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19 Apr 98

All the Old Letters

A Cataract of Ash

I am now head of an alumni magazine with a circulation of 3300 worldwide, I am chaplain in my student home, and I attend courses at Lebanon Valley College each weekday as part of a special program. I am very proud of my part in this, as I was one of only five seniors selected to attend, and the program is paid for by the school. Last semester I had a 3.67 average at the college.

I am very involved in the music program at my high school, where I participate in the marching band, jazz band, concert band, and New Horizons vocal/intrumental ensemble. I have played trombone from age eleven.

My interests are primarily academic, and I wish to become a professional writer. I have an aptitude in and a love for writing, and plan to pursue this goal until it is achieved.

I am very involved in the music program at my high school, where I participate in the marching band, jazz band, concert band, and New Horizons vocal/intrumental ensemble. I have played trombone from age eleven.

My interests are primarily academic, and I wish to become a professional writer. I have an aptitude in and a love for writing, and plan to pursue this goal until it is achieved.

Company's coming tomorrow, so I cleaned, sorted the books into stacks, swept, and wondered about doing laundry. In the closet, I found a box of disks.

I thought I'd left them somewhere in Alfred. They contain hundreds of assignments, poems, chunks of fiction, and letters, written on a Canon Starwriter 80 word processor. I stopped cleaning, fired up the computer, and began to read.

I remember flattering the quality of my writing--convinced I was a young literary genius, when in truth I was writing shit. Rather than readers, I had victims. I found poems ("Fusion/Has escaped us/Time/Moves in circles"), an agonized letter written to Robert Bly about my spiritual progress, and richly allegorical stories in which young women become wolves.

Not enough has changed. In my collegiate garden of fiction, the lonely, male protagonists alway fight with their lovers. They say shameful things like:

"Why do you have to be so oblivious? I could have loved you with every fucking pore in my body. I could have written you shitty poetry."

What kind of state was I in when I wrote those lines? In answer, the next file was a letter to my high school Driver's Ed teacher, in October, 1993. It read:

I am in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by absolute redneck country, at a University rich in very strange people, of which I suppose I am one. I'm sure you would laugh at the way I dress, and at the way I've cut and dyed my hair. I'm a regular part of the community, hated by some and loved by others. I pierced my nose for a week, but it swelled too much and I had to remove the stud with a paper clip and the help of two friends.

To ask again: what kind of state was I in when I wrote that? The answer: I was an asshole.

Thank God that, before I slashed my wrists over the hopeless prospects for my prose, I found a paragraph with a voice. Nothing splendid, but nothing to burn. It was in a letter to an ex-girlfriend.

A word used to describe me at school is "artsy," which I hate because I study Literature, not paintings, and I hardly know any art students. Another word is "tortured, " but I like that one more. My former boss asked my friend Christine, "Is Paul tortured?" I picture my body bending a rack, stretched out as hooded men whip me with chain-link. My roommate, who is part of Amnesty International, laughed at this image and told me that immersion heaters are inserted into the anuses of torture victims in Central America. I stopped laughing.

And somewhere in there, swimming out from the anguished letters to girls during high school (PROMSHIT.TXT, JENNYWHY.TXT, WHY.TXT), was a file that contained the words "a cataract of ash," and nothing else. Who knows what I was thinking? Some poem about my personal Nile. But the words sound nice together, six years later. Hopefully this exercise in shame, the Subway Diary, will do the same come 2004.

The other was a story in which the narrator tried to figure out whether a girl he knew had actually been raped or not. It was really about a time when I was attacked and badly beaten, and I blamed myself, when everything I wrote was therapy.

She looked at me, smiled. "But the police said there wasn't enough evidence, and I shouldn't try to press charges. That was such a shitty thing. I can't believe it. I can't believe the fucking police." She made fists with her hands. "And even though Tom told me to make one anyway, I didn't file a complaint. I just walked out. That cop, I still remember, he looked at me like...I know it, it wasn't like anything. It was. He was turned on. Fucking bastard." The last two words were like gravel on a chalkboard, and she pounded her right fist into her right thigh. I watched the flesh ripple down her leg. Her palm turned red around where the nails had pressed in. Her left hand was tight on her thigh. She sat across from me on the couch, waiting for a response.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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