Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

Singing Inside My Garage

Young Norman Mailer
Young Norman Mailer

Craft protects one from facing endless expanding realities — the terror, let us say, of losing your novel in the depth of philosophical insights you are not ready to live with. I think this sort of terror so depresses us that we throw up evasions, such as craft. Indeed, I think this adoration of craft makes a church of literature for that vast number of writers who are somewhere on the bell-shaped curve between mediocrity and talent.

— Norman Mailer
The Spooky Art, Thoughts On Writing

What did Norman mean to say, and should we writers care? I suppose that a person’s answer to this question depends, at least in part, on whether or not the person can separate Norman Mailer the dead articulate egotist from the words he wrote. As well, I think that if you never listened to the alive version of Norman Mailer speak (and yes, dead writers speak, too), then your opinion will likely be more objective than that of anyone who witnessed the man’s bombastic form of untamed courage.

As I write these words I hear raindrops tapping memories on the roof. I’m humming the tune to The Second Time Around. Earlier this morning I practiced my performance inside my garage (great acoustics inside that chamber). When I hum, I am not humble. My version of this particular song puts fellow Sicilian Sinatra’s rendition to shame. My phrasing is better, my approach each time I sing this story is unpredictable, which makes me want to practice that tune tomorrow. If ever you visit my home, I’ll set up chairs inside the garage, shine the spotlight on myself, croon for you, then ask you to dance. You’ll want to say yes, even if you’re the shy type. You don’t need to know my exact address; just listen well the next time rain falls on my rooftop.

But back to memories, the subject of Norman Mailer, the separation of person and story, and the trap that craft can become.

When I was a young undergraduate student, many of my literature professors encouraged me to make a distinction between a writer’s life and my interpretation of what that writer had written. Most times I failed to settle on the separation. After all, how could I — a sex-starved romantic who carried an almost perpetual erection inside his pocket — be expected to ignore Yeats’s yearning for Maud Gonne when he wrote:

A Man Young and Old

My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take;
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck.

Back in those days, I admit that Helen and Hector were not within view of my scope. I was an anti-war protester, experienced in the art of avoiding teargas bombs in Washington, DC, and a part-time singer in South Philly bars. I was also passionate about a long-haired blond girl whose father was a lieutenant colonel with an office in The Pentagon. Yep, I knew how to stir my stew till she bubbled, and then jump in to swim with the meat and potatoes.

So Yeats’s poem, for me, was all about Maud Gonne. W. B. loved Maud almost as much as I loved my Mod Squad Gal; and he wrote poems that compared favorably with my own.

Come to think about it, I guess I was just as much a bombastic egotist as Norman Mailer. True enough that Norman had won a couple of Nobel Prizes by the time I first visited Arlington National Cemetery with Lieutenant Colonel Pop and bemoaned the fallen soldiers there, but my time would come, reverent hands at the ready to grab the check, my storm-beaten breast heaving with my rapid heartbeat.

And Norman Mailer? I still have a difficult time setting aside the crime — however unintentional — that he committed by endorsing and abetting Jack Henry Abbott’s paroled release from prison. Norman abused the power of his celebrity and talent, and that fantastic and ego-bound error of judgment caused the loss of another man’s life.

Regarding Norman’s dreamy view of the role craft plays for a writer, is Mailer fooling anyone with what he said? Perhaps his words trick a few romantic scribblers still green enough to believe in the Jack Kerouac Method of Composition. Straight from the bloody pump. No second thoughts, no self-doubt, no erasures.

Most of us old hacks, however, understand that Norman Mailer was a keen, intelligent Harvard man who honed his craft. He admitted that his earliest efforts were as poor in their commission as those of any beginning writer. And I hear tell that the man could not sing without losing pitch. And no matter that he included the word dance in the title of one of his most miserable books, he couldn’t help but trip his unfortunate partners. Either that or he was indeed a tough guy.

Still, I think Norman made a good point about craft in one important way: a writer can use the issue of craft to excuse his inability, or refusal, to write. I am oftentimes guilty of this sin. I don’t write sloppy first drafts. I feel unable to write a second sentence until I first sculpt and polish the first one.

You just gotta get over that, Anthony. I’ve told myself that so many times, and in so many different ways, that my advice has become a poor poem. I’m an old man now, and old men should understand that wasting time with failed excuses makes for deathbeds encumbered by regret.

So okay, here you have the genuine article: a sloppy first draft of an article with little more focus than that of raindrops, memories of a soldier and a pretty girl, opinions regarding Norman Mailer and W.B. Yeats’s poetry, tales from my garage, and my lack of humility.

Old Norman Mailer
First you live, and then you . . .