Secrets

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.

Finding Forrester In The Evening

William Forrester
"The firsht rule is that a writer writesh!"

Two films with writers as central characters, same silly story.

Finding Forrester, 2000

Sean Connery plays brilliant, Pulitzer-Prize-winning, washed-up author William Forrester. Featuring yet another great hairpiece for Sean, that and his ever sexy lishp.

Rob Brown plays God-given talent Jamal Wallace, kid from the streets of New York who dribbles a mean basketball and rat-a-tat-tats an even meaner set of typewriter keys. Of course, no one knows the answer to the age-old question, “Are writers born inside a bubble made of miracles?” But after watching this film, your insides are sure to swell with the resounding answer “Yes! By God, yes!”

Conflict point numero uno (all good stories require seemingly insurmountable conflict points, right?): Sean Connery Forrester — and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this production could have earned much cash if say, Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin played our aging author — and Jamal, oh what a perfect up and coming name made in Liberal Heaven, Wallace meet by chance. If memory serves me well, Mr. Pulitzer finds himself in possession of the kid’s backpack, and the kid wants the backpack back.

Jamal requests Forrester’s help, although his strong sense of dignity forbids the possibility that he beg for such assistance. Mr. Hairpiece resists. We the audience, especially we writers in desperate search of inspiration, know that Sean William Forrester suffers the dread disease known to authors from F. Scott to Capote to Lil’ Ole Us as Writers’ Constipation.

Forrester has for so long born this backup that he’s become a recluse (another oh-so-original idea regarding burned-out and all-but-forgotten scribes).

I refuse to include a spoiler here, but one pivotal scene requires, yes requires that I comment. Sean Pulitzer sits before his typewriter. Jamal Meanstreets sits at his typewriter. The two stunning authors face each other. Sean begins to tap tap tap. Jamal hesitates. Sean asks Jamal, “Whatshthematter?” He goes on to tell Jamal, “The firsht rule for a writer is that a writer writesh!”

Oh, woe is I? That before watching this film I wasted so much of what might have otherwise become my stellar career seems an unintentional mortal sin! After all, I coulda’ been a contenda’.

Starting Out in the Evening, 2007

Early In The Evening
"You want to bed my mind?"

Frank Langella plays brilliant, washed-up author Leonard Schiller whose books are out-of-print. No fine hairpiece or sexy lishp featured in this one, just a flabby old man who still owns a well-toned mind, but we are treated to a hidden away photograph of Frankie, aka Leonard, when he was young and irresistibly hunky.

Lauren Ambrose plays God-given talent Heather Wolfe, rich, cute and erotically inspirational child (as in makes even an old man want to bed her for sake of the afterward intellectual conversation) from the mean quadrangle of your typical Ivy League University who hugs you because she loves your intellect and records the depth of a washed-up author’s personality in one helluva Masters Thesis. Of course, no one knows the answer to the age-old question, “Are writers born inside a bubble made of miracles?” But after watching this film and juicing up over Heather’s sensitive flesh, your insides are sure to swell with the resounding answer “Yes! By God, yes! I think I’m coming!”

Conflict point numero uno (all good stories require seemingly insurmountable conflict points, right?): Frank Langella Schiller — and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this production could have earned much cash if say, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman played our aging author — and Heather, oh what a perfectly delicate name made in Hubba Hubba Heaven, Wolfe meet by less than chance. If memory serves me well, Heather Hubba Hubba pursues Frankie, slithers first into his confidence and then into his bed (just to stare, not to touch, mind you) in order to commit research for her thesis.

Heather requests Schiller’s help, although her strong sense of dignity almost forbids the possibility that she beg for such assistance. Mr. Flabby resists. We the audience, especially we writers in desperate search of inspiration, know that Frank Leonard Schiller suffers the dread disease known to authors from Hemingway to Hellman to Lil’ Ole Us as Writers’ Constipation.

And of course, Schiller has for so long born this backup that he’s become a recluse (another oh-so-original idea regarding burned-out and all-but-forgotten scribes).

I refuse to include a spoiler here, but one pivotal scene requires, yes requires that I comment. Leonard Langella sits before his typewriter. Heather Hubba Hubba sits in the next room over, yet engaged in intimate contact with her mentor’s soul, pad of paper and magic pen in hand. The two stunning authors face each other through the ether. Leonard begins to tap tap tap. Heather hesitates. Leonard asks Heather, “What? You want to go to bed with me? Flabby old brilliant moi?” He goes on to tell Heather (with his soulful stare and not with words, mind you), “Well, all right, but remember that you cannot always interrupt me this way, because the first rule for a writer is that a writer writes!”

Oh, woe is I? That before watching this film I wasted so much of what might have otherwise become my stellar career seems an unintentional mortal sin! After all, I coulda’ been a contenda’.

So why do I call these stories silly? And why if I thought them silly did I watch them?

Second question answered first (this is a favorite trick that we writers born carrying the burden of God-given talent employ; it’s called Reverse Agitation).

I’m a sucker for a story about writers, even writers whose sexy lishps, Hollywood hairpieces and flabby bellies belie the reality of a writer’s boring life. After all, and as I already said, I coulda’ been a contenda’. And yet I’m not.

First question answered next.

In neither of these two films are we allowed to see or read the supposedly exquisite, award-winning and poetic prose that any of the four main characters wrote. I oftentimes tap away, or scratch pen point onto pad of paper, but somehow my writing isn’t award-winning material.

Oh woe is I! Maybe I should have been born tall and quick enough to dribble a basketball, or sexy enough to bring brain-dead authors back to life just by suggesting that they go to bed with me.