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Thursday, November 2, 2000
By Paul Ford
The author comes out of his closet full of books.
Before I wanted to see a girl in her panties, I wrote short stories, all thankfully lost, printing them on lined binder paper. Before I tasted alcohol, I liked to pour Flannery O' Connor and Raymond Carver in with my passions to let them distill through my adolescent mind.
They told stories to reprogram my brain, I believe, and now I want to be like them, and reprogram the brains of others.
Over a decade ago, I bought an anniversary issue of Esquire at a thrift store, 400 pages of stories and essays by Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker - the host of greats that anchored the magazine's childhood. The cover was a painting of all of them at an imaginary cocktail party. My mother and I, sitting at the dining room table, looked over their faces.
Homosexual, she said, pointing. Alcoholic. Homosexual. Dead alcoholic. Alcoholic. Alcoholic. Dead alcoholic homosexual. Alcoholic. Lesbian heroin addict.
She went on, shaking her head at the drunks, shrugging her shoulders at the homosexuals.
I see the pattern, I said, pulling the magazine away from her. Mom wrote stories and poems; Dad wrote stories and plays. Their friends and students wrote limited edition chapbooks, littering our scratched coffee table, each volume numbered in unlimited hope:
This is number out of a limited edition of 300 copies of Summer Song, published by Heaving Lark Press, West Chester, Pennsylvania, October 1985.
If lucky, the sad author, who'd squeezed out his verses on nights after work, writing at the kitchen table to the blue-jean rhythms of the washing machine, could give away a few dozen. If ambitious, he placed copies on consignment in independent bookshops, where the untouched paper binding curled forward and faded as months went on.
After a year, he would quietly stuff the remaining 260 copies into a cardboard box, and store the box with his hopes in a crowded attic, to be uncovered years later by some other soul, dug up after death or divorce, the boxes heaved to the curb for Tuesday pickup, to enter the garbagemen's library.
These authors were my parents' wool-wearing friends, men with beards and women with hairy legs, teachers of English and music, employees at bookstores, weavers, houseparents at private schools. Porches jutted from their rustic homes; their backyards sloped into groves of trees. My father, mother, and I would visit them, and we all sat on wicker chairs in their country nights, conversations punctuated by the grnk of the bug zapper and the meter of the crickets; they drank wine from wooden mugs, and swore educated gibberish:
"When this asshole says the words 'Irish literary experience', and my fists, the, the experience, goddam, Irish, absolute, that fucker. If I would bash his fucking face in."
"Harvard, is that, the Haaaaaaaaaaah-vaaaaaaaaaaahd, come here and tell me about the se-cahn-dary mee-ah-ning in Edith Wharton. Silver-spoon, gah, damn."
"Norman Mailer, I'll show you, that, fucking. Bastard."
In their houses, as in ours, among the lumpy ceramic sculptures and jade plants, the typewriter was the shrine, the costly, lumbering Olivetti Speedball or IBM Selectric. Before I turned 12 and we got the computer, our gray Olivetti would break down once a year, and my father would lug the steel hulk into the back seat - not the trunk - of our maroon Dodge Dart and drive it to a house at the end of a dirt road, where a wiry, acid-dropping repairman kept a garage stacked with old electrics and manuals, his workbench heaped with mayonnaise jars, each jar brimming with a different kind of metal disc or spring. Spare letter-keys were scattered across the floor; blue light streamed through greasy four-paned windows, to bounce off oil cans. A calendar hung to the right of a bathroom door, bare-breasted women touching expensive cars.
"Whadya think of that?" my father asked me.
Our typewriter shrine was on the top floor, papers scattered around a heavy desk, rejected manuscripts in the drawers, the varnish rubbed off the wood where my father's wrists touched, the small room laden with folders of my mother's poems about motherhood and my father's plays about Korea. With the vibrations of that attic pouring down the stairs and filling my ears, the percussive smashing of the type ball into thin paper sinking into my bones, with the hovering spines of books on shelves, on tables, in beds, and with my parents lost in their private collection of sadness, what choice did I have but to write stories? They asked me what I wanted to be, when I was 6, and I said "writer," in a pippy voice, my hair cut close to my head, wearing a striped pullover shirt.
"Like your father," said the interrogator, some visiting stranger.
"And like his mother," my mother said.
2 decades later, I still want to be a writer, and I have decided this evening to come out as one, on this web site. I have an agent to represent me; I have money saved to live for a few months; I have stories outlined and pages written. I will try to publish short stories and articles in good magazines, and then I'll try to publish novels. I want to create something better than myself out of words, become that thing I created, and then repeat the process, and watch the spill of language, the waterfall of lexemes with its source in the chemical rubbings of my synapses, pouring through the nerves to my fingers, then across the screen, just as my father's rattling typing from the attic poured through the house.
The odds are that I am not among the greats. This is fine; there may be no bridge between this essay and Death In Venice; I may never fathom the layers and resonance of Thomas Mann or Henry James. But there is also room for my ignorant, Brooklyn-bound self somewhere in the miles of hopeless shelves at Barnes and Noble. And if there's room for me, there's room for you, if you are similarly inclined.
You and I carry a rough model of all human expression in the form of the alphabet, each letter an artifact of ages, shapes echoing the Phoenician, Greek, and Carolingian forms, each curved protruding "p" as much a piece of history as a tomb. We carry grammar as a birthright, according to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. We were born for this. Settle, says my voice, speaking to my seething, nervous mind, settle, and focus, and write.