This is what it is like for me on this Thursday morning sitting and waiting around–without coffee–for my 930am class:
I have come to the idea that I my process is so completely erratic and unpredictable and I wonder if I can sustain a long narrative without forgetting beginning points and narrative threads. Here I find myself on Ch 20 of the Cornbread Project and in the middle of teaching 6 classes–yes, 6 classes–and I find myself forgetting what the intro and 1st chapter were about. I find myself rereading not for proofing but for characters names and threads–consistencies in the narrative. I thought I was like Ray Carver in his book of essays Fires–I thought I didn’t have the head for longer narrative and that my sensibilities leaned towards the sprint.
And I have never been one like Stephen King who condones and offers sitting and writing for hours on end every day of the week sequestered away so one can write. But today and only today as I think about photocopies and page numbers and discussion points/ideas and logisitical bologna, well today I feel that I could almost walk away and be satisfied simply to have 5 consecutive hours or so to sit and write and finish the damn manuscript as I do have some substantive thought on plot and direction for characters. I mean I have these imaginary and partly real people in my laptop and I want to finish their stories. As I get older the more and more I understand in writing and in myself the more I wish I could be like some tenured people here and ‘not come in on thursdays’!
I first read Yates’ Revolutionary Road years ago–maybe back at Colorado State. I had been reading as much Richard Ford as I possibly could after reading Rock Springs and Independance Day and in one of those books–in the forward–he lists Yates as the most underappreciated writer in America and I wanted to see if this were true and so I picked up his collection of short stories and Rev Road at the bookstore. I remember I read them outside of assigned reading. I had finished reading a bunch of Salinger and also Cheever and Yates was in that post-war style yet the novel Rev Road is wider in scope and breadth. The writing is less romanticized than Salinger and perhaps more crafted and layered than Cheever. At least in my small reading view.
What struck me about the movie version I saw last week with D was how April was drawn and how the community was the focus of the book–at first I thought this different than the book and after going back to the text I see how the screen adaptation was right on target. The Wheeler’s and the neighbors and everyone in the book make up this community of the complacent–the suburban mediocrity that is safe and pleasant but also turns to kill individual identity. After the film and the book I’d like to go back to Yates’ life and see if his life was similar in dreaming and hoping for time to write instead of time with the family. I wonder if April was drawn after his own wife–as in auto-fiction.
I also want to mention how I heard in a DVD commentary of Seinfeld that the grumpy writer in Season 1 who is Elaine’s old man was based on Richard Yates after Larry David dated his daughter. –Why is this important? I don’t know but I want to get it down so I remember in this journal.
In between prep time for school and my own research of Cornbread I’ve been reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. I like to read at it slowly before I get to sleep at night–keep it close to the bed. I found the book in Barnes and Nobles, not in non-fiction, but in the special interest section–not biography–which I find odd. And I was surprised to see how Hunter S. sympathizes the subjects of the book. Seems odd because in the documntary of Hunter S. I watched a few months ago called Gonzo: the Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, Hunter S. discusses the person/mythos of the gang and the sensationalizing going on in the press at the time–this reminds me of Didion and her analysis of the youth in San Francisco of 1966. Yet unlike Didion, Thompson sees a movement and a positive note/experience.
And I also see how the writing is so much more straight than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or even Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail–those books seems like such craziness of form and analysis. So much making up of characters and observations–but in Hell’s Angels the reporting is straight-forward and dare I say objective. More of what I think of straight recording or reporting rather than creating story–more capturing than distorting. Hunter is not the story and the subjects are his story and that is odd compared to later books. I guess he learned to push the perception or the persona further.
And I was able to bring up Hunter S. in my Comp class this term. Specifically ‘the wave speech’ from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In comparison to Slouching Towards Bethlehem the wave speech is such a contrast to how Didion viewed San Francisco in 1966. I wonder if Hunter S. romanticized the experience the way he fictionalizes all of his subjects or did he just enjoy it more on drugs. I mean in Slouching, Didion repeatedly turns down weed and acid whiel I can’t imagine Hunter S. turning down anything.
The first book by Kerouac I read back in the day of Colorado was Dharma Bums and the long romantic descriptions of travel and release from who you are in exchange for who you want to be caught me by surprise. I won’t go in to where I first read it but then I read On the Road and then the Subterraneans–then I read Town and the City after a few abandonments but then I read Maggie Cassady and then Tristessa. I read most of Kerouac’s work. I love these books so much. And in a way I find myself so fortunate to be able to teach On the Road in the novels course. I try to speak calmly and stay professional but I want to be able to explain anecdotally how the writing spoke to me and saved me really in the way only a few books have–back in the day when I was a young moco and full of sadness and anger. Only Salinger and Jack London saved me from my own horrible thoughts as a kid. I hate to say it but the stories and language was so accessible to my young mind I find myself lost in the stories–so immersed in Kerouac’s journal-like writing and travels. To travel without ammenity or comfort was romanticised but also presented filled with possibility.
Since those early readings I have been lucky enough to travel to New York State and City as well as the West Coast–Riverside and Pasadena for work and of course Oregon and Washington while in school. (I only seem to have missed the south–New Orleans and Texas. Southern Illinois down to the Kentucky border along the Ohio river is the farthest south I’ve traveled.) Oh and I have never travelled to Europe though thanks to Stine I have received postcards nor have I travelled down south to Mexico–I’ve only been as far south as San Diego.
And as I write this I feel this text may not have a failed audience in my class. On Friday I was late for a 3pm meeting because my students were excited about Kerouac’s On the Road–or at least a few were. They seem to be attracted–or at least by my lecture–to the irrational. I find Kerouac’s writing interesting for the idea that his character Sal seems to choose the irrational because he was human–including Dean Moriarity as a friend and brother even though that might be the most irrational friend to choose. I tell my students that we are human and make decisions of love and passion and not just common sense or of self gain–status. Sometimes the mad or irrational people are the most interesting to follow. I can name quite a few decisions in my life where I have chosen the irrational–chosen the uncormfortable. Perhaps that is why I love this book so much.
A few summers back I found myself in San Francisco after an incredible train ride across the country and found CIty Lights Bookstore the famous meeting place of my favorite Beat writers. I was in San Francisco for two days and went there each of those days to sniff around the basement and the second floor where the readings take place. And I’ll never forget but up on the third floor I found the back window open and a homeless man screaming as some restaurant owner was asking him and then ordering him to leave. The man kept yelling he was a man and that noone should order him around. He sounded crazier and crazier and I loved it–the spirit or the voices of the world came in from the window to my polite quiet self browsing books and the cheesy, touristy posters.
Still feeling as if writing and reading does not matter to my students this morning with only one cup of coffee in my belly. But I am starting to lighten up with the worry. Starting to let it go. I felt the same way about math and science back in the day. What do I need to learn this for I would think in Life Science class and even chemistry and biology. (It wasn’t until I read CP Snow’s the Two Cultures that I started to think about the way I think and they way academia is organized.)
But as a teacher and writer I am frustrated with the differing skill level. I have only a few students who swim with Joan Didion and love more advanced essays–others resist the length and depth of the essays. But I am a believer in giving them more advanced work. Maybe I am selfish. And I am more and more wanting to go over material that interests me in class. Probably why I dropped fiction from the 112 course and picked up only creative non-fiction. I love fiction but I feel the non-fiction serves them better and I also make them write a similar literary analysis. I find myself wanting to have those discussions more and more. Discussions of literary journalism and discussions of interviews and also discussions of persona and analysis of fictive elements applied to non-fiction or factual writing.
But I worry if it is too advanced for the student here. D says don’t worry about it–like Mike Rose argues they will rise to the level you set. Like Stand and Deliver–calculus to high school students in order to better serve them. And I do feel they need to experience different sorts of texts and appreciate what we read in RollingStone and Outside magazine–what I read in Hunter S. and also Didion.
Like Hugo states, every minute of class I am unintentionally trying to make them write–and I assume also read–like me. So maybe I will move into next week and the discussion of Chuck Palahnuik’s Stranger Than Fiction collection of essays with hope. Hope they will appreciate just how much I obsess over these classes and the content–the course schedule.
In a few of my classes yesterday the discussion of the importanceof art and writing has come up. Mostly from the article “Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia which was the reading assignment. My students argued that poetry is not important to them and in my composition class we are reading creative non-fiction–specifically Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and as I read their reader responses I am finding the same ideas–writing is an irrelevant act to them. Reading seems to be an irrelevant act. Something that confuses them. Not about theme or meaning or even structure of the writing. But mostly, they write, why would someone write this or read this? I have a handful of responses in front of me that add up to, who cares about this.
In poetry class they admit to only taking the intro to lit course that is required and only in the poetry section because it fit their schedule. And I feel that they might also believe the writing of poetry to be a irrelevant act.
And as the energy gets sucked out of the room after a long hour of classtime I feel the same–can my teaching or writing matter?
Now, I know these thoughts are just thoughts that come with teaching. Who is listening and who is reading? Am I doing some good here? Now I have a paycheck and a nod from the department with tenure at a teaching school which is confounding to me that I have these bad thoughts. And I am hopeful the problem is just one of motivation and I have work on that. Can I sit at my computer or at my desk and will myself to be hopeful enough to write despite the fact I really think no one reads much or wants to understand much–only course credits and degrees that serve status instead of identity or expression.
The essayist Jose Antonio Burciaga–who I find myself more and more reading and re-reading–explains in his essay called “the Last Supper of Chicano Heroes” not only the importance of studying particular Chicano writers and artists–and finding personal heroes–but also the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspiration to the American Chicano movement.
He writes that the idea for the essay was inspired by his work on creating a mural with the same title. And he mentions the mural is on display at Stanford University and I’d like to be able to see it in person one day rather than off of the internet. Anyway he goes on to explain the idea led to his polling Chicano students and teachers to find a list of heroes. After I reread this essay I started thinking about those who inspire me to write and think.
Right now I can think of two: Howard Zinn and Lolo.
My students seem upset when I insult or discount heroes that our culture gives us, namely Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. I used to argue with the ex-girlfriend pretty aggressively about Thomas Jefferson– a man who called Indians ‘savages’ in the Declaration of Independance. In fact, throw in any one of those guys on Mt Rushmore. They don’t impress me much. Once Tucker Carlson on Crossfire or some such show went on and on about Teddy Roosevelt and what a bad ass he was. Something about swimming a certain amount of miles everyday. And I could only think of him charging San Juan Hill in segregated units and not allowing any soldiers of color in the famous photo after the fighting. Champion of strenuous life my ass. And of course I do understand moral relativism and the question of morality applying to history.
Like Howard Zinn I find it hard to gather inspiration from leaders who have had so much written about them–who have had a certain amount of wealth or priviledge. People I just can’t relate to I guess. Like Zinn I group them in with Columbus and Paul Revere who have had their legacy written by poets and fiction writers–historians with a certain bias or limited cultural worldview. So I try to give my students and course work a post-structuralist spin. They seem to be upset and question this. And I defend myself–I didn’t mean to say Lincoln was a bad guy, I say. I just said he didn’t free the slaves. To say he did is an insult to the abolitionist movement. The 14th Amendment did the work and even then the problems didn’t end. Well, I like him, they say. And of course in Springfield, Il it is very dificult to get away from the Lincoln legacy. I mean his picture is up everywhere including el Presidente Burrito down the street from where I write this–the place closed but the picture remains.
And I also ask my students will we think of George Bush as the liberator of Iraq in 100 years. Wait, don’t answer that.
But Burciaga writes very powerfully about Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Luis Valdez. Writers and thinkers I appreciate more and more. He writes they received the most votes from students and instructors in CA. He also writes that La Virgen de Guadalupe also received quite a few votes. Also students voted for family and “all the people who died, scrubbed floors, wept and fought so I could be here at Stanford.” This is why Lolo is on my list.
But here on MLK Jr. day I think of how MLK Jr. argued with his father about attending college and about travelling to Alabama from Atlanta. How his father told him to stay away to keep himself and his family safe and how he went anyway. I think about the pride I will feel when Obama is sworn in to office. How for at least the ceremony I will suspend my pessimism and my grudge against those men of authority and control and I will be hopeful and optimistic.
I remember my Abuelita on those summer trips. I remember fall and the smell of burning tires. Those summer trips out of Huerfano and out to the San Luis Valley. Not my father’s mother but my mother’s mother. They had me during some of the summers of my youth and drove me out to La Veta and Alamosa in their Mercury Cougar. A wide tan nightmare of a car. They didn’t drive for work—to work in onion fields or pick pinon. They didn’t drive to camp or fish. They just liked to drive and I could sleep in the back as they drove and I watched the sky and clouds. The backseat of that Mercury was like a sofa bed to my 12 year old frame. They were such different folks than my father’s people. They didn’t pack lunches and didn’t bring water or coffee with them. They didn’t worry about gas money or and weren’t in a hurry as we traveled. They didn’t sleep with family along the way because they slept in motels in clean beds—they ate in restaurants and diners. They bought me arrow heads and Indian necklaces—sun catchers and posters for my room. They had their clothes in luggage and plastic sheets from the dry cleaners. The old man wore a sport coat and she always wore pearl necklaces. They made me brush my teeth and put on clean clothes every morning—they made me shower everyday. The Grandfather worked in the steel mill but he was a foreman—wore a white hat to work and made twice as much money as the Abuelitos on Spruce. Their car was twice as big as the Abuelito’s. And they never argued either. The Grandmother used to put her feet up on the dashboard and smoke her long lady cigarettes and complain and yell at her husband but this woman never smoked or said a word over her husband. And they seemed to share their money and didn’t hoard it from one another. And sometimes they held hands and even hugged at the view of a scenic overlook or when the sun was coming down and the purples and turquoises blended into the land at the end of the day. They had cameras and notebooks to capture the day. They wanted to remember every part of their trip. They took my picture and wanted to remember me. They wanted to remember those trips.
I picked up a book by Nick Hornby a few weeks ago in Barnes and Noble. I had time to waste because of my tiresand my car–a long story– and I enjoyed How to Be Good and also Hi-Fidelity and About a Boy so I read a few of his essays and they read more like blog entires than essays and that made me feel good. I also liked the story “Nipple Jesus” that was in a collection of British writers a few years back. I also enjoy his blog. Anyway I like the way he swims in his essays between books–hi-brow and lo–and music and popular culture. Not quite intellectual but very real. And he has great taste in music. In his essays and things he lists movies and books he has read.
And what I enjoyed finding was the list of abandoned books he includes every month. And at least every other month he has one or two abandoned books. Failed readings, he calls them. I have many of those myself I am afraid to talk about. They sit there on my shelf or in my bag and I imagine they sneer when I bring in new books from work or from a used bookstore.
My latest abandoned book is Tree of Smoke. I was so upset at the review a year ago in the NYTimes but 150 pages in I lost something from the prose. Another abandoned text I am sure I will return to. But it is hard to when you have to reread Kerouac and Bukowski for a class and also when you find Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels at the bookstore or when you also find Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. I also have movies I have not finished from NetFlix and I don’t feel as bad about those films as I feel bad about those books.
I know I will complete Johnson’s book over time–I do have it on tape as well though I listen to Rachel Maddow’s podcast during off times–but failed reading seems to go hand in hand with failed writing. Perhaps Johnson would forgive me if he saw the inch of progress on the Cornbread Project.
After a grand total of one hour of research in the Pueblo Rawlings Library, I finally found some pictures of Cornbread. I have been dying to see his face again and see his eyes and I wanted to post them here. And the failed spirit wins out for a new year I guess. Of course the camera I have been using does not have a flash and the pictures didn’t come out. So I have no pictures of Cornbread but I hope I can put together some prose home movies to give Cornbread a fictive face as the Cornbread Project continues into Ch 18 and 19. I also returned to a manuscript I began way back in 2003 while in New York State. That one is called the Ballerina project and I have about 34 pages on that and I am hoping to get another few chapters on that ever since the bug hit me to return to that.