You’ve likely seen the late-night talk show bit before: Their “man on the street” (read: charismatic intern or witty sidekick) conducting random, sidewalk interviews, the topics of which your average, at-home viewer would have some knowledge or awareness—elementary-level history…a geographic softball…pop-culture trivia. The edition I have in mind is a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live over the past year or so, wherein participants are asked to simply name a book. Any book.
Yes, yes: The video has understandably been edited to highlight the more dopey pedestrians, and as a vox-populi viewer, I too chuckle as the participant struggles against the straightjacket restraints of fleeting recollection; but the composition also accentuates a suspicion (and corresponding, inextricable malaise) I’ve harbored for quite some time: that our audience is not only dwindling, but writers are either fawning on or searching for an unknown audience that is increasingly indifferent. As such, I have in mind a piece of a passage from Eudora Welty’s 1965 essay, “Words Into Fiction”:
[W]riting fiction, which comes out of life and has the object of showing it, can’t be learned from copying out of books. Imitation, or what is in any respect secondhand, is precisely what writing is not. How it is learned can only remain in general—like all else that is personal—an open question; and if ever it’s called settled, or solved, the day of fiction is already over. The solution will be the last rites at the funeral. Only the writing of fiction keeps fiction alive. Regardless of whether or not it is reading that gives writing birth, a society that no longer writes novels is not very likely to read any novels at all.
Aside from my cooking endeavors in culinary school, my life is notably absent of a dossier for having been an academically stellar student. Yet (along with heavy metal), books—even when I was not consistent about a readerly accumulation of pages in the later phases of adolescence (I was, for a time, deeply steeped in illustration, music, and the absorption of film)—have been a companionable constant; and although I submit the preceding paragraphs with mild irritation, it’s braided with an underpinning humility. I am, to be grievously commonplace, grateful to have been provided modest quarters from which to communicate my fiction over these past ten years—the fiction being a manifest repercussion of my objective admiration of stories and their creators.
As I’ve consciously navigated these literary tributaries over the course of my adult life, the arteries and thoroughfares have repeatedly led me, and returned me, to horror. And so before I continue, I’ll supply a name-a-book assist for those pitiful souls on the street. I’ve even provided some delineation as to the most tangibly formative phases of my life and the books that compelled and indelible alterations to my creative habits:
Phase One (earliest memories): Instillation
Phase Two (elementary and middle-school years): Dependence
Phase Three (adolescence): Transience-Insolence
Phase Four (young adult years): Independence
Recently, while conducting a freelance class for client, someone casually asked what I wrote in my spare time. Across disparate, overlapping discussions within the room, I said, “Horror.” Mishearing, they (with no small amount of jocular shock) responded, “Porn?”
A hiccup of hesitation—a feeble, straightjacket clamoring for clarification. I chuckled, this time projecting the word with precision. Horror. There was a moment of, perhaps, evident disappointment—as though the prospect of such a salacious avocation were of higher conversational value than the discipline of a genre category like Horror: “literature’s,” wrote Straub with a fair amount of irony, “wretched slum.” As the dialogue began to dissipate, I even admit to desperately term-dropping (with no small amount of capitulating shame, mind you) “literary” and “elevated horror,” with the intent of bringing some validating gravitas to my craft.
I’m still uncertain what my writing-product is considered. I can, subjectively, term it whatever I wish, but it’s ultimately a determination of my audience and my critics. My goal (sometimes engineered, though often jarringly organic) is to create stories that are braided with difficult-to-define helices. An example would be something in the narrative and aesthetic effectiveness The Reflecting Skin (1990), not only one of my north-star films but a centrally formative creative compositions.
Nevertheless, while I continue to dwell on what the hell my thing is, the mere ambition and pursuit of writing for publication has been further complicated this coterie-based designation. The result is a habit of contrarian withdrawal: The closer I list toward one designation or another, I sense a shift in not only my personal habits, but also the sites of intrinsic excavation.
In all its chimeric characteristics (and no disrespect to Mario Vargas Llosa), one of the more hackneyed adages is that the discipline of writing is a form of exorcism. It’s true, of course; but frequently, I’ve unearthed things in my own digging—wandered into curious corners in the catacombs of reflection and appraisal. I have no regrets, but it does elicit the compulsion of more work: Self-assigned homework which often compels some ugly calculus.
Which demands not only isolation but profound methods of balance in order for “work” to take place; too, within this self-imposed, though necessary isolation, comes the often self-defeating business of an inner voice that is not always coherent. “Society is all but rude,” wrote Andrew Marvell, “[t]o this delicious solitude.” But perhaps it’s more helpful to listen to Hermann Hesse’s hyperaware Harry Haller in Steppenwolf—an awareness that emerges in those who accept “no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”
It’s lonely work, in other words. Work and exertion that demands an unceasing scramble as we seek fecund balance.
I imagine I have saved quite a bit of loot in my private writing endeavors—those early morning examinations that, I say with no small amount of insolence, go nowhere (when we intuit that they not futile). More than that, I have come to understand, and be grateful for, the benefit of exchanges with other writers, some of whom often fill in as impromptu therapists. These dialogues, on occasion, reveal infrequent covetousness that, left undiscussed, bears the potential for a distracting variety of corrosiveness.
I like to believe I’ve held up on my part of this unspoken bargain, offering help where I can, camaraderie where it’s perhaps lacking, all while attempting to maintain meaningful correspondences. Though distance itself could be considered a drawback, I’ve found that, over the past few years, maintaining a correspondence across “place” has fortified a sense of devotion as the habit plays to counter inconvenience.
One of the more rewarding activities to which has proven a network proclivity is the exchange of books—perhaps a rather mundane activity in the estimation of some, but it has provided a dependable pulse in the isolated landscape of this often solitary discipline.
It was a coincidence that I was reading one of those friend-gifted books at the time of Dennis Etchison’s death. “Only after the failure of consciousness can the dream come,” Etchison writes in his introduction to Cutting Edge. “It is at this edge that change takes place.”
In this, Etchison mentions one of Kenneth Patchen’s lines in Sleepers Awake: “It’s a long way to the morning, but there’s no law against talking in the dark.”
Etchison shares a touching anecdote about a series of correspondences he’d had with Kirby McCauley. “[McCauley] taught me that I could, after all, survive without altering what I wrote, and that I was not alone on the rock.” / “This book, then is my offering of gratitude to those who have made the fever dream of safe harbor a reality.”
As journalist Anneli Rufus wrote in 2003’s collection of essays, Party Of One, “For loners, friends are all the more essential because in many cases they are our sole conduits to the outside world. They are channels, filters, valves, rivers from the outback to the sea. When we find good ones, we pour ourselves into them.”
And it’s in these friendships (casual or continual) that I have found most valuable byproduct over these past ten years of publishing stories—as I continue to shakily navigate daily productivity, my desire or dismissal to adhere to genre labels, my vacillating regard for status—and it’s in these kindred companions that provide the most sober galvanism…a little lantern light in those sinuous, subterranean conduits—some oxygen in the catacombs.