Paul Monette
Secrets Kill

I read a lot of books these days, because writing won’t come easy. The fact is that writing won’t come at all.

I’ve grown too old to meet my ancient dreams of publication inside an empty corridor and welcome them with cliched open arms.  At my age, at least for me, dreams move backward in time. You hug yourself in the middle of the night and recreate the past. The second that you begin to wonder why, you switch the scene and imagine a different dream. Sometimes you sleep; most times you just forget.

One hope I entertained when I was in my thirties was to become business-like about, if not immune to, criticism of my writing. A story is no more than a product goes the flatulent wisdom so many gurus dispense to unsuspecting fools and willing customers alike. Push one out and then another. Don’t waste time contemplating a publisher’s unpredictable decision.

Maybe the poor girl felt constipated at the very moment she leafed through your manuscript, unable to relieve herself in time because her boss was in the bathroom, and anyway she had a crush on him and wouldn’t want him to think she had to poop. So instead she pooped on you, but not on you, on your story; because your story didn’t fit. This time. Maybe next time when the crush man isn’t next door dreaming her into bed, while she’s trying to settle her stomach by way of mere wiggling.

So get on with the next story. Forget the first one and the second. Matter of fact, stop counting.

But all of that ersatz wisdom is just empty advice. And too much advice abounds. And yes, I enjoy the word ersatz. Ersatz is art. Pretend is pedestrian.

Scene One: Two potential lovers bump into each other in a narrow corridor. They blush as they brush. Against each other. A slight brush, mind you, because it’s got to be about anticipation. The act itself rarely lives up to the first-draft rendition.

Art Ersatz walked out of the bathroom and into the narrow corridor. He was careful first to let the toilet finish flushing, so she wouldn’t wonder what he had been doing.

She was Pedestal Pedestrian, the slush pile reader. Art hired her just so he could one day blush and brush with her.

When they bumped, brushed and blushed, Art opened his cliched arms.

“Oh, Art! Your arms! I adore your open arms!” said Pedestal.

“You fit within the crux of them today. Want to get published with me?”

“Couldn’t we just anticipate for a while longer, Art? Can I call you Art? And didn’t you mean to say crook?”

“Sure enough, Peddy. But before we meet again, please delete the exclamation points. Exclamation points are verboten nowadays. Frank Conroy used to teach his Iowa Writers Workshop sycophants the sinful nature of exclamation points, although he ran amok with the same inside his arty masterpiece, Stop-Time.”

“Are you finished in the bathroom, cause I really gotta go.”

If I followed guru-given advice, I never would have written that scene. To tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but a lie, I wouldn’t be writing anything at all, because the pronoun I is as verboten nowadays as is Art Erstaz’s elevated exclamation points.

And next march forward the readers, the critical fans, the self-made editors with their own flavors and tastes expressed in one-part harmony.

“Oh, when is something going to happen? You know, happen. No one wants to read literature or poetry, and certainly no twenty-first-century, action-packed, numb-minded reader will accept the notion that writing can be art.

“No, no, no. No art for me. Give me Thomas Harris’s blood-soaked nightmares of frantic female prisoners held in tunneled dungeons by sadistic serial murderers who favor moths and butterflies over real sex. Or better yet, hand me a book by an award-winning nonsense man whose protagonist shoots people in the head with an airgun. Now that would make a great movie, yes. And by the way, can the word film; the notion is affected and the ticket price exorbitant.”

All good advice, and sure to water down the work and relieve a reader’s tension.

So instead of writing stories or otherwise poetic verse, these days I re-read books that once meant much to me.

This past week, I re-read Paul Monette’s Becoming A Man. I first read Paul’s story during the 1990s, when television images of men invaded by viruses resembled the alien forms introduced in 1950s’ Science Fiction flicks of fear. All about the nervousness of nuclear holocaust. While school teachers dressed in polka dot blouses taught us children to kneel and cover our heads when the siren sounded, flying saucers swirled and dipped toward Earth in black and white. Seamless doors swished open, and skinless creatures crept across the swamp and sauntered into suburbia, there to imitate us and at last to conquer our bland existence.

Paul Monette lost. First one lover, then another, and at the end himself.

Becoming A Man, I think, was his final book. And yes, it’s art. And yes, again, the story he told employed the first-person pronoun, as well as all manner of points exclaimed.

But this second time I read Paul’s book not to figure out a virus, nor to visit with an alien. Instead, I read and wondered how and why. How does a dying man — Paul died of AIDS not quite three years after his last book’s publication — find courage, much less reason, for writing about his own deterioration?

I am old now. My death will not likely be so exotic as Paul Monette’s, but just as sure, and equally inexorable will be the passage from now till then. I, however, can find no reason for writing anymore, not about life or about death.

A few days ago, I sat with a friend, cups of coffee and curiosity on the table between us. She told me that she couldn’t live without believing in an afterlife. In times past — distant history — I’d have mocked in silence her faith in such a messy manuscript. Today I admit my envy.

I don’t believe in god or in a heaven or hell, except in those manifestations I see and feel while still alive. So, unlike Paul — and perhaps unlike my coffee-table friend — I chuckle at the notion that from on high I’ll look down to see a man or woman reading a book I wrote. No. What I wanted and failed to produce was a book that I could see held in another person’s hands before I died.

There was a second reason I re-read Paul’s book, another reason that had nothing to do with his sex life or his viral invasion. I read to better understand the nature of keeping secrets. Secrets kill. Secrets kept and secrets revealed; they kill us from the inside out.

I’ve written much about being abused by my mother as a child. And I’ve been roundly criticized for writing about the subject.

First of all, it’s true that many people cannot understand the sheer brutality, the blood and the haunting that follows a person’s footsteps forward and into the grave.

My mother beat me with a strap, tied me down, hung me by the neck until I began to turn blue, bit my hand so hard that she left puncture wounds that resembled those made by a wolf, slapped my face black-and-blue, and then forced me to tighten back the tears for sake of an act to show a visiting neighbor or relative.

But the Brownie photographs with scalloped borders show otherwise. There I sit around a kitchen table with my mother smiling adoration for me and my younger brothers. There I kneel before a sparkling Christmas tree, surrounded by gifts, Lone Ranger’s guns, Mickey Mouse’s ears, Howdy Doody’s freckled face.

And so those of my readers who view those pictures become maddening gurus all over again, dispensing Art Ersatz’s fatuous advice. Leave it in the past, they tell me. How could you possibly limit your writing to such subjects?

Secrets, that’s the how of it. Because although the ranch house, tiny box of a prison, in which I grew up owned open windows, if not open arms, in summertime; although my screams for help soared through window screens; although my face bore the wounds, my eyes the sadness, my heart the hopeless sinking. Although all of that was true, everyone around me decided to honor my mother’s secret, that she was mad.

And how far different from my own forced secret was Paul Monette’s? Two different flavors. Paul’s a Sexual Sahara; mine a Tortured Tarantella. Both a form of suicide.

So I cheer Paul Monette, but not for his preference in lovers. I applaud him for the courage he owned, the courage to can the exclamation points, to forgo the gurus, to put the I inside the art and to write until the end.

In Search of Conflict

Now That’s Conflict!


Three struggling writers, members of a self-absorbed critique group, met on a Monday morning in late September. Desert winds blew from the valley across the hills, bringing with them hot, dry air and temperatures well above ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

Although the group’s host, Charlie The Mechanic, had opened all his house’s windows, and left both the back and front doors set wide to welcome whatever buzzing flies and breezes might chance by, all three scribblers showed sweaty signs of weariness, short tempers and precious little patience for nonsensical criticism.

Rufus Baines used one of Charlie’s greasy chamois cloths to wipe perspiration from his kneaded, thoughtful brow.

Charlie, in an attempt to fan air across his face, waved the pages of his yellowed copy of a Cormac McCarthy novel he’d read and oftentimes tried to imitate.

Stephen King just grinned against the fiery heat, because he was Stephen King.

“Rufus, your story just won’t work,” said Charlie.

“You mean you don’t like it?” said Stephen King.

“No, truth is that I like art. I mean, when I was a kid my mom took me all up and down the west coast of whatever country we happened to be touring, and we visited museums, libraries, pet stores and diners,” said Charlie.

“Pet stores?” said Rufus. “What the hell do pet stores have to do with art?”

“Cheesus, what a scoop of instant mashed potatoes you’ve turned out to be,” said Stephen King. “There’s an art to putting together a fish tank. I once wrote a scene inside one of my massive beach books that featured a Chevron station manager who kept a fifty-gallon tank beside the cash register. And one morning he swung his wrench in an unintended direction –“

“‘Unintended direction,’ I like that phrase, and I got lots of wrenches,” said Charlie. He yanked a spring-bound notebook from his shirt pocket, the pocket that had a patch sewn to its front that read ‘Charlie,’ and with his Bic pen he jotted down the two words before they owned a chance to slip his mind.

“Like I was sayin’,” said Stephen King. “See this gas station manager was aiming to klonk this weedy customer across the head with the wrench, because I knew my readers expected action from me as a prolific author of commercial junk, but then I got this idea to switch my readers’ minds around at the last minute, and so I made the manager miss the guy’s head and smash the wrench into the fish tank instead.”

“Wow, now that’s conflict if I ever heard of conflict,” said Charlie. “No wonder you’re so successful. Geez, we sure are lucky to have you as a member of our group. Want a beer? I got a whole, entire case of yellow American beer inside the fridge that’s in my garage, right next to the TV and the toolbox.”

“Yeah, I’ll take a cool one. Thanks,” said Stephen King. “You know what? I’ve written some of my best novels while sucking down some brew.”

“I’ll go get the beer,” said Rufus. “I remember where your fridge is.”

“Thanks, guy,” said Charlie.

“Yeah, thanks,” said Stephen King. “You’re a champ.”

Rufus lumbered his way to Charlie’s garage. Stephen King took the opportunity of Rufus’s absence to offer Charlie some advice.

“Try not to be so hard on Rufus,” said Stephen King. “He’s one of those sensitive artist types who doesn’t understand what today’s readers want.”

“Demand is more like it,” said Charlie. “You and I both know that people who go to pet stores and beaches and gasoline stations won’t sit still long enough to read subtle works of literature.”

“You’re right about that, Charlie,” said Stephen King. “Literary, worthy and intellectual books belong sitting on the shelves of university libraries just waiting to bore the bejeesus out of kids who would rather be snorting down brew and luring each other into bed than listening to professors talkin’ about William Butler Keats and . . . who was that guy that started all that philosophy crapola back in the time of pyramids and Roman aqueducts? Lucrates, was it?”

“Gallowayo, you must mean Gallowayo,” said Charlie. “Bastards in charge made him eat a poisonous plant fer sayin’ that the planets were all crooked and such. Sheesh, talk about conflict and action. Better even than my man Cormac writing about this guy who was chasing a bundle of cash and blowing away motel clerks, and even women, with an air gun.”

“Just let’s us try to be gentle with Rufus. ‘Kay, Charlie?” said Stephen King.

“‘Kay,” said Charlie. “It’s hot out there today, and that’s tough on a poet, and Rufus– tender soul that he is — he tries his best.”

“Look,” said Stephen King. “I said be gentle, not religious. Let’s not get into a discussion about souls.”

Just then Rufus walked back into the room, set three cold ones on the blond-wood coffee table, sat down and picked up his manuscript.

“So, all right,” said Rufus. “While I was walking into the garage and back, I got to wondering. Tell me what you mean, Charlie, when you say my story won’t work. My skin’s tough enough to take the criticism. Well, not really; that’s a lie plain and simple like. But I want to sell this story to Danger Magazine. So what’s wrong with it? Is my phrasing awkward? Is the melody off-key? Is the poetry too damned modern, derivative and lacking in rhyme?”

“There you go again,” said Charlie. “Sometimes I just don’t get you. I mean, what the hell is phrasing? Aren’t melodies parts of songs on AM radio? And deslipative? Frigging deslipative? Is that why you went to college, so you could lord over us with words like deslipative?”

“Yo. Calm down, you guys,” said Stephen King. “Rufus, it’s none of that. What Charlie and I are trying to tell you is that your story won’t work because there’s no conflict in it. It’s all just description and wandering dialogue.”

“But my main character, Joe, lives a life suppressed. He’s jealous of his neighbor’s brand new panel truck, and he’s hard-pressed to maintain a friendship with Uncle Marty, because Marty’s busy getting drunk like the two of you are getting drunk today. You see, Marty accidentally killed his ex-wife’s child because of booze. And he’s never gotten over that. And if you guys weren’t so damned impatient, I might have gotten to the part where Joe is screwing Marty’s ex-wife Rose, and of course he can’t tell Marty that, and . . . well, isn’t that conflict enough for you?”

“No,” said Charlie.

“No,” said Stephen King.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” said Rufus. “Why not?”

“Your words go too slow,” said Charlie.

“Your story needs a wrench,” said Stephen King.

“Conflict,” said Charlie.

“Action,” said Stephen King.

“Well, ffffff . . . screw you guys,” said Rufus. “I’m leaving this funky old house, and I’m not coming back.”

Rufus walked toward the open door.

“Want a cold one to take with you?” said Charlie The Mechanic. “Or how’s about this here book? You can borrow my Cormac McCarthy. If you read it, you just might come to understand all about action and conflict, and who know’s, you might someday win the Pulitzer Prize.”

“How about taking one of Charlie’s wrenches with you?” said Stephen King. “He’s got plenty, and you obviously are so damned stuck on art of a kind the masses couldn’t comprehend if they showed it on TV that just holding on to a wrench might give you a feel for how a beach book should be built.”

Rufus spit on Charlie’s carpet, and then he left.


In Search of Conflict