Dirty Business

“Perhaps the worst crime is [the autobiographer’s] interest in himself”

The problem of an autobiographer, when he considers the material of his own past, is that he is confronted not by one life – which he sees from the outside – but by two. One of these lives is himself as others see him – his social or historic personality – the sum of his achievements, his appearances, his personal relationships. All these are real to him as, say, his own image in a mirror. But there is also himself known only to himself, himself seen from the inside of his own existence. This inside self has a history that may have no significance in any objective “history of his time.” It is the history of himself observing the observer, not the history of himself observed by others.

We are seen from the outside by our neighbors; but we remain always at the back of our eyes and our senses, situated in our bodies, like a driver in the front seat of a car seeing the other cars coming towards him.

To feel strange, to retain throughout life the sense of being a voyager on the earth come from another sphere to whom everything remains wonderful, horrifying, and new, is, I suppose, to be an artist. Artists – whether they are writers or painters – are people who continue throughout life to realize that every experience is a unique event in time and space, occurring for the first and last time.

It might seem then, that autobiography is the most stimulating of forms for a writer. For here he is dealing with his life in the raw at the point where it is also his art in the raw. He can describe, through the history of his meeting with the people and things outside him, those opposite beings whom from the back of himself he sees coming towards him, the very sensation of being alive and being alone.

But autobiography confronts the autobiographer with a very special problem. The theme of his book is himself. Yet if he treats this theme as though he were another person writing about himself, then he evades the basic truth of autobiography, which is: “I am alone in the universe.”

Autobiographers who write about the intimate experience of being themselves are indiscreet: they are too interested in themselves, they write about things that are not important to others, they are egomaniacs. The nature of the inner human personality is such that if they tell what it is like to be themselves, they are immoralists, exhibitionists, pornographers. The inner voice of self-awareness is no respecter of human institutions, betrays other people, and reveals oneself as base.

Self-revelation of the inner life is perhaps a dirty business. Nevertheless, even in its ugliest forms we cannot afford altogether to despise anyone who – for whatever reasons – is the humblest and ugliest servant of truth.

 Stephen Spender, Confession & Autobiography

from “Portrait of a Mother”

Below is an excerpt from a new WIP entitled “Portrait of a Mother Who Thought She Loved Her Kids.”

Prologue

It’s a remarkable family.

The youngest is the most visibly scarred. She slit her wrists at age thirteen while freaked out on LSD at an Easter Passion Play. In high school she was whisked away to a lockup mental ward. For twenty years after college she attended weekly therapy sessions in an attempt to untangle her fragile sense of self from a knot of confusion, with no visible results. She is so emotionally crippled by a fear of bugs she won’t walk in her own back yard or step foot inside her screened-in front porch. To prevent being attacked by a serial killer she carries a panic button from room to room, although she delights in reading crime novels and falls in love with the likes of every Ted Bundy who makes the news.

The third brother is a thief who embezzled and snorted 100,000 dollars from the family business. He is an alcoholic and a coke addict whose heart has been resuscitated from a drug overdose and face reconstructed from a DWI car accident. Family interventions have twice carted him off to drug programs. He rarely has a job, is constantly hounded by creditors, but enabled by a mother who secretly slips him cash and pays his bills. He can’t sit still, won’t look you in the eye, and disappears for days at a time.

The second brother is a bigot and a zealot who hates liberals, Jews, Polacks, niggers, democrats, supervisors, and anyone with a college education. His hates he easily reconciles with his cult Christian beliefs but not so his homosexuality, which, he claims, is “my cross to bear.” In his bedroom he has constructed a skeletal pyramid over his bed which channels rejuvenating forces to keep razor blades new and oranges from rotting and his face wrinkle-free.

The oldest brother, in the writing of his memoirs, is under the delusion that he is a neutral observer whose job is to chronicle the family sickness.

What went wrong, anyway?

 

White Noise

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[242 p. $24.65]

A life riven into warring personalities and competing lifestyles is difficult to stuff into a single memoir. White Noise is Volume 1 of a multi-volume autobiography and chronicles the narrator’s childhood, high school and college years, various promising careers – personnel management, social work, veterinary assistant – and fades out at age 31 when he finds himself jobless and adrift in the mountains of Northern California.

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

– Joan Didion –

Maybe I Shoulda Been a Shoe Salesman

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life remarks that “many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.”

And some, she goes on to say, should probably shoot themselves rather than “gag the world” with “one more excellent manuscript.”

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several thousand close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. A shoe salesman – who is doing others’ tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours – is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already – worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?

🙂🙂🙂

Donna

[Excerpt #10 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir, White Noise, is included below.]

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We would lie like that for hours, Donna and I, the two of us still comfortably entangled, talking. Mostly I listened, or daydreamed, the ashtray balanced on my stomach, while she talked. I enjoyed that. Leaf, the stray tabby I rescued, would burrow under the covers, purring, his tail twitching hypnotically. The days were lengthening now, and this was one of those moments in which everything seemed to fit ‑ Donna, myself, the cat between us. Outside the rush of Saturday afternoon traffic on Foothill Boulevard, children running and playing in the neighbor’s yard, even the whining and clawing of the animals caged in the clinic below. Sounds normally discordant were momentarily wedded by a nameless, elusive rhythm; a gentle rhythm, one I sought to retain. Everything dropped away in such moments, too. All the trappings of the past, the nearly ten years since graduation. Lean and hungry years they were, blind-driven, the whole slew of dead-ends and wrong-turns suddenly compressed into a single fallow season by the grace of the moment. Why? To what end? I didn’t know. I knew only that I had abandoned Florida and I was here, not there, here and now, curled up this very moment with Donna. . . purring.

“John?”

“Uh-huh…?” I snuggled closer.

“Did you really follow me around the Mall that night before we met?”

I jerked back the sheet and lowered my head and began to nibble the inside of her thighs with exaggerated little slurping noises. “I was stalking you big time, Sweets, couldn’t help myself. Aren’t you glad I finally found a way to ‘bump’ into you?”

Donna giggled and squirmed and playfully pushed me away. “I’m not making love to a pervert!”

Leaf bolted from the bed and darted into the living room. Like his owner, Leaf was fond of his alone-time. Time to notice, time to ponder. A faint tingling, a barely perceptible shudder not unlike that of a predator catching first whiff of prey quickened my senses that Friday night in the Mall. I glanced furtively right and left, struggling to identify the source. A few feet in front of me I caught sight of a girl’s reflection in a store window and realized I must have unconsciously adjusted my rhythm to hers, step for step. Plain leather riding boots, faded brown jeans, matching corduroy jacket, face hidden behind long brown hair falling loosely over her shoulders. My stomach tightened. She moved easily, almost too easily, unnaturally so. Methodically, with the instinct of a tomcat, I began to weave in and out of the crowd and hone in on the girl ahead of me.

Her jeans ‑ they were too tight, outlining the alluring contours of her butt. Yet, that couldn’t be deliberate; her walk was not the saucy bounce of a street-gal, and a certain softness, a polite demureness, a subtle shade of innocence radiated from her.

As I closed the gap between us and mimicked her gait I felt in her movement a slight trace of hesitancy. She’s uncomfortable! For some reason she’s nervous, feels out of place.

The signs of self‑consciousness were minute but unmistakable, and I knew them well. The walk and posture a studied casualness alternating with slight awkwardness when one suddenly becomes aware of one’s body. The timed glances from side to side. The feigned interest in every thing, yet no thing. The pose of being preoccupied quickly contrasted with embarrassed indifference.

As we approached a cul-de-sac thick with the smell of buttered popcorn she hesitated, as if deciding which movie she wanted to see. I checked my wallet to make sure I had enough money and then stood behind her in the ticket line to a Burt Reynolds movie. My heart was a-flutter, telling me something in a language as old as the human race, and I was determined not to let self-doubt keep me from meeting someone special.

“That was my first time out by myself on a Friday night since Mike and I separated.” Donna said, interrupting my reverie.

“Lookin’ for a one-night stand?”

“No! But it’s awkward for a twenty-two year-old single mom with a three year-old daughter. You feel alone, exposed, just going to a movie by yourself is a big deal.

“Gallant of me, wouldn’t you say, sitting beside you in the dark?”

“I was afraid to use the armrest between us.”

“So was I, didn’t want to bump you.”

“Then you had the gall to ask me for my phone number!”

““Were you surprised I remembered it?”

“I figured you would write it down once you got back to your car, but to call me that same night, after midnight, just as I was getting home – that was special!”

“We talked for two hours and I’m not even a talker.”

“What DID surprise me was barely four hours later you meeting me at the stable at sunrise while I exercised Sundance.”

“It’s exciting to watch a pretty lady shovel horse shit…”

“That’s gonna be YOUR job from now on,” she said, rolling on top of me and pulling the sheet up over us like a tent.

donna49 as Smart Object-1

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Is Your Life The stuff of Dreams & legend”?

How dare someone like myself write an autobiography after the bar has been set so high by the likes of a JACK LONDON!

…the unembellished facts of London’s career are the stuff that dreams and legends are made of, more fabulous than anything Horatio Alger ever imagined. He was an infant born out of wedlock into near poverty, one whose paternity has never been definitely established. Here was the child who spent his precious boyhood years delivering newspapers, hauling ice, and setting up pins in bowling alleys to augment the family’s meager income. Here was the mere youth forced to become a factory “work-beast,” apparently condemned, like thousands of other poor unfortunates in his social class, either to die an early death from overwork, malnutrition, and disease or, if he deserted his post at the machines, to spend what miserable life that was left in him wandering the underworld among the social degenerates and misfits known as the “submerged tenth.”

Yet by means of luck, pluck, and sheer determination – undergirded by rare genius – he succeeded in escaping “the pit,” transforming himself into “Prince of the Oyster Pirates” and a “man among men” at the age of fifteen, able-bodied seaman and prize-winning author at seventeen, recruit in General Kelly’s Industrial Army (also hobo and convict) at eighteen, notorious Boy Socialist of Oakland at twenty, Klondike argonaut at twenty-one, the “American Kipling” at twenty-four, internationally acclaimed author of The Call of the Wild at twenty-seven, Hearst war correspondent at twenty-eight, celebrated lecturer and first president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society at twenty-nine, world traveler on his famous Snark at thirty-one, model farmer at thirty-four, blue-ribbon stock breeder and rancher at thirty-eight, and the producer of more than fifty books (several of which have achieved the status of world classics) before his death at forty. The sum total of these achievements underscores Alfred Kazin’s comment that the “greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.”

London’s story is quintessentially American. It is difficult to imagine his meteoric rise from rags to riches in a different setting or in a different time in American history. E. L. Doctorow remarks that London “leapt on the history of his times like a man on the back of a horse.”

– from the Preface to Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor, 2013.