Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Am I Doing This?

Don’t worry, I’m not turning philosophical. (If I were, my title would be Why Bother?) I mean, specifically, why clutter this blog space with so much old work, rather than fresh mutterings?

Thirty, twenty, even ten years ago—in a publishing economy far, far away—a nonentity like myself would’ve still managed to get out a book of selected essays. Sales would’ve been modest, and the upfront advance against royalties barely enough to buy myself a cappuccino machine, but I’d have been able to preserve between hardcovers, for a pre-digital posterity, those magazine articles that hadn’t aged pathetically.

Those years are long gone, of course, so I’m doing it via this grab-bag blog. Not as selectively as either of us would prefer, no doubt, but it’s my way to “self-publish” a collection which otherwise would never exist. I’m combing my computer’s files, which go back to the mid-nineties; yet because I started writing for magazines in 1982, at some point I’ll have to resort to scanning typescripts.

I’m not including everything. (Shame cannot be suppressed entirely.) Nor am I using the versions of the articles as finally published—I found that editors’ hands got progressively heavier and clammier as magazines became more threatened by the Internet.

These days it’s hard not to feel nostalgia for the magazine world in which I flourished (loose sense of the word) for two decades. The economic model of readers and advertisers which created that culture has cracked, and when I remember how the business used to work it seems almost unbelievable. In 1984 GEO magazine sent me and a photographer to unknown Oman, in the Arabian Gulf, for a month; it probably cost them, all told, $20,000—I shudder to think what that would be in today’s currency. Yet it was perfectly feasible, and in the larger scheme of things (theoretically) profitable for them.

If you could stand the pressures both financial and professional, there were few pleasanter ways for someone single to eke out a living in the 1980s than writing travel articles for American magazines. I’d always imagined that I would see the world as a touring musician; it never occurred to me that grown-up editors in tall Manhattan office buildings would not only front my entire freight to flee fast and far for a couple of weeks but, after I returned, even pay me well—well, well enough—for writing a dozen coherent pages of my impressions of some place overseas where I’d dreamed of going.

I began to get work at just about the time I began to feel stifled by living in New York. I wasn’t making enough of a living doing what I liked—as a jazz and classical guitarist. All I could count on was playing solo a few nights a week in a fancy restaurant that paid me with free dinners, and let me bring a date on off-nights of my choosing. My reliable income, such as it was, came from “temp” work as a secretary, a day or a week at a time; I could type efficiently and answer the phone, I was presentable and agreeable, I kept my hands and face washed.

While trying to get traction with The Garden of the Peacocks I’d worked as a real estate broker in a high-end firm and been miserable, though for a time I knew by memory most buildings on the Upper East Side between Lexington and Fifth. After nearly a year I quit. I thought I was taking no risks whatsoever; I felt sure I’d written a great novel; it never occurred to me it might be an untenable mess. A publisher’s contract and popular acclaim must surely follow. Imagine my surprise!

This morbid revelation was still months away, after I began traveling for GEO and a few other magazines. I never considered that there was a sensible way to go about planning a career, and it was a couple of years of happy accidents before I began to think of myself as someone with a profession. I clung to my self-image as a novelist, a man of literature, and this protected me as much as it hindered me. My mind was on concocting the next magazine assignment only if it might offer something besides money that I could use in my fiction—landscapes or portraits—not just a proposal I could sell to an editor.

This sounds focussed and idealistic, but it was only the blind pragmatism of someone with fixed goals but no long view. A sizeable poetry grant soon allowed me to give up temp work entirely.

For the next fifteen years, traveling the world for magazines was how I made most of my limited income. I never stopped being thrilled by the sensation of freedom that an assignment gave me. Often it meant travel to another season. After growing up in Georgia heat I most looked forward to heading somewhere sweltering; when you’re under forty there’s a sensual pleasure at being physically uncomfortable.

The best moment was not the anticipation that came with being told that a proposal had been approved by editors, nor the electric nervousness of passing through customs in some new country and being made viscerally aware that I had to produce a certain number of first-rate words per day, no matter how unprepared I felt, or I would never get to do this again.

No, the supreme moment was always those extended few hours of escaping Manhattan by airport bus; the sudden relief of time to kill at the airport and the reprieve of being at last not on my own money but on an expense account; the adventure, almost like finding myself in a thriller, of being able to tell anyone who asked that I was going overseas on assignment for a magazine they’d heard of—it gave me a professional identity, an importance, that otherwise I never had—to be followed by the ecstasy, in my airplane seat, of watching the lights of New York dwindle as all my problems, the unpaid bills and the unsolved technical issues of a novel, were left far behind and would grow more distant every day till I returned, when they did too.

My strategy, which editors made clear to me was unusual, was to write as much of the article as possible in place. I never carried a typewriter (and felt an unshakeable allegiance to writing by hand whenever possible anyway). I traveled with plenty of legal pads. I used the small ones to take my daily notes “in the field” and the larger to rewrite those notes into polished prose every evening at my hotel, after dinner.

I’d write the article in discrete blocks—descriptions, history, conversation—that could be assembled, when my time in a place was done, into an organic order which was (I hoped) compelling. As the days went by I always found that the place itself told me, gradually, the structure of its own article; I rarely felt I was guiding it as much as letting the piece decide what it wanted to say.

Naturally, the first page—the first half-page—proved the most important, and could determine the rest. Once my beginning asserted itself (the more tactile, diverse, and suggestive, the better), this meant I was beginning to know what I thought.

I never understood how other travel writers could take page after page of random notes, a line or two here and there, then try to assemble it all back in New York. Their method seemed to deliberately exclude the invaluable, vaporous sense of a place’s “reality” which, willy-nilly, you lose the second you get onto the plane to leave. Why try so hard to recall it from the other side of the world when you could save yourself so much time, and do such a better job, by writing most of the article while eating, sleeping, waking, listening, breathing in the place itself?

Part of the motivation was financial. After all, the sooner I turned in my article, the sooner I’d get paid. Oddly enough, even many successful magazines failed to realize that the easiest way to buy a freelancer’s loyalty was not through taking him out to lunch, or praising his work, but by paying him quickly. Such magazines got offered proposals first, even if sometimes they paid a little less.

My first two assignments, for GEO, came in the late spring of 1982. I was twenty-four. My parents were inexpressibly relieved that I was making definable progress, since clearly I was not going to turn out a real estate magnate and had let that job drop a few months before. My father—who praised, helpfully criticized, and encouraged all my fiction—must’ve breathed an enormous sigh while secretly wondering how I’d conned such a high-profile magazine, with French and German editions too, into taking a chance on a beginner with not one but two Caribbean assignments in a single fell swoop.

The world was different now. I was a working writer, a paid magazine correspondent. I was actually earning a living, too, since GEO paid $2500 for a full-length article. My rent was $348 a month, my total expenses a thousand, so for a few weeks of pleasant work I’d already made enough to live on for half a year. Best of all, I saw no reason for this extravagant success, which was funding another draft of my novel, to ever stop.

The following spring (1983) they sent me to Bahrain—I was savvy enough to give myself a couple of weeks in Rome on the way. I stayed in a soon-to-be-familiar little hotel on the Aventino, got to know the tawny city, and borrowed from my father a pile of books on the Middle East. The prospect of writing about that region had me petrified; the task seemed to call for a maturity of insight and a deep knowledge that I knew I couldn’t possibly fake through research, or acquire overnight; whatever skills I had as a writer didn’t strike me as useful for what was about to come. The more I read, the worse I felt.

He also loaned me a battered manual typewriter, on which I wrote my first published short story, perching the machine on a chair while I sat on the hotel bed. That story, the naturalness with which it offered itself, was a revelation, no less than a phone call to the young woman I’d just broken up with brutally back in New York. An expensive overseas line for a conversation lasting less than a minute.

Still, no reason not to be excited: the world was ripe with newness and energy.

Today few of my magazine colleagues are working, at least not as we used to. We’ve been replaced by a vast amateurism that costs almost nothing for an audience who can’t tell the difference, or don’t much care. And certainly don’t want to pay for whatever difference they do perceive.

I’m not blind to how dull some of our material was, and the magazine biz was always an elephants’ graveyard of lesser talents; but even if our work wasn’t lustrous, or audacious, or insightful, it was still professional. There’s no pressing need any more for readers or advertisers to cough up much money. All we veterans can do is wave goodbye, and pull down the blinds.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Professional Life

Most of us discover by our twenties that others’ professions are not remotely as we imagine. Film actors, no matter how successful, spend a lot of time waiting around. Musicians need to practice constantly. Lawyers learn to look fascinated while hearing about other people’s problems.

And writers? Civilians have absolutely no idea what it’s like. If they did, they’d never wish they were writers, even for a day. (Anyway, the urge is usually to be a published author, not to spend all day writing. Big difference.)

I remember interviewing Paul Theroux when I was twenty-five. He was the first superb professional writer I’d ever met who wasn’t in my immediate family. Because I asked, he showed me the first and second drafts of The Mosquito Coast, handwritten in ink, filling two enormous ledgers. He said lightly, “If you showed this to most people, they’d shit.”

He was right, of course, but it wasn’t just the quantity of hard manual labor involved, but the commitment behind it, the scraping away of self for every inch of material. This excoriation is the aspect that’s hardest to describe; it’s as if you were determined to build a road with the gunk you sponge out of the kitchen sink at the end of every day. And the road has to look beautiful, too, or you won’t get paid.

It would be crude to mention money. As Stevenson wrote, extolling the pleasures of our profession to a young would-be writer, the wonder is not that it pays so little, but that it pays at all.

There are also the problems of living with us. Even in a digital age it’s a profession that produces a messy profusion of pesky paper. Writers tend to be distracted, too, in a most selfish way; their minds are literally (or literarily) elsewhere. This is often portrayed as romantic, but it’s annoying for everybody.

It may simply be a question of spelling. Change one letter, and “writer” becomes “waiter.” That’s much closer to the truth, since you spend so much of your time waiting—waiting for a solution to be revealed for some problem that will be irrelevant come the next draft, waiting for your agent to get back to you, waiting for some career-changing review that makes no difference. Waiting to become a successful writer. Whatever that means.

When I told one colleague what I was planning to write about this week, he said, “Be sure to explain that we get to drink all day. And don’t forget the parade of willing women.”

I almost forgot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tell It Slant

One question nobody ever answers truthfully is, “How are you?” This is among humankind’s great achievements—our ability to fine-tune an answer. And if you happen to be cursed with a serious neurological disease, you get used to lying, because if you told the truth, even part of the truth, nobody would ask again.

I got the idea for my fourth and most recent novel, The Land of Later On, back in the 1980s, long before my first novel was published. In those innocent days I travelled extensively as a freelance writer, so “one man’s odyssey through the afterlife” (whatever that meant, it sounded cool) seemed no more outlandish than other distant journeys I was describing.

My afterlife idea was that sole cryptic phrase in a notebook, and over the decades other novels intervened. But I never forgot it.

Gradually my magazine work was replaced by a career performing and recording as a jazz and classical guitarist. Then, six years ago, I realized something was terribly wrong. Diagnosed with so-called “progressive” multiple sclerosis, I quickly sank from running a few miles a day and playing an instrument on a professional level to living in a wheelchair, unable to play at all. I couldn’t type or even scribble anymore; I could write only by dictating into my computer.

Once you’re hit by an incurable illness that doesn’t kill you, but ruins your life and (especially, cruelly, brutally) your mate’s, you learn that relativity’s at the heart of who we are. What had seemed unbearable a few years earlier now struck me as a picnic—was there no way to wind the time back?—and I daily found myself contemplating suicide as an understandable escape route. Not for me: the core of my life is that I’m happily married. But suppose my wife had somehow died, shortly before my own illness took hold? Would I bother to stick around?

Suddenly that scant idea for a novel, buried for twenty-five years in my notebook, came calling. I began dictating it almost as a lark, to see if there was really anything there. The only blessing of my disease was that plot questions were unexpectedly settled, and I could write of a suicide-inspiring disease with authority. As Emily Dickinson said: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. I wasn’t writing confessionally (I’m not that sort of novelist), but autobiographical elements inevitably offered themselves.

Here’s the plot of my novel: Kip—a New York jazz pianist whose career was cut short by a neurological disease—returns from a failed suicide attempt with a vivid memory of his journey through the afterlife. Resembling the world as he knows it, but unlimited in space and time, its residents are those who choose not to reincarnate, which would erase all memory of who they once were. Kip has a quest: to find his beloved Lucy, a yoga teacher who shared his apartment for years but died of leukemia before he took his life. Is she still here? Has she waited for him, or “gone back” to become someone else? In his odyssey to find her across centuries and locales (Istanbul to the Marquesas Islands, India to Oklahoma and New Guinea), Kip is guided by the poet Walt Whitman, who urges him to write a memoir on his return.

I know this doesn’t sound funny, but believe me—along with everything else, it’s a very funny book. It’s not a novel about having a neurological disease; that’s simply the excuse to push my narrator to commit suicide and venture the very surprising afterlife. But suicide is the rarely-discussed elephant in the multiple sclerosis waiting room. It’s on everyone’s mind at some point, despite all those nauseating community photos they throw at you of cheerful, healthy-looking folks bowling along in wheelchairs, playful as puppies.

I can’t imagine I’m the first writer with a severe form of MS, though mine may be the first novel whose narrator has it. My subject isn’t suicide or suffering, but a liberating, life-affirming afterlife. I’m not religious; it’s not a religious book. It is a humane one.