Writing

Last of the Outtakes

Here’s one last passage that didn’t make it to the final version of The Grievers. The official publication date is a week from today.

Psycho

Heading back to my office I ran into a fellow grad student who asked how I was doing. Fine, I said, except for the fact that a friend of mine had killed himself. We were riding the elevator, just the two of us. Two lights were out, and a third was flickering over an obscene message that someone had scratched into the paint years earlier. In the mail room, we both peered into empty mail slots and went our separate ways—she to her office on the eighth floor and I to mine down the hall where a man in mismatched shades of black sat waiting for me on a bench outside my door. Back when I was single, I might not have realized that his turtleneck and trousers clashed with each other, but if a year of wedded bliss had taught me anything it was that I should never, under any circumstances, wear two articles of clothing that are nearly the same color. Though I was initially inclined to balk at this rule, Karen set me straight in front of a room full of people when she leaned over a piano and repeatedly struck a high C in tandem with its corresponding sharp to produce a sound reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho. That’s what I was dressed like, she said as all the women in the room burst into applause and the men knitted their eyebrows.

Eyeing the stranger up and down, I made one or two quick passes in front of my office before attempting a final approach. In addition to his dissonant blacks, the man wore army boots and had his hair pulled back in a stumpy ponytail. Though my first guess was that he might be a former student seeking vengeance over a less than stellar grade, a second glance gave me the impression that he might be a sales rep from one of the massive textbook conglomerates that hounded me day and night to use their anthologies. Either way, I didn’t feel a whole hell of a lot like talking to the guy, so I faked to the left and then to the right before dashing into my office.

“Charley Schwartz?”

“No thanks,” I said, closing the door behind me.

“Rick Beecham sent me.”

I opened the door an inch and put my eye to the crack. The stranger was standing now, looking back at me, clutching a moderately thick stack of papers. Behind me the telephone was ringing.

The Myth of “Breaking In”

I was talking to a musician recently, and he mentioned that one question he always gets from young musicians is something along the lines of “How can I break into the music industry?”

My friend’s response was pithy and insightful: “You wouldn’t ask how to break into my house, would you?”

His point was basically that the music industry isn’t something that aspiring musicians need to break into. More to the point, thinking about the music industry — or any industry, for that matter — in terms of “breaking in” is actually counterproductive.

Sure, the phrase “breaking in” is just an expression, but it says a lot about how we think of creative endeavors and the industries that surround them. With respect to the music industry, “breaking in” suggests that it’s a closed system, armed to the teeth against intruders. This mindset places the artist and the industry in direct opposition to each other and creates the impression that the only way “in” is through forced entry, deceit, or some other form of chicanery.

It’s much more constructive, my friend said, to think of the industry as a community — complete with its own rules, language, expectations, and rituals. Rather than worrying about breaking in, the aspiring musician should be making an effort to learn the rules of the community, an endeavor that involves meeting other musicians, talking to them about the craft, and taking every opportunity to participate in that community that avails itself.

Given my own interests, I couldn’t help drawing a comparison between music and writing, and concluding that the same ideas hold true. Whenever I speak at a conference or talk to my students about writing, the idea of “breaking in” inevitably pops up. In fact, I’ve seen panels with names like “Breaking into YA” or “Breaking into Creative Nonfiction” listed on a lot of conference programs. And like my musician friend, my experience suggests that thinking about writing — and even publishing — in terms of “breaking in” can be highly counterproductive. Instead, I’d like to propose that we think of writing in terms of good citizenship.

A good citizen is someone who makes the conscious decision to be a part of a community — to engage with a body of individuals who share common values and goals. Along these lines, a good citizen doesn’t participate in a community solely for the sake of self-interest. Rather, a good citizen recognizes value in giving to the community. In terms of writing, the first thing a good citizen should ask isn’t “What can you do for me?” but, in the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s appropriation of Kahlil Gibran, “What can I do for you? What can I bring to the table? How can we learn from each other?”

For me, being part of a community has meant many things. Blogging, of course, is high on the list. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve met many writers whose work I admire and from whom I’ve learned quite a bit. Along similar lines, reviewing books has exposed me to a wide range of authors and writing styles I would not have otherwise enjoyed.

On a more personal level, joining writers’ groups and getting involved with writing conferences has given me many opportunities to discuss both the craft and business of writing with other writers at all stages of their careers. In short, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if not for the fact that I actively sought out opportunities to participate in the larger community of writers.

Granted, any success I’ve had in terms of writing and publishing has been modest. If you’re shooting for a New York Times bestseller, you’ll probably have to take a more aggressive approach to your writing career. At the same time, though, I’d venture to guess that many (if not most) successful writers got to where they are today not by imagining themselves as outsiders trying to break in, but by actively engaging with the writing community in any way that they could.

A Kind of Jesus Figure

Here’s another passage I had to cut from The Grievers when I changed Charley’s job from being a teacher to being a human dollar sign. Of course, I probably would have cut this passage regardless. I think it’s a little to “meta,” since Charley and his students are discussing his life as if it’s a text they’ve read for class.

A Kind of Jesus Figure

Karen was right. I did need to talk to someone about Billy Chin and Frank Dearborn and everything else that was going on in my life. What she failed to realize, however, was that over the course of the semester, I’d drifted further and further away from the syllabus I’d devised and was spending more and more time talking about my own problems. Billy, Frank, Rick Beecham, Neil Pogue, Greg Packer, Sean Sullivan, Dwayne Coleman. Even Anthony Gambacorta. My students were all more or less familiar with the whole motley crew, and more than a few were working under the assumption that my friends were all characters in a book they’d have to read at some point before the final exam. Among them was a girl named Dana who sat in the front row of my Early American Literature class and always wore military fatigues under a pink and yellow tutu. She played bass for a campus punk outfit called Mommy’s Busy and had, back in September, intimidated all of her classmates into shelling out ten dollars a pop for silkscreen tee shirts emblazoned with the group’s logo. Now a day didn’t go by when at least one of my students didn’t show up for class in a black shirt with a white line-drawing of the mother from Bill Keane’s Family Circus cartoons shooting up in a bathroom stall, eyes crossed, legs splayed, head lolling to one side.

In addition to her military fatigues and fairy skirt, Dana wore sneakers that never matched each other and thick tortoise-shell glasses that made her look like a cross between a cat and a batty old librarian. My guess was that she was no more than nineteen years old, but the smoldering glares she shot at me whenever I interrupted her incessant doodling with petty questions about the texts we were supposedly reading had the world-weary glint of someone who had either spent too many nights sleeping in bus stations or watched enough movies to imagine she had. Though I had no doubt that she’d turn into the kind of corporate stooge she professed to hate within weeks of graduating from college, I tried to tailor every assignment, lecture and class discussion to her cynical tastes. It wasn’t that I was interested in her in a Greg Packer way, but my guess was that if I could win the girl over, the rest of the class would fall into line. She was that cool. Or at least everyone thought she was.

Dana never read, as far as I could tell, and the pages of her notebook were all adorned with intricate and perfectly balanced geometric patterns. Following her advice, three frat boys had gotten their nipples pierced, a sorority girl invested in a septum ring, and an older woman was trying to decide between tattooing her breasts or her buttocks with a pair of barcodes. Sure, some of my more conservative students resented the obvious sway the girl held over my attentions and those of her all-too-eagerly corrupted classmates, but the unspoken agreement between us seemed to be that they’d keep their objections to themselves as long as I kept their grades in the upper B range. So as long as Dana didn’t mind, everyone was perfectly content to drift away from the standard syllabus from time to time to spiral off into the dim, dusty reaches of my personal life. And as long as she and her followers were willing to mistake my own ramblings for a synopsis of the material they should have read the night before, we could all pretend to some degree that my classroom was still a place of learning.

“I think of Billy Chin as a kind of Jesus figure,” Dana said when I called on her the Monday after my dinner with Frank. “Not in a religious sense with God and angels and all that bullshit, but in the sense that even though he’s dead, his spirit lingers on and he wants revenge.”

A handful of students scribbled her observation in their notebooks. Others nodded judiciously. One or two stifled laughs in the back row; apparently they were using their Norton Anthologies as more than doorstops.

“Revenge,” I said. “I like that.”

“Like in that play,” one of the frat boys said. “With the ghost and the guy who’s sleeping with his mother.”

Most of the class nodded vigorously while the students in the back of the room rolled their eyes and slid their books into their backpacks. Apparently I wasn’t fooling everyone, but I had to keep going. After all, I did promise Karen that I’d talk to someone about Billy’s death.

“But who’s the culprit?” I said. “Who has to pay for Billy’s death?”

“Frank?” another frat boy guessed.

I started to nod, but Dana shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she said, betraying her petit bourgeois leanings. “I really don’t see why Frank’s so bad. He’s just doing his job, isn’t he? The same with that other guy.”

“Beecham?” I said. “Are you nuts? Those two are the devil incarnate.”

Dana shrugged. “But they didn’t actually do anything, so you can’t really blame them.”

“Well, no,” I said, looking to the frat boys for help. “You can’t really blame them, but that’s only because the situation transcends blame. We need to examine our assumptions. We need to look at economic factors and think about things like capitalist ideology and the fascist jeu d’esprit. Think about Billy Chin’s entire cultural milieu and ask yourself how people like Frank Dearborn and Rick Beecham might be symptomatic of the larger problems of society.”

By now, any of my students who had so much as glanced through their anthologies had packed their bags and were heading for the door, followed by anyone with a vested interest in catching a few winks before their next classes or hopping an early bus home. The few that remained seated were leafing frantically through their books, searching in vain for some hint that might clue them into the context of the discussion. With words like ideology and milieu thrown into the mix, everything I said was bound to show up on an exam sooner or later.

“But it’s still a tale of revenge, isn’t it?” I said as Dana closed her book and led her minions out of the room. “I mean, Billy still demands vengeance, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,” she shrugged. “You’re the teacher.”