I’m a writer, mostly of science fiction. I’m also very interested not only in literary mainstream, but in what writer Bruce Sterling termed “slipstream”, those delightfully odd works like Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine or J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.
A friend of mine was asked at a party, “What do you do?” He shrugged and, smiling impishly, answered, “That depends on the day and the time, and my mood.”
During the day I’m a lawyer. At other times I find I have to don a series of different hats irrespective of the day, the time or my mood: husband, father, friend, brother, and so on. But when I’m able to allow the mood to possess me, I like to forget, like in Charles Baudelaire’s poem Lethe. When reading, my favorite literary conceit is that of the “transient global amnesiac” trying to find him or herself, like Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. The world of the mundane is transformed into a mystery, a strange and alarming place engaging all the senses. Everything is new, equally threatening and promising and, like Adam and Eve, you find yourself rediscovering the names of things, and in many instances assigning new names to things that never had one. Everything conspires to upend you with the frisson of a poem where metaphor rules. A rose is a rose is a rose. But is it really? Not even your hairdresser knows. And by the way, do you have a hairdresser? The answer to that question might go a long way toward clearing a few things up.
I’ve been writing since I was in elementary school, and at this point that was quite some time back. A friend of the family, considerably older than myself, also a practicing attorney, reminded me that I had started writing a science fiction novel in the fifth grade. It was an earnest start, but I got side-tracked by sixth grade, and I’ve been side-tracked many times since that early beginning. First by religious aspiration (I wanted to be a saint); then by poetry (deciding to be Rimbaud); later by guitar (wanting to play as wistfully as Paul Simon or as mystically quick as John McLaughlin); and then finally by university life and a lengthy lateral drift that morphed into a career in law. Through all of this I was actively discouraged from being a writer by not only those who loved me and merely wished me the best, but by one of my worst enemies: myself.
Even so, it is very difficult to stay away from what you love.
As a writer (and as a reader) you try to identify all the existential tributaries that feed into the pool of your identity. Who are you? What do you know? And how do you know it? Are you sure about that? Getting a grip on the answers to such questions won’t necessarily make you a better writer, but you’ll never be a worthwhile one without trying to.
The colors you like, the flavors that satisfy you, the type of people with whom you get along, the kinds of music which turn you inside out, the sort of people whom you fall — or the person for whom you fell — in love with. Setting aside (the very real and very important) questions of quality for a moment, the art that sets the tuning forks of our hearts resonating are the experiences, and the stories, we seek. While I have found examples to love in many genres of literature and music, I love some more than others. I love the novels of Clive Barker and such books as Jonathan Carroll’s Child Across the Sky, but for the most part horror doesn’t really do it for me. I’m reminded of that scene in the movie As Good As It Gets where Greg Kinnear, whose character is gay, is trying to befriend Jack Nicholson, who is not, and Jack says to him, not unkindly, “I’d be the luckiest man alive if that did it for me.”
It is important to remember that not every writer, no matter how great they are, is for us. (The opposite is also, interestingly and often satisfyingly so, true.) Finding writers whom you’re attracted to is a way of further refining the question of who you are, of finding like-minded souls. It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Art is something you consume, and dammit, I just don’t like pickles or beets, peanut butter or mint anything. And some people, oddly enough for those who do, don’t like mushrooms or lasagna, shrimp tacos or foie de gras. Eggs inspire the gag reflex in my wife, which I find marvelously odd since eggs are an integral part of what I’m about. On the other hand, she loves gazpacho, the mere thought of which makes me feel weak-kneed, and not in the good way. I’ve got a friend who loves salmon steak sandwiches with Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, strawberry jam and tomatillo sauce. Go figure.
Storytelling is, of course, a discipline like any other, requiring practice and experience, a depth made up in parts of natural talent, the guidance of sensitive teachers and well-meaning critics, and a whole lot of just lowering your nose to the grindstone. Storytelling offers glimpses into this vast otherwise ineptly charted land of My Own Private Idaho which each of us inhabits. If I could be more focused in a different way, perhaps I’d have been a psychiatrist or an historian, a doctor, lawyer or an Indian Chief. (Wait a minute. I am a lawyer.) The paths of discovery are myriad, and story is but one of them. It is, however, my favorite set of corrective lenses, for it offers those of us with blurry, decidedly myopic and unclassically trained minds a backdoor into ourselves, and into the lives of others, a way of bringing our muddled perceptions into sharper focus.
Whether I write (or read) realism, fantasy or science fiction, I am always trying to find those places we’ve all been to in our dreams. Those unscripted times when, as in Octavio Paz’s My Life With The Wave, we are seduced by those odd and opalescent moments, few and far between, when things are turned inside out, when the doors of perception are opened for an all-too-brief moment and through which we glimpse the existence of other, far away worlds, of other possibilities, of all the different lives and parallel pocket universes it feels like we’ve lived through. We’re like the grown-up Peter Pan, thoroughly and literally having forgotten what it is like to be the child we once were. We’ve been cut off from our own history, from our own roots.
It is possible to catch glimpses of where we came from, every now and then. An unforced epiphany that happens when the light of another world — a reality different than the one we currently inhabit — shines through a series of perceptual windows that, through serendipity or fortuity, line up just so. Love can do it. Friendship can do it. Good music, good food, and good conversation can do it.
And, of course, a good story can do it