moscow when I arrived at the White House and an aide, Ken Clawson, received the book—Coming Up Clean—promising to give it to the President (liar!). I did, however, get a half-page write-up with photo in front of the White House in the Washington Post. (May 24, 1972.) By the way, my birth name is Dennis Williams—people called me Denny—but I changed it in 1979, the year I got my doctorate. So the name in the Post article is “Denny Williams.” It’s me, though, in all my idealistic glory. I even read a prepared speech, though only the Post journalist Michael Kernan and the photographer were there to listen, along with two friends of mine who drove up from North Carolina. That speech (White House Address), though a solid representation of my thinking, really reflects the spirit of the times (Vietnam War era) and I needed many more years of study, reflection and experience to bring its ideas to greater fruition.

A week later I was in Florida visiting my parents (retirees from the North) and I received a letter from Senator Cranston from California, saying he agreed with me (excerpts of my speech were printed in the Post article) and asking me to stop in to see him if I was in Washington again. I didn’t—to me he was just another face of the wrong-headed government.

Miscellaneous Ramblings (1972) is another journal, about my time in New York that same year looking for a publisher for Mr Bojangles. Did I find one? Actually, two different literary agents told me to make a big splash on radio and TV while I was in New York and then come back and talk to them. Of course the media’s collective response when I contacted them was “Denny who?” It’s tough out there, I tells ya! Anyway, the beginning of that journal:

                                                                     Saturday 

            To my craft again. How else is one to translate, to distinguish oneself from the millions of faces, the swell of a billion untried ideas? From whence does the light appear? Is it the measure of a tune that leads us those few seconds through the dark? Or good news of a friend? Or a kiss?

            So, to my craft again. And in the unraveling of words, of phrases, maybe a truth will also

    be unraveled.

                                                                              *

                      Being alone in New York is no worse than being alone anywhere else.

                                                                              *

             A Chinese painter in the Village told me it takes a very good mind to be a writer. Who, then, dares to call themselves a writer? No, better to consider oneself a goddam fool digging a hole to China than to impersonate a herald of truth.

                                                                              *

                                                                         Sunday 

           The road to success is always under construction, as they say. Or life is the process of becoming, or you are what you do, and all that. But it’s impossible to evaluate oneself right now, for the present is too transitory to be yoked with criteria. The question “Who am I?” can never be adequately answered. Yet we beg for judgment, weigh a man’s possessions, his diplomas and credentials, the slimness of his wife’s leg, so we may decide how we relate to him—with respect, indifference, scorn or envy? Is it any wonder that the thinkers of today want to unseat the gods of                        literature, of politics, the gods who haven’t been able to change the course of human destiny?

                                                                              *

          I met a black man on the bus. He said he was walking down Lexington Avenue nine years ago when a man came up to him, hit him in the head, and as he bent down to pick up his glasses, kicked him in the eyes. He now lives at the YMCA and can’t get a good night’s sleep “because of all the characters around there.” Sartre, da Vinci, Lincoln, St Joan whom I love dearly, what have they done for this blind spade who lives at the YMCA?

                                                                              *

           The street preachers on 42nd Street were debating with the crowd when I heard a bum say to another, “That Jesus Christ, what a man he was. He walked on water, too. They couldn’t have made it up, either; who would’ve thought of such a thing? No, he walked on water. What a man!”

           And what a man Albert Schweitzer was. And [Bishop] James Pike. How shall I compete? Let me die a fucking bum to say that I never gave up my dream. Yet I am a proud, vain, angry sexual beast. What am I but a rag compared to Albert Schweitzer?

                                                                             *

           Art is the attempt to express man’s highest aspirations. A good writer will make the dreams of his people come alive with his words. Cannot a writer nourish their spiritual needs? Are we not feathers in the cap of God? And are not some of us ragged and some of us beautifully plumed? Is not a writer’s purpose, then, to demonstrate how all feathers may become beautiful in the eyes of God?

Uncontrollable Stories (1974), written in Manhattan and then Spring Valley, New York, is an odd collection of short stories. Rereading them now, they seem to be a kind of free flow of creativity—raw ideas—that are more or less untouched by my “prescription for a better world,” as it were. I find many of them interesting and some fascinating. Some are very adolescent. Here’s the first page or so of one of them:

                                                           Notes on Christine

           She was a cunner, if you think what I mean. She had all the attachments: boots, shape, tongue like fire, new york thighs, honey still moist on her skin, she walked like flame. Naked she rises, naked she descends. I’m trying to make you understand divinity when it passes you on the street. When it gets out of a car half drunk, panties flaming, legs feeling for pavement, lips wet and wanting. When it hurries by, rush of perfume too much to bear, too much. When it cries out at the prick of a needle, when you feel that violation miles, even thousands of miles away. When it was thirteen it became a woman. I would have eaten dirt for her.

           She has a past nine years old. Before that, the emptiness of childhood, hopeless Saturday afternoons, the agonies of channels two, seven and nine. Suddenly it was dawn. They named her Christine, integer of the Trinity, joining Man and Child. She was outer space. She was justice.

           I liked the way she smoked a cigarette without inhaling, throwing her head back when she blew the smoke out. She could’ve borne Jesus.

           Grappling, pushing in the streets, she searched every face for a flicker of recognition—she couldn’t blend, couldn’t match spirits senses eyes thoughts tears with anyone on this earth. How could she manage? And one day she discovered between her legs a whirlpool which could suck another human being into her. It was her first communion. But the Man didn’t come to worship but to violate, wiping the lipstick and saliva from his mouth and scratching a deaf ear to her sobs while zipping up his pants and walking out the door.

           Though I wasn’t there, I swear this could be true.

           As for me, I lay awake and built a glorious tower and the next morning I discovered that it was architecturally unsound. I loved her.

Fog and Rain (1975) was a collection of poems (53pp) written in Oregon. The story behind it: I’d met a woman in Florida when visiting my parents, we’d fallen in love—ostensibly—and sometime later, she hinted quite strongly, “Let’s run away together.” (She was married at the time.) Anyway, that’s not something I’d do, believe me, but I’d barely escaped the hell of Viet Nam, lost my best friend to a sniper’s bullet there, suffered a year on the road in Europe and Africa and crossed the Sahara on a sheep truck, walked across the United States for my country, written books nobody wanted to read, couldn’t find a decent job, etc etc, so I wasn’t in much of a position to turn down candy. We packed her car and left. “Where shall we go?” she asked. I replied, “How about Oregon? I heard it’s beautiful there.” We were about 27. It was beautiful. Six months later—mid-winter—she went back to the warmth and comfort of Florida. Fog and Rain contains the poems I wrote after that. The first are about life without her; the rest, life in general. Here’s a brief one:

                                                         there’s too much

                                                                 in this world

                                                               that’s easy

                                                                  to understand

                                                                  but

                                                                     impossible

                                                                      to accept

                                                                     this

                                                                   is

                                                           not even

                                                     a poem

Sitting in a Room in Oregon (1975) is a long poem (44pp), moody and reflective like the ones just before. It’s also philosophical in outlook and reflects both my sense of loss and of wonder. Here are the first couple pages:

                                          I’m sitting in a room

                                               looking at a tree framed by a chalk-white sky

                                          while the sound of the logging trucks

                                                             making their way home to the mill

                                                   shakes my cups in the cupboard

                                                                                         and makes them dance.

                                          Her many arms stretched outward

                                                                                and upward

                                                                   the tree reminds me of a mother praying

                                                                                                     for her children.

                                          They are the pine cones

                                                       clinging to her boughs

                                                                 like suckling pigs.

                                          She has a way about her

                                                  which seems old and ugly

                                                       but somehow more beautiful than me.

                                                   And I am so beautiful.

                                         I look carefully at the rough bark

                                                                              and hardy needles

                                               and I see wisdom much greater than I can grasp.

                                                  I’m so ignorant.

                                         There is a dog sitting under the tree.

                                              The dog is more ignorant than I am

                                                    as he lets his wet tongue hang out

                                                                                         in his panting.

                                         He has no degrees and I have several

                                                            and so our fates are sealed.

                                         He has attended no lectures

                                               except the ones we gave him

                                                        to get him to understand

                                                  that what he has done was wrong.

                                        He holds no membership

                                                             in learned societies

                                                  but he is his own society.

                                        It was us

                                                who rang the bell to make him salivate

                                                              but he bears us no grudge.

                                        He is our best friend

                                                    and he is ignorant.

                                        I’m sitting in a room

                                                looking through the window

                                        at a pinecone dropping from the tree

                                                and I see that the tree

                                                has discharged its responsibilities

                                                                              and I am glad.

                                        I am grateful that there is a plan.

                                        I am thankful that the wind knows when to blow

                                            and that the sun rises without fail.

                                       I want to know

                                                       my part in the plan.

                                       I know when to eat and when to sleep

                                             and I want my whole life to be

                                                                                    like eating and sleeping.

                                       I want to be as free as the pine tree

                                                   in discharging my responsibilities.

Voyage (1979) is a journal, and probably my best one. How it came to be is an interesting story. When I finished my doctorate, I was offered a position at a private college in Milwaukee (no thank you) and was also flown to Texas for three days to interview at the University of Dallas. I lectured to several classes and met with administrative staff—deans and such. When I left, the Head of the Department said I “would be like the pied piper” to their students (I was apparently a hit) and she saw me off with the words, “We want you back.” A few days later I got a letter saying that the admin staff thought I might be a bit critical of big business (the university was private and relied on corporate contributions) and they didn’t want to take any chances. (While I was there, George Bush père showed up and got absolute red carpet treatment.)

Anyhow, I decided then that I couldn’t be bothered with academia—I didn’t really want to write articles for academic journals as a daily grind, and my multidisciplinary coursework precluding me from getting a good appointment anyway—so I made up a flyer and sent it to every university between Eugene and Los Angeles, saying that Dr Rain would speak about the technological society for a fee. Hey, lecturers can make good money.

I got engagements at Oregon, Southern Oregon University, College of the Siskyous, Stanford, the Wright Institute in Berkeley (they’re big on German sociology), Cal State University Chico, the University of California, Davis and others. (I got $50 for speaking to an academic class at Davis for an hour and a half, and while I was in the student government office trying unsuccessfully to set up a talk to the student body, Jane Fonda’s agent called and I heard them agree on the phone to $1500 for a forty-minute lecture and she had to be promptly picked up from the airport and sent back immediately after. Oh, the perks of fame, and the crumbs to everyone else! Remember what Michael Bennett, Broadway choreographer of “A Chorus Line,” once said? It’s so strange: “In America you’re either famous or you’re nobody.”)

This made me realize that I was doing a labor of Sisyphus and had better rethink the whole thing. It wasn’t even fun—I wasn’t simply zipping down the coast like a writer on a book tour with audiences lined up, but sometimes had to wait 2-3 days at a place while they tried to schedule something. The waiting game is extremely difficult, not to mention me having to negotiate at each venue like a traveling salesman. And then to be paid peanuts, which one finds difficult to live on. To get anywhere at all, I knew I’d have to stop this nonsense and “write my way out of it.”

After that I headed to L.A. to spend four or five days with a friend and former UCLA instructor and his wife. Then it was off to Florida to see my parents, then New York to stay with my cousin, then to Indiana to meet a three-year-old daughter I’d just found out I had—I’m afraid I’ve let her down terribly—then to Detroit to visit relatives, then back to Oregon to teach some classes at the university.

And how did I accomplish this travel? By camper. On the back of a pickup truck. And every day I kept a journal of my thoughts and experiences—I’m sure you won’t read anything like it. Looking back, even I find it hard to believe. Associated with that, of course, is my giving up an academic career—or it giving up on me.

As a sidebar, after I visited my parents in Florida during that trip, I drove across the state to Daytona and parked on the beach for two months, taking notes for what would become Daytona Beach Reflections, one of my most important books.

Wilderness Traveler (1979) is my one (semi-) erotic novel. Au fond it’s the story about idealism and realism, with sex as the battleground. Can sex be a means of achieving a higher awareness of one’s own spirituality, of one’s deeper bond with another person, or is it fundamentally and irrevocably a private experience of pleasure?

Throughout the book, I maintained the former position, with the protagonist unable to find anyone who also sees it that way (via his various romances and encounters). In the end his idealism is nearly shattered by the “real” world. Does he then capitulate and accept the “truth” of sex or does he still pursue the ideal that he thinks might contain a higher truth? This, of course, means having to face continued frustration, loneliness, and all the other trials already experienced on his path through this “wilderness.” Will he give up making love and acquiesce to fucking?

What’s at stake here, it seems to me, is whether men and women are (or can be) more broadly “human” than simply “animal.” How strong is our biological heritage when it comes to perhaps the most biological of all acts? Is the genetically-imprinted animal necessity to be employed only for the inherent demand of the continuation of the species (not to mention simple pleasure), or is a measure of transcendence also possible? Or is this just a poet’s idealization of an act which when stripped of all frills and philosophies is simply animality and little more?

Creative Education (1978) is a non-fictional reflection on education—what it is and what it might be—and is the result of eight conversations over four months with an artist friend of mine, Sandy Eastoak. I was in the middle of my Ph.D. program and we became friends when she was doing the drawings for my book, The Art of Basketball. My academic studies and her almost purely intuitive focus seemed to be uncannily complementary, so recording and transcribing the conversations seemed a great idea.

(Note: I wrote The Art of Basketball in 1978 and Penn State University Press said they’d publish it, then had their budget cut and backed out. I rewrote the book fifteen years later and several agents asked me to have a famous NBA player or coach write an introduction. I contacted coach Phil Jackson and he said he’d write one—just send him a copy. I sent it, though he didn’t write an intro. Apparently he was writing his own book at the time.

In the meantime, I’m all over the world and the basketball book somehow got lost. Jackson now had the only copy! I searched his name on the Internet and sent e-mails via the various teams he coached—Chicago Bulls, L.A. Lakers—and also his Speakers Bureau, asking if he still had it. His agent sent me a mail saying they’d look for it but that Jackson had many offices all over the country and anyway, what kind of writer sends the only copy of his book? (It was never found, by the way, so that book seems to be lost forever.)

Black Bart (1984) is a musical play based on a historical character in gold rush California, a stagecoach robber who tipped his hat to women and often left a handwritten poem in the empty strongbox. In other words, something of a gentleman. The story behind it: I was in Japan at the time, had a collision playing basketball (a lifelong passion of mine—along with motorcycles and writing) and found myself in the hospital. I friend brought me an electronic keyboard to pass the time with—I don’t play but had a rudimentary understanding of the piano—and soon, there I was, knocking out tunes. By the time I left the hospital I had about twelve of them, so I decided to add a couple more (I bought my own keyboard) and write a play and some lyrics.

Suzie’s Japan (1986) is another musical, about an American coed sent to Japan by her father (an old Japanophile) to learn some of the secrets of that country. It’s almost too much for her. She falls for a Japanese guy, and in the end they find out they have the same father! Lots of weird and wonderful stuff about the mystery of Japan, and the music’s pretty good, too. I also wrote a few pieces for the koto (Japanese zither) for it.

Computer Man (1987) is the third musical I wrote in Japan—a Yale guy (and humanities type) finds he has to get on the tech bandwagon or ultimately be consigned to being a “nigger” in society. Thus he purposely takes a job working with computers but finds himself rebelling; as he does so, his skin turns increasingly darker. In the end he asks his colleagues to choose between his way and the machine—and collects a few (though not many) acolytes. (This play was performed the following year in L. A. at the Los Angeles Designers’ Theatre.)

By the way, I’m kind of an idiot savant when it comes to music—I can write some fairly remarkable songs but I can’t sing a note and I don’t play an instrument. (Also, there’s a lot of playful humor in the musicals, so The Water Book isn’t my only attempt at trying to be funny.)

The Cicada’s Song (1995) is a novel I wrote in New Zealand. It’s about a Kiwi kid, 21, who was the son of a labor organizer. His parents are both dead, so he works on the docks in Sydney for a while and when he returns, his younger sister goes off the rails and runs to a brothel in Auckland. He’s off to America to visit an old friend of his father, a black radical in San Francisco. The friend introduces him to a connection in Chinatown and he begins to make money smuggling Chinese into America (banned intellectuals and such) and ends up running afoul of some unsavory Chinatown gangster types.

Meanwhile, a second Kiwi (who’s the scion of a Yugoslav immigrant vineyard owner) and his brainy, clubfooted cousin have their own adventures, start a computer company and get rich. The two stories intertwine. In the end it’s a decade or so later, the first Kiwi has made his (modest) fortune and settled down, his sister leaves the brothel and gets religion, New Age-style, and the vineyard scion is betrayed by his brainy cousin and drops out, goes to the Gold Coast in Australia and lives simply on the beach with an Asian girl. Moral: something like, the key to happiness is to do good (ethically) and live the simple life. (Note: the archive company in Australia putting my books on disc a couple of years back omitted about thirty pages of this novel so there’s a gap. Come to think of it, it’s quite possible that they also may have misplaced my copy of The Art of Basketball.)

The Three-Tiered Society (1997) is a non-fiction look at New Zealand society, written while I was working at a university there. The three tiers: Asians, who at the time were gaining a tremendous economic foothold there, particularly Chinese; European Kiwis, the solid middle class; and at the bottom, Maori (the aboriginal people of NZ) and Pacific Islanders, who were becoming in the main a permanent underclass. Oh, the indignant letters I got back from New Zealand publishers! Priding themselves on their egalitarianism, they claimed no such stratification was taking place, though I could see it clearly. Now, sixteen years later, it’s even more pronounced than before. And still nothing’s done about it. Because they don’t see it? Don’t want to see it?

I hesitate to include the book Love Letter to Japan (2012) here because it’s a personal letter (218 pp) to the people of Japan. I lived there eight years (five years and later three) and was treated with love and respect, unlike in my own land where I had no honor. The book is a mixture of anecdotes about my adventures there, philosophical comments about the differences between America and Japan, and character sketches of people I met, Japanese and foreigner alike. My intention was to have it published in Japanese only and my mentioning it here is only for the purpose of cataloging the work so that it not be lost.

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Other Writings

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

                                                           (a duel

                                                               between

                                                          beak

                                                            and

                                                                body)

                                                                 pull

                                                           and

                                                                stretch

                                                                     like

                                                                 lovers

 

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 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.

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Why I Stopped Writing Poetry

I mentioned in the last post that I didn’t write any poetry after about 1980. I don’t think I gave it much reflection at the time, and in fact don’t even remember being aware of stopping. It seems to have just happened. Now, though, looking back, I see how important that aspect of writing was to me, not only in helping me unearth and express some of my deeper thoughts, but also in acting as a training ground for my use of the language. No one taught me to write, though I did have one or two writing classes in 1967 and attended the Writers Workshop at Cranbrook that year. By that time I’d already written dozens of poems, seven or eight essays, about the same number of short plays, and was well into Radius, my first novel. I was still an amateur, for sure, but largely a self-taught one.

Actually, the very first thing I wrote, as I noted in an earlier post, was a short play for my high school Speech and Drama class. I chose a play only because that’s what the teacher asked for. Buoyed by that experience, I knew I was destined to write but I didn’t immediately follow it up with another play but instead focused on poetry. Only after a solid year of that did I think to write some short plays again.

I think I initially focused my writing on poetry because it seemed easiest—how naive the young! But in the early days, my impressions of life were incomplete and probably mostly incoherent, and since poems didn’t necessarily have to add up to a fully amplified thought but could quite successfully represent a fragment of one—or even just a feeling—they seemed to be suited to my primitive level of development. If I didn’t have a meaningful philosophy (or even understanding) of life at that point, at least I could record stray thoughts and images as they occurred to me. Thus poetry was “easy.”

As time went on I realized that by my own estimation, I wasn’t a bona fide poet because I didn’t have a style—I’d never really developed a “voice” in my poetry. Just a casual look at my poems will show quite clearly that I experimented with many forms—rhythmic and rhyming, freeform, fragmentary, story-telling, you name it. I never hit my stride and settled into a pattern that satisfied me by being a vehicle I could count on to say in more complete form what was on my mind. The novel did. Thus I gravitated toward that—and poetry became an adjunct, an intellectual and emotional outlet for the problematic little intricacies of life. My actual vehicle, I began to think, was the novel.

I say this only in retrospect because, as I mentioned, I didn’t really consider all this at the time. Everything happened organically and without much forethought. Things just evolved and like a new life form, the novel superseded the previous species, though examples of that species lingered quite a while before finally dying out.

In writing a novel, I was disciplined to take a character and an idea to a final and meaningful conclusion, something I wasn’t compelled to do with poems. Certainly there’s a discipline to writing poetry but I didn’t feel the calling to submit myself to it. Maybe I wanted to talk at length, to come to a more considered and comprehensive understanding of people and society, and the novel gave me a better chance to do so.

The poem, it seems to me now, presupposes some of that understanding, and at the time I just didn’t have it. I was playing with words, with ideas, and had little knowledge in the early days of what a person was or what society consisted of. Writing the novel started to give me some sense of that, whereas my early poems were only scattered insights that lacked the kind of unity that would teach me to see that “big picture.” That’s what I gradually discovered about myself—I wanted to see things as a totality; moreover, how did we fit into it? My later poems were longer and better (Sitting in a Room in Oregon, Fog and Rain), but I considered them too introspective to be able to do the work I was interested in doing.

I kept writing poems, I think, as a kind of occasional safety valve, or to write down random features of experience that seemed important to me but extraneous to the book I happened to be writing at the time. Journals also served this function. One might even consider my various poems written over those fifteen formative years as being fragments of an ongoing journal. (I’d like to talk about my journals proper in a later post.)

If poetry served such a significant function for me, why, then, did I stop writing it? Before I answer that, I’d like to consider something first. Was my poetry any good?

I’d like to think I wrote a few really good poems. The majority—well, I’ll leave that for someone else to decide. I think my longer poems, especially, have merit. Four short books mentioned in previous posts were all longer poems or shorter ones linked to a larger theme: Out of the Wilderness, I Am the Sea, Fog and Rain and Sitting in a Room in Oregon. All are reflections on Nature, with the latter three weaving Nature into the fabric of my mood. I won a poetry prize at UCLA with such a poem (written in ten parts), called “Journey Through Earth and Sky.” These Nature poems aren’t bad at all, it seems to me. The rest of them, like I said, I’ll let other people judge.

I stopped writing poems for a number of reasons—none of which I was conscious of at the time, except in the vaguest sense. First of all, I think I finally got a better idea of what life was all about. From the time I started writing until that time, I’d been trying to figure out some meaning to it all. Gradually and with a lot of effort and heartache, my sense of it was becoming clearer. When I was finally able to write Daytona Beach Reflections, which is subtitled, “Thoughts on a New Ethics for America,” I realized I’d reached a point in my development where I thought I could make reasonable sense of life and explicate a general outline of it, a process I’d started eight years earlier with Coming Up Clean, the book of fictional interviews asking Americans what had gone wrong. Those intervening years of work, travel and reflection, not to mention the rigors of a Ph.D. program, helped me to put things together into a unified vision (to my own satisfaction, though I don’t claim to yours).

Secondly, I think I stopped writing poems because I realized that poetry had been usurped by popular singers, and a tuneless poem had no chance of swaying the masses, so to speak. Millions of people could be moved by a song, but how many in the last several generations had been moved by a poem? Who are the great poets of our time (as opposed to famous singer-songwriters)? The futility of my being able to influence the direction of our culture by poetry seemed obvious to me.

Finally, I suppose I jumped ship because I came to see that most of my poems were lamentations—little cries about the difficulties and injustices of life, not just for me but for all of us. Writing Daytona Beach Reflections showed me that I might finally do something about it, not just forever record my disappointments and frustrations. Maybe at age 33 I’d finally grown up. I could wipe my tears and get on with the work at hand, work that I seemed meant to do.

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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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What’s With All the Journals?

It seems I’ve kept more than a few journals in my time—five, by my count. (And by a stretch even this blog itself might be considered one.) Three of these journals are actually diaries of each day’s thoughts and activities (Saharan—crossing the desert on a sheep truck; Mr Bojangles, Dance—the walk across the U.S. with a book for the President; and Voyage— months in a camper lecturing and traveling around America). The other two are less structured and consist mostly of random reflections (Europe Notebook—travels through Europe; and Miscellaneous Ramblings—thoughts while in New York looking for a publisher).

When I look back at them, a few things seem to stand out. First, all were written around a particular theme—a journey. Even the New York journal was about travel, because it was part of a journey and I was just passing through.

A key thing about travel is that every day is different—most of the time I didn’t even know where I’d be sleeping that night. In writing three of the journals, I carried a sleeping bag and slept rough most or all of the time. I think this makes one more vital and creative— the mind is shaken from its lethargy and starts to work overtime in something more like survival mode. This stimulates thought, and in my case that thought begs to be recorded.

In addition, such travel can be supremely uncomfortable—heat, cold, dust, endless walking, insects, stray dogs (or worse, in Africa), carrying everything you have on your back, and you’re never sure there’ll be a decent place to sleep at the end of the day. This is very humbling, and I think it helps one identify more with the suffering in the world, even though you know (or you hope) that you can eventually return to more comfortable circumstances when it’s all over. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be over, and you empathize a lot more with people whose lives are difficult like this on a daily basis—because you are suffering, sometimes hour after hour and day after day.

I don’t think it’s the least bit neurotic to say that although I didn’t enjoy the physical discomfort in the least—I’m no masochist, believe me—I did think such experience was good for me, as a writer and as a person. It increased that well of pathos that we all possess, a well I drew from not only for a better understanding of life but for the very desire to write about it—for when one is too comfortable, where’s the motivation to write? The feelings stirred up by this discomfort, too, demanded to be recorded.

Though I met many people in these five travels—more and varied than you might believe—I was essentially alone. If I stayed in one place for a short time or had a traveling companion, that was the exception. So who does one talk to about all these ideas and feelings that gush constantly and uncontrollably from within like an unholy geyser? And even if someone were there, would they be able to make sense of what I said? Sometimes even I couldn’t at the time. One enters something of an altered state, and for me the best way to make sense of things in that state and to communicate it (or at least record it) is to write it down. I can’t deny the therapeutic effect of this, either. When things build up inside or become overly complex, writing is a great release. I’m not writing for that purpose—by any means—but I do appreciate its salutary benefits. When you’re traveling like I was, sometimes any pleasure at all is welcome.

Finally, I think I’ve learned more about life and the human condition—mine and others’ combined—when I was on the road. Not just the suffering, which I may seem to be stressing too much in this post—only because I think it’s important—but also the fascination, the elation, no, the sheer joy of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and really tasting life in its many forms. I’ve been through fifty-six countries on five continents—not always traveling rough, mind you, though hardly first class—and the pageant of life one witnesses is spectacular. This, also, is worth recording; if not in a journal, then at least as a mental note to be brought up again at a later date for inclusion in (or as background understanding for) a novel.

I wonder what impression someone would have of me if they read all my journals back to back? I could say that the picture wouldn’t be entirely accurate because I was always under the natural stress of life on the road at those times—but maybe that’s the best time to take the measure of someone. Under stress. But I think you might find the journals overly weighted toward the serious side, thus offering an incomplete picture. I don’t know. I haven’t read them for years (and I’m not about to do so now!) so I have no idea of the man they’d portray. Hopefully it would be the essential me—though that’s not my purpose in writing them—but again, because of the difficulty of the situation as I felt it during the writing, at best it’d be only a partial picture.

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