Influences

Roped In: Oscar Wilde’s Influence in Art and Crime

In this clip Matt Baume delves into the history of the 1948 Hitchcock film “Rope,” which was based on the real-life Leopold and Loeb muirders.

What particularly caught my interest was the description of the miscast Jimmy Stewart as “the Oscar Wilde character,” Rupert. The stage play, on which the film was based, was set in London. The film changed the setting to New York. Rupert was an aesthetic professor who introduces his protogees, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, to Nitetzsche’s philosophical notion of the Superman. Two of Rupert’s students were especially taken with the idea that some people are superior to others and that murder is, therefore, justified. For Rupert, the theory is a thought exercise, a bit of mental play. The students, however, decide to take the theory to what they believe is its logical conclusion. They kill a fellow student believing Rupert will be impressed by their work of art.

This led me to reflect on whether, and how much, art imitated life when it came to Oscar Wilde and his artistic fascination with criminality. Could Wilde’s theories have served as a justification for real world crimes, in particular crimes by one young member of the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe. Schwabe went on to be a major player (perhaps even ring leader) in a circle of international confidence tricksters who were suspected in at least one murder.

A number of young artists described encounters in which Wilde encouraged them to, at least imaginatively, throw off social convention and embrace a thrilling lawlessness. In 1891, Wilde met Adre Gide during a trip to Paris in which he wrote most of his play Salome. Gide described being almost overwhelmed by the “radiant” Wilde. Gide denied that Wilde tried to seduce him physically. (If he had, there would be no record as the pages for the months of November and December were torn out of Gide’s 1891 journal.)

Wilde, Gide wrote, was “always trying to instill in you a sanction for evil.” He preached the virtues of experiencing every form of vice. “I don’t like your lips,” he told Gide, “they are straight like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so that your lips may become beautiful and twisted like those of an ancient mask.”

Gide wrote to his friend Paul Valery, “Wilde is religiously contriving to kill what is left of my soul, because he says that in order to know an essence, one must eliminate it.”

After Wilde had gone he wrote in his journal, “I think that Wilde did me nothing but harm. In his company I had forgotten how to think. I had more varied emotions, but could no longer get them in order.”

Lord Alfred Douglas wrote in his Autobiography:

Even before I met Wilde I had persuaded myself that “sins of the flesh” were not wrong, and my opinion was of course vastly strengthened and confirmed by his brilliantly reasoned defence of them, which may be said almost to have been the gospel of his life. He went through life preaching the gospel which he puts into the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray. Wilde was, in fact, a most powerful and convincing heresiarch. He preached that it was the duty of every man to “live his own life to the utmost,” to “be always seeking for new sensations,” and to have what he called ” the courage ” to commit “what are called sins.”

I am trying to be fair to Wilde and not to make him responsible for “corrupting” me more than he did. All the same, I must say that it strikes me now that the difference between us was this: that I was at that time a frank and natural pagan, and that he was a man who believed in sin and yet deliberately committed it, thereby obtaining a doubly perverse pleasure. I was a boy and he was a blasé and very intellectual and brilliant man who had immense experience of life. Inevitably I assimilated his views to a great extent.

Of course, the crime that Gide and Douglas were discussing here was something that is no longer illegal in this part of the world– sexual expression between men. But Wilde’s fascination with crime went beyond “gross indecency.”

As a young man Wilde had kept a notebook with clippings on the poet Thomas Chatterton who had composed poems he claimed were the works of a 15th-century Bristol monk, but which were his own fictional creation. Wilde believed his forgery “came from the desire of artistic self-effacement.” Thus, it was a perfect example of art for art’s sake.

Douglas, in 1895, told the French reporter George Ducquois that Wilde “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”

Wilde certainly discussed his artistic fascination with lying and forgery with Robert Ross, and those conversations inspired works by both Wilde and Ross. (Wilde’s The Decay of Lying and The Portrait of W.H. were more enduring than Ross’s efforts.) It is not hard to imagine that Wilde discussed crime and its aesthetic qualities with a young and impressionable Maurice Schwabe as well.

We know Schwabe was still friendly with Wilde after his release from prison because he was the recipient of a gift. Leonard Smithers published a special deluxe edition of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1899. This edition was limited to twelve copies, which were distributed to Wilde’s closest friends. Schwabe had an autographed copy. It is not clear when and where Schwabe connected with his friends, but he was a constant world traveler so little can be ruled out. Schwabe had family connections to Naples, where Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas briefly lived together.

There is an intriguing anecdote that hints at the idea that Maurice Schwabe, by then a master card sharp, could have used his skill to help his friend Lord Alfred Douglas out of some financial difficulties. When Masolino D’Amioco was researching Douglas and Wilde’s time together in Naples he came across an interview with the descendants of Villa del Giudice where they lived. It was later called Villa Douglas. The family claimed that the original owner had lost the property to Douglas in a game of cards “the five of diamonds being the instrument of Fate.” D’Amico, however, rejected this story as “fanciful” noting that we have every reason to believe Wilde and Douglas had a hard time paying the rent.

The Italian writer Aronoldo De Lisle who knew Wilde in this period said that he was drawn to “studies of the underworld, feeling attracted to it by an irresistible force.” Wilde suggested that De Lisle write a novel about someone who, finding himself in prison for a trifling offence found himself envying the prisoners who had much more colourful stories to tell. “…he feels humiliated having only a very small crime to his credit. So, such was the power of the seduction of crime upon him that, so that he would be able to talk about himself, he gets up one night and strangles the most feared member of the Camorra.” Perhaps Schwabe, too, condemned to be a criminal by his sexuality, was driven to become a more dangerous class of criminal. Gerald Hamilton embraced a life of crime with Schwabe and his associates and cultivated an image of himself as one of the wickedest men in the world, in part to cover for the embarrassment of being jailed for gross indecency.

One of Wilde’s most notorious associations in his post-prison years was with Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy who allowed Alfred Dreyfus take the blame for his treason in the scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. Esterhazy was thrillingly immoral, like Dorian Gray who killed to experience the sensation, or Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist on plate.

In one of their dinners together, Wilde told Esterhazy that he should not feel guilty about condemning an innocent man to the horrors of a prison colony because “the innocent always suffer…Besides, we are all innocent until we are found out. It is a poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The interesting thing surely is to be guilty and wear as a halo the seduction of sin.”

The idea that criminals are those who have been caught is something Wilde had been pondering since he was at Oxford. Plato’s myth of the Ring of Gyes, which Oscar read in the Republic, asks whether a person would still be moral if there were no consequences to his actions. In the myth the shepherd Gyges is caught in an earthquake that opens a chasm in the field where he attends his flock. He descends into the chasm and finds a dead body with a gold ring on its hand. He takes the ring and discovers it has the power to render him invisible. Unseen, he seduces the king’s wife, murders him and takes posession of the kingdom. The moral of this tale is related by Plato’s character Glaucon, “those who practice justice do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice” and “every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong.”

This view of human nature is echoed in Wilde’s own Ballad of Reading Gaol.

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

Esterhazy was impressed by this argument and he stood up in the restaurant and said, “Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is is, Esterhazy, who alone am guilty. I put Dreyfus in prison and all France cannot get him out.”

The interactions with Esterhazy seemed to have rekindled something in Wilde’s imagination, although he did not live long enough to bring his new ideas to fruition. Wilde spent his later days attending the trial of a couple who had murdered a debt collector and his nights at The Kalasaya, “a bar with sodomist outcasts who were sometimes even dangerous in other ways.”

Meeting with the young writer Wilfred Chesson around this time, Wilde said that his “work was all in his head.” He told Chesson “I do not doubt that there are as wonderful things in my future as there are in my past.” He spoke about a drama about a murder staged in a theatre frequented by criminals, described an execution by guillotine he claimed to have witnessed, and contemplated the morgue. He asked, “Have you ever noticed a thief’s hands? How beautiful they are? How fine and delicate the tips? They must be fine and delicate to take the watch from your pocket without your knowing.”

For Wilde, examining the dark side of humanity was an artistic and intellectual exercise. In the same pleasant afternoon with Chesson, the writers discussed art and artists in literate depth. They talked about religion and Wilde’s attraction to Christianity. Chesson witnessed the writer’s warm relationship with local children and Oscar mesmerized him with stories and parables. Wilde was curious and playful with ideas, never holding on to one for long.

Did others take his ideas more seriously then he ever did himself? Was Wilde the Rupert to Maurice Schwabe’s Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan? Unfortunately, because Schwabe left few first-hand accounts, his motivations and how much Wilde influenced them will likely never be known. You can learn more about his actions, however, in the book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, now available in paperback and Kindle format.

Anti-Polarization Hacks

sandwichI was watching a news feature the other day that was talking about Russian activities on social media designed to increase polarization among the American electorate.

I got to wondering if it would be possible to use the same technique in reverse, to have social media bots amplifying non-polarizing messages and stories, while armies of anti-trolls swamped the comments on news sites with messages designed to steer people towards finding common ground.

What do you suppose the memes would look like?

Adam Ant, Anthems and Oscar Wilde

“And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine, all mine.”-Adam Ant, Stand and Deliver.

This past Saturday I went to Cleveland to visit an old friend and see Adam Ant at the House of Blues. A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Booklovers Boook Reviews about the role of curiosity in inspiring, and giving an author the momentum to write an entire book.

I was looking back at the perennially popular essay I wrote the last time I saw Adam Ant in concert, and I was surprised by the date stamp that said it was four years ago.  Adam seems to have gotten younger since I saw him last, which is a good trick. It made me think that maybe I could choose not to age as well.

What I did not realize at the time I wrote that last Ant essay was that the experience of going to the concert would spark my imagination to the degree it did. Had I not been gifted those Adam Ant tickets in 2013, I would probably not have written my second novel, Identity Theft. You never know what will jog that part of your brain. With literary curiosity on my mind, I’ve been thinking about my Oscar Wilde curiosity and my Adam Ant curiosity to see if they come from a common source.

Adam Ant’s current tour is “The Anthems Tour” and I think the anthems are key. Something occurred to me on Saturday as I was watching the opening act, an energetic, fun all-female band called the Glam Skanks. There was a time when I had my own dreams of fronting a rock band. Although I had a decent voice, I never took the steps. Maybe I was waiting for an invitation?

The truth is that I could never put myself out there enough as a performer to be a rock star. I needed to keep a foot in the world of good girl respectability. If I’d been in a band with a name like Glam Skanks what would my dad think?

Slut fear is survival fear. When you’ve been branded a slut, you’re outside of society’s protection. So that was something I was never going to risk. If there had been a real “insect nation” I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to “throw my safety overboard” and join it. Ridicule, at age 13 or 14, is the thing you are most afraid of, Prince Charming.

But the call appealed to me. The desire was there, and I could at least sing the anthem and take occasional vacations to the Insect Nation in the form of concerts.  I was an “antperson” in a consumer fashion. I owned the white vinyl and picture discs. I was not a culture warrior. (I did wear unmatched shoes to school once on purpose.) But Adam Ant made me want to be brave.

The fear of being shamed runs through Identity Theft. The vague sense that I missed out on some experiences because of fear finds its way into the novel in the form of the character Lydia. Lydia, a middle-aged friend of the protagonist, half-jokingly says she regrets not having been more of a slut when she was younger, and unwittingly encourages Candi down a path that turns out to be disastrous.

We are attracted to the idea of throwing off social constraints in proportion to our fear of it. Oscar Wilde played on that dynamic in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Readers could indulge the fantasy of throwing off social convention, giving in to every impulse and desire.  There is a fascination as well with the figure of Oscar Wilde the transgressor. But both Dorian and his author were destroyed by their transgressions, at least that is what the mythology about Wilde suggests. His is the story of the wrath society can bring down on those who transgress. The desire to conform, and the desire to be free of constraints do a constant dance, and we always question our own choreography.

Adam Ant has an Oscar Wilde quote tattooed on his arm. (I have never been close enough to read his arm myself, but Reuters tells me this is true.) It says, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

 

Da diddly qua qua, da diddly qua qua…

 

 

 

 

 

George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

Interesting Literature today has a nice feature on George du Maurier’s Trilby, a novel that figures prominently in Oscar’s Ghost. The popularity of Trilby was such that the idea of mind control, and a person surrendering his will to someone who seduces him or her through art, was an undercurrent in Oscar Wilde’s trials. In writing De Profundis, Wilde was reacting to a narrative that he, like Svengali, was able to influence impressionable young minds. In his attempts to posthumously rehabilitate Wilde, Robert Ross would also focus on the question of influence. By strategically leaking concealed parts of De Profundis, he tried to demonstrate that Wilde was no Svengali and that it was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar Wilde who had all of the influence. Trilby was arguably the first modern best seller. It was far more popular than Oscar Wilde’s works were. Yet today Trilby usually comes up in trivia related to the origin of hat names, whereas Wilde’s work is endlessly studied. This article explores some of the reasons why.

Interesting Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’)…

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David Bowie

Heroes

“We can be heroes just for one day.”-David Bowie

When I was describing the art I wanted to my book cover designer, I said I wanted a rock star, but not any rock star.  He had to embody theatricality and glamour. I wanted a figure who played with his identity, who created a persona that inspired imagination and fantasy in his audiences. Someone whose public self was as much a work of art as was his music. The early draft came back with a long-haired, Woodstock-esque figure.

“Like David Bowie.” I explained.

The designer then understood exactly what I meant.

 

Forcing Life to Mean

Moirae the Fates Book Reviews has a recurring feature called “Falling Behind Friday.” The idea is to pick up a book that has been languishing in the “to be read” pile and to write about it.

Yesterday, as I was writing about my early literary influences, I mentioned that the first author who I really fell in love with was Douglas Adams. I thought back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and what had stayed with me all of these years later.  Of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide taught me that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42. But the idea that I find I go back to most often is the Total Perspective Vortex.

The vortex was a form of torture. A person thrown into the vortex was given a small glimpse of his size in relation to the entirety of the universe and this proved to be such a trauma that no one could survive it. This got me to thinking about a book that has been on my to be read file for some time.

16131197The book is called Denial and I am attracted to its premise although reviews of the final work are mixed. The book was written by two biologists, Brower began the work and Varki completed it after Brower’s death. Their novel concept is that all human culture developed out of a need to deny the reality of death. All of human philosophy, religion, and art evolves out of the talent of human beings to deny reality.

Varki and Brower put their own biological spin on it, but they were not the first to venture into this territory. Douglas Adams got there first in his own comic way and Albert Camus explored the meaninglessness of all endeavors in the face of death in his novel The Stranger.

Our search for meaning is beautiful, poetic and essentially absurd.

Psychologist Eric Maisel in his book The Van Gogh Blues argues that it is the search for meaning that causes depression in creative types. He refers to this kind of depression as “a meaning crisis.” Creatives produce art that does not find an audience and wonder “what is the point.” Artists seek the meaning of life in the outside world and are confronted with their own version of the total perspective vortex. They see themselves and their works in the greater scheme of things and are knocked down by a sense of futility.

The answer, he proposes, is to “force life to mean.”  In essence, instead of asking “What is the meaning of life?” You ask “What do I want my life to mean?”

Accepting that the universe– and society and large for the most part– are not concerned with whether or not you finish your novel and carve that statue or beat a grand master at chess, you decide to make your life about that anyway. As Albert Camus wrote of the mythological Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push the same boulder up the side of a mountain only to have it roll back down for all of eternity, “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I think Tim Minchin sums all of this up best in the speech he gives in the video below.

“There is only one sensible thing to do with this meaningless existence,” he said. “Fill it.”

Banned by My Boyfriend: A Memory of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”-Milan Kundera, The Unbearble Lightness of Being

Way Back Wednesday is a Book Meme created by A Well Read Woman with the aim to write mini book reviews on books read in the past, that left a lasting impression.

Unbearable_lightness_of_being_posterThe first author to really pique my imagination as an adult reader was Milan Kundera.  In high school I had devoured Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and looking back, although they have very different styles, I think the experience of both of these writers was formative. A reader recently described my signature style as “vivid use of words, wry humor, and spot-on observations about humanity.”  The wry humor must have been informed by my love of Adams and observations about humanity are the literary offspring of my devotion to Kundera in my early twenties.

Most of the story-telling I had experienced as a young reader was heavily plot driven. You read (or watched TV) to find out who done it or how the hero will get to the happy end. What attracted me to Kundera was how the author used characters as a jumping off point to explore philosophical questions; to talk about human nature and society.

I still remember the passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being that made me want to read everything Kundera had written.

A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade. When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. “You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?” She would have liked to tell them that  behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand.

Thinking back to the period when I immersed myself in Kundera’s novels, I remember that I had a live-in boyfriend for a time who was prone to jealousy and insecurity. He was suspicious of my interest in Milan Kundera. (Come to that, he was suspicious of my interest in anything besides him.) All that he knew about The Unbearable Lightness of Being came from the film adaptation of the novel. I don’t know if he had seen the film or not. What he knew about it, what most people knew about it, was that it was sexy and pushed the boundaries of acceptability at that time. The most talked about scene was a homoerotic photo shoot between the two main female characters which, as I recall, was not in the book. One of the things I loved about Kundera’s novels is that they do not lend themselves to film adaptation as the main interest in them is the philosophical musings not the plot point. I have always preferred novels that do not read like a movie. It means the author used his medium well.

My then-boyfriend, however, believed Kundera wrote dirty books. He was deeply threatened by the notion that I might have an interest in sex. He preferred the old notion that women do not like sex and therefore if one consents to have sex with you (at great cost to herself) she is making something of a sacrifice and that proves the depths of her love and devotion. If sex didn’t prove that she was entirely devoted, then what proof did you have of love? Women, of course, have had to navigate the ambiguities of what a particular act of intimacy means in context for years as we have not had the mythology that men would only want sex if they were devoted at the soul level, but for this particular man, the idea that he might have to navigate a sea of ambiguities was all quite unsettling.   (This aspect of my relationship, incidentally, found its way into my first novel Angel as the jealousy of the main character, Paul.) He was so anxious about Kundera that during the time I was with him, I could not enjoy reading it.

And so a novel that had been politically censored in the author’s home country, and a film that was at the center of discussions about depictions of sexuality in film, led to a bit of censorship at home.

Arlo Guthrie and Oscar Wilde

gsdfsfsfdsfdsA friend of mine posted a link to an article pointing out that it is the 50th anniversary of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.

50!

On “Alice’s Restaurant” becoming such a cultural phenomenon, Arlo says, “Well, I’ve always loved good stories. And I’ve loved telling tall tales. Why people enjoy it is beyond me. I haven’t sung ‘Alice’ for years and people still keep coming to the gigs. ‘Alice’ has taken on a life of its own and become attached to Thanksgiving. If I had to guess though, maybe because it’s a story about a little guy against a big world.”

Arlo doesn’t know but I know. And I am saying that in my head with the same tone that he used to utter those words in the rambling story part of this clip of The Garden Song.

The reason people love Alice’s Restaurant, and Arlo, is that he is original. He doesn’t fit into the clean entertainment niches they promote on TV. He is sometimes a comedian and sometimes sentimental and philosophical. He’s witty, self-depreciating, and he makes language and story telling into music. There is a cadence to his speech not only when he is speaking over music as in Alice’s Restaurant but also when he speaks between songs or when he stops the song to speak. (As in the clip above.)

People hunger for good stories told by great story tellers. They don’t just want the written word, but the performed word. It is an ancient art and an increasingly lost one.

“Talk,” Oscar Wilde said, “is a sort of spiritualized action and conversation one of the lovliest of the arts.”

Wilde, raised on Irish oral folk tales himself, was known as one of history’s most brilliant talkers. “Oscar Wilde believed the possession of a musical voice to be the most indispensable attribute of a successful story teller,” wrote Thomas Wright in Table Talk Oscar Wilde. “…His voice inspired more adjectives and metaphors than any of his other attributes…It was clear that the rhythm and sound of words were as important to Wilde as their meaning… It is also evident that he used his voice to create ironic effects: he frequently narrated comic tales in a slow and solemn voice and told tales of fantasy as though relating everyday incidents.”

Wilde used cadence, tone, word emphasis, and wit to weave spells. Don’t let the vaguely southern-ish drawl fool you. Arlo Guthrie is part of the Wildean tradition.

There was a period of my life when I was entirely Arlo immersed. That voice, his pauses, his relaxed comic delivery, lived in my mind in familiar phrases. I could share those catch-phrases with others in the greater Arlo community, which I assure you does exist and is quite as vibrant as I imagined it might be when I had hippie fantasies stoked by the film version of Alice’s Restaurant.

Incidentally, when you go to a lot of Arlo Guthrie concerts in the same year, you tend to hear the same stories repeated. Oscar Wilde also told and retold his stories. His written works were generally worked out as oral tales and not put to paper until they had been road tested with multiple audiences. When you do hear the same story over and over, you start to notice different things. I have always admired how Arlo’s son, Abe, who plays the keyboards, remembers to laugh at the punchlines– a display of Ed McMahon-style support– even though he knows they are coming. Watch his performance in the background in this clip:

Arlo’s way of talkin’, the music of it, has found a permanent place in my thoughts and is probably a subconscious and generally unacknowledged influence on my writing.

I thought of that today when I was trying to find a way to encourage lurkers to support my Identity Theft campaign which has been stalled at 25% for a day or so. (My apologies, but I am contractually obligated at this point to bring every post back to my novel and to ask readers to support it.)

I thought of The Garden Song (shown above) and that moment when Arlo asks the crowd to sing along and then says, “Stop the song.” The audience is with him, but they are not enthusiastic enough. They’re happy to listen, but not yet ready to participate.

“Why should I sing along with that dingleberry folk song anyway?” In another version of this narration Arlo takes on the voice of an audience member and says, “I’m not going to sing that song because I hate gardens, and I hate songs about them.”

I am facing a similar enthusiasm gap. My friends offer words of encouragement, but many are not yet ready to participate. I tried to imagine how I could use this tactic. “I’m not going to buy that book because I hate words, and I hate books filled with them…”

I tried to imagine how I could start from that spot, modulate the cadence, bring people along until there was a crescendo of enthusiasm, good feeling and support; take my audience from passively clicking like to clapping and singing out loud, telling their friends what a great story they have experienced.

Ah, but I’m not Arlo. Print is not verbal poetry. And I don’t play the guitar.

What Time Forgets

Image

This is a photo of my great-grandfather, William Jewell, when he was a child actor in Michigan.

I’ve been working a bit on my family history.  By pouring through old census records and city directories you can learn quite a bit about your ancestors.  You can discover their parents’ names, their occupations, with a bit of research you can imagine them in a context, how did people dress then?  What were the rituals of their church?  What were the big events in their communities?  If you’re really lucky you will find an obituary that notes something about the person’s life.

Yet as much as you discover, there is always a big hole in the center.  There is something vital, something that gets to the heart of who a person is, that never makes it into a genealogical database.

Yesterday I came across an old letter written from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother.  As I read his memories of his father, I realized what is missing from the records.  Everything that the person did not do. Their unrealized potential.

The goals that seem just beyond one’s grasp that we can’t help chasing, these are what animate a life and give it meaning.  When a person dies we mourn not for what they did but for what they could have done and never had the time.  The world may see your resume, but only those who know you best know what lies behind it, what you wish to accomplish and haven’t, not yet.

When you examine the census records in your search for William Jewell, you will find his occupation listed as “salesman” but his business card said, “Wm. F. Jewell,  Fine Arts.  Theatrical Work a Specialty.”

His sister Ada, just two years older, had become a Vaudeville star with her husband Dick Lynch.  Bill, as he was known, made a poor businessman when he tried to run a family candy store in Detroit.  He did better selling ads for the Detroit Journal.  In his free time he would pick up extra cash and drinks by doing recitations in the local bar.  Even the members of his family, who bore the brunt of his legendary temper, admired the acting talent he showed when he recited the old stories.

The story of his life lies in what drove him, what fueled his ambition, what he was never able to achieve.

“He needed only the opportunities that I gave you children,” said his wife, the woman who has been dubbed in family lore “Saint Clara.”  “To me he was truly a successful man.”

And what of her dreams?  Clara was “a practical, pragmatic, wonderful lady,” who wanted a stable home and family and who had the fortune or misfortune to fall in love with a man with big dreams and big disappointments. His dreams and her dreams crashed into each other.  And that is the story of a life.  It is not what we manage to accomplish that makes us who we are. The real work of a life is bridge building.  It is the story of the bridges we try to build to cross the distance between our dreams and the reality of our lives.

My Writing is Absolute Compost

I have a habit, when I am tired, or frustrated, or blocked, or bored, of walking through the library.  It’s my own form of meditation.  In the stacks I stop thinking about the world outside. I pass through different sections each time, fiction, young adult, biography, history and look for a cover the calls out to me.

This was how I discovered Susan G. Wollridge’s Freeing Your Life with Words.  It is one of those books designed for busy people looking for encouragement to get in touch with their literary muses.  It’s not the kind of thing I often chose to read these days.  At age 43, I’ve internalized my process to the point that I don’t need or want anyone advising me.  I don’t need those kinds of external cheerleaders.

But I did like this word: “compost.”  Sometimes you pick up a book to be sparked by one word.

“I’m trading in (and literally composting) some of my other collections,” the poet wrote, “driftwood, acorns and bits of colored egg shell– for words.”

In context, she is saying that she has given up her other hobbies and distractions for writing.

Here’s what I got: Writing is compost.

You begin, when you are a young writer, with what you believe is the main dish– those emotionally resonant episodes from your own life:

The horrible long break up you had with the boyfriend who kept coming back and twisting your spirit into knots.

The time you were so burnt out on your career that you went a bit crazy and could hardly get out of bed.

The time you idealistically decided to launch a ballet touring company with your Russian boyfriend and your former boss– a great character– hauled you into court in a ballet of the ballets.

OK, maybe that last one isn’t so universal.

In any case, you have experiences that shaped who you are today.  When you decide you want to be a writer, you naturally assume that these are the stories that you are being called to tell.

You write furiously, spell everything out in great detail, but somehow it doesn’t come together as poetry, fiction or literature.  You are too attached to your vanity to be fully honest, you can’t escape your own memory and point of view, you fear repercussions from the all-too-thinly veiled characters, you don’t have enough distance or perspective, the situations are so emotional for you that you forget to make them compelling on the page- believing anyone who reads it must feel the same.  Maybe you just get tired of rehashing these episodes and you want to move on.

So you put your own stories aside and with a little metaphorical sunshine and rain and the passage of time, the individual dramas of your life start to break down into their component parts.  You have a soup– what is that stuff in eco toilets? a humus?– made up of emotions, observations, and a few undissolved chunks of experience that have hardened into anecdotes.  It is all indistinct and all mixed together.

That’s where the real stories grow.