The Pangs of a Righter (Writer)
I've been writing since I was eleven when my grandmother taught me how to type on her 1925 model L.C. Smith typewriter, a writing instrument she loved and cared for like it was a child. I was living in Dallas, Texas, when I was eleven--and my grandmother had just moved to Dallas from my hometown out on the lone prairie after she resigned as head librarian at the Carnegie Library there and married a Dutchman from New York City. When I was eleven, I was in my first year at Long Junior High, which was over behind my grandmother's house several blocks, and once my grandmother started teaching me how to type I started missing my school bus at three thirty on purpose and instead I would run over to my grandmother's house where I'd indulge in a plate of her teacakes and some hot cocoa (we never called it hot chocolate) and then just a minute or two of practicing on her typewriter.
My grandmother was a writer--so I had seen her typing away at her own writing--she wrote every morning of every day from the crack of dawn until her new husband began gruffly demanding his lunch around noon. So I knew my grandmother was a writer, and by that time my brother was a newspaper reporter--and I saw my grandmother's books in her little bookshelf that sat next to her desk with the typewriter on it in what should have been a dining room but was her office instead-- "my room," as she called it, paying respects to one of her favorite writers, Virginia Wolfe. So I had heard her typing away--and that's why at eleven I begged and pleaded with her to teach me how to type. The first thing I learned to type was my name, the date, and a brief biography of me, like "My likes: baseball, running, my bike--masturbating..."--no, of course I didn't know that word at eleven--the deed yes, but not that word that described the deed. Besides, we boyz called it "jacking off"--I thought it was called that because when you did it it was like you did when you "jacked up" a car with one of those jacks where you take the tire iron and put it in the thing that jacks the jack up and then you use the same motion you use to jack off in order to get the jack to jack up the car. I thought that's where the term "jack off" came from--I damn sure didn't know the word "ejaculation" then--hell no, that to me and the rest of us boyz was "coming" and we knew about cum, too, though if we'd'a had to spell it, we'd'a spelled it c-o-m-e. We did talk about shooting our wads, too, but none of this occupational crap would I have had my grandmother teach me to type--no, it was mostly sports things, like "What I Want to Be When I Grow Up: a Hockey player. I had just seen my first hockey game when they tried to bring professional hockey to Dallas--I saw Dallas play Tulsa, Oklahoma, that day--it was weird--it was around 90 outside while inside these weird Canadians were playing on ice and the joint was a little frigid--but I was intrigued by the sport, so I then started talking about I was going to be a pro hockey player when I was grown enough. Shit, later I tried to ice skate and I was so ridiculously inept at it, I gave up on sports having to do with ice--except for the ice put in my drinks during my participation in the sport of drinking.
So that's why I started writing. I didn't have being a writer as a goal--I just simply loved to type on my grandmother's typewriter. My first novel was a total failure--it was a mess of typos and misspelled words and xxxx-throughs and attempts at erasing some errors with a typewriter eraser that was usually not very good at erasing and usually left what you were trying to erase looking worse than if you'd'a just left it wrong--or you erased so hard you put a hole in the paper. Typing paper was a luxury in those days, so my grandmother used just any old kind of paper to write out her rough drafts on, by hand, and then she'd use her typing paper (typing bond it was called--25 % rag content--beautiful paper, with watermarks) to type up her manuscripts--yes, to me, the mere act of typing was fun--then what I was typing became fascinating--and next thing I knew I was attempting to write things that made sense--at least to an eleven year old--like sports and masturbation. My first novel went about three paragraphs before I ripped it out of the carriage and strangled it into a wad of wastepaper and threw it into my grandmother's wastebasket that sat by the desk on which the typewriter sat.
By the time my grandmother died and left me her typewriter, I was out of college and looking for gainful employment. After college, I went back out on the lone prairie for that summer waiting around until September when I had to report to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to start my time and experience in the U.S. Army. In July of 1961, Ernest Hemingway was found by his wife Mary in the foyer to their Ketcham, Idaho, home with the top of his whole head blown off, his brain and facial matter spat out and splattered all over the walls of that foyer and especially splattered all over and running down a big mirror right by the gun rack where Papa had pulled down one of his prized Belgium elephant guns, the barrel of which he jammed up into his mouth--Papa was a tall man, so it was easy for him to then pull that beautiful gun's trigger--maybe with his toe but he could have reached it with his arms--and BOOM there went Papa, to me at that time the greatest writer and the most exciting man who ever lived. Hemingway, Stravinsky, and Jimmy Reed were my muses in those many many moons ago--we had a lot of Native American phrases and usages in lingua Texiana, like moons for days, months, or years--or saying things like "It's sure plenty hot today, ain't it?" "The way the crow flies," too, isn't that Native American?--damn, now I have to get my Mencken American Language out again--but here I go getting tangential...so back to the summer Hemingway died--the Life magazine for that week ran a picture essay on Hemingway and from reading that article and looking at the photos that went with it I began to think, "Hey, somebody has to keep writing like Hemingway--and that's when I uncovered that old L.C. Smith typewriter still in perfect working order and I got a coffee pot and some French Market coffee (I was already crazy about New Orleans), I had gotten a whole ream of newspaper "bond" as they called, what newspapermen and women typed the rough drafts of their columns on--paper chopped into 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of typing paper out of the leftover newsprint--when newspapers did their own printing--and the went out bought 5 Hemingway (Scribner's paperbacks) novels: Torrents of Spring, A Farewell to Arms, In Our Time, Across the River and Through the Trees, and The Sun Also Rises. When I got home that night I started reading first The Sun Also Rises, and I read and read and couldn't put it down and in the middle of that first dawning morning after I'd read Hemingway all night I got up, made a pot of coffee, and started writing "My First Novel"--it was called Hot Like Bread and Pepper--after the Chester Burnett tune of the same title--a perfect first novel--and the second part of that tune's first verse, "She's hot like bread and pepper/Sweet like cherry wine," Sweet Like Cherry Wine, would make a damn good title for my second novel--which I was already ready to write as well--God, I had to write folks--triggered by Papa's dying and by my knowing how to type like a Guinness-Book-of-Records maniac.
My point of all of this "writing" is to simply say, I didn't learn how to write--no one taught me how to write--I'm not a college writing major--nor did I attend the writing school at the University of Iowa nor did I go to Black Mountain College--see what I'm sayin'? I simply started writing because I was lucky and got to learn how to type by the time I was eleven.
But I suffer like any writer--whether college trained or auditing an E.L. Doctorow class at Sarah Lawrence...or studying "editing" believe it or not with Anatole Broyard at New York University. For instance, two days ago I decided to start writing a memoir-like novel--calling it Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones (rather than "Dem Bones, Dem Bones..." like they'd sing it in minstrelsy). It started off great--I was rolling, rolling, rolling on the roman de flueve--but just as it was Jell-O-ing (Jell-O's made from cow hooves, you know), my mind revolted, my mind allowed a depression to slip it uninvited--it happened when one of my babes accused me of cheating her out of something she paid a FULL price for--"Baby, come on, it's Wolfie you're puttin' out a wolf ticket on--me, I'm a lover not a cheater!" (Yeah sure!) So in abject poverty of continuance, I abandoned this "novel" attempt--then I went back to it and I sweated over it a whole hour--then suddenly, again, I turned on it and abandoned it. Here is the poor abandoned baby of mine.
Here's how Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones started:
Birth & Death
I was born dry. I was born in open spaces checkerboarded in cracked-mud design--dried mud hubs, what moisture left sucked dry last leaving the center of these mud hubs dark red and the outer edges near the cracks bone-dry tan. Such spaces were natural to where I was born dry in a small two-story tan-brick hospital, with bricks as tan as the outer edges of the cracked mud hubs that floated on mirages all around where this building sat in the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere north side of town, called "the northside"--one word--the other part of this dry town across the straight-as-an-arrow set of railroad tracks one running out toward Los Angeles and the other one headed way off back toward New York City was called "the southside." To the point they became capitalized, the Southside and the Northside. Dry as the bones of a dead man. That's what some oldtimers used to say in describing a particularly hot summer day.
I was born dry on a particularly hot summer day in August. The most disgustingly inaugust summer month faced by a child just born into so bone-dry a place.
I don't remember any of it. Perhaps I was traumaless, Mr. Freud, when I slid easily out of my mother's womb. Was I a miracle baby? As far as my mother thought I was. She'd lost a child a few years before I was born and later when I could think and remember my brother teased me by saying I was a love child. "Daddy went off on one of his disappearances and Mother was ready to get a lawyer and divorce him when on that Christmas eve before you were born in August, here he came, knocking on the back door like a tramp. And I heard Mother screaming at him, telling him to go away, but you know how persistent Daddy is when he wants to be--hardheaded like his father and mother, Mother's always saying, and soon I peeked around the corner of the back hallway and there came Daddy crawling on his knees like a penitent making the stations of the cross with his hands up in the prayer mode begging Mother to let him 'come back home'--and Mother caved. Daddy was so Santa-Claus handsome that night; so pleading. Next thing I know I was told to go to bed and leave them alone and I did but I stayed awake and listened to them arguing and Daddy crying and Mother cussing him out and reducing him to mincemeat and then it got quiet and next thing I heard was their old iron bed hitting the wall in a rhythmic way and then Mother started moaning...and, well, you were conceived, on Christmas Eve, and figure it up, you were born nine months exactly later."
I was born dry on my mother's birthday. It was my father's birthday, too. And it was their wedding anniversary. I figured later when I knew more about the birds and the bees that Mother [spewed me out early in order for me to arrive on] her birthday--because I was a little more than a month early according to my brother's Christmas Eve-conception idea. Still, whatever the reason I was born on my mother's and my father's birthday and wedding anniversary, I suppose if my brother's story was correct, I was, yes, a love child. I asked my mother about it once but she blew it off as, "You know your brother--he's a storyteller." That's all I could get out of her. When I asked Daddy, he simply winked at me and said, "Better luck next time, kid."
Bone dry. And it stayed bone dry the longer we lived in this town. And one day when I was so thirsty I went into the refrigerator and I drank every drop of water in the water bottle--we always had a water bottle in the fridge--cold water--and I drank the whole bottle and Daddy came along and he bitched more about me drinking straight from the water bottle rather than pouring the water out into a glass. While he was filling the bottle back up with faucet water, I asked him, "Daddy, where does our water come from?" "Comes from a big lake north of town." "Where does the lake get its water?" "From the Little Brazos River." "Where does the Little Brazz-ohs River get its water?" "From the Brazos River, where else?" I couldn't ask my mother questions like that--she dried up when contested with questions. Daddy on the other hand loved answering questions, any question, stupid or otherwise. "Where does the Brazz-ohs River get its water?" "These questions could go on forever and a day," my dad finally said. "Why do you say 'these questions could go on forever and a day,' Daddy?" "You're becoming rhetorical, son." Uh-oh! My questions then dried up until the next time they rained out of my mouth--the next thing I got curious about--where does the water from the outside faucets come from? Where does the water running through the air-conditioner come from?--we had water-cooled air-conditioners called squirrel-cage coolers because their fans were round and tumbled toward you like a hamster wheel, except they called them squirrel cages because squirrels do the same thing when you put them in a cage with a wheel in it.
So I was born in August, always known as a "dry month." The first time we went out to the Casey Ranch I was about 6 1/2 and after supper I wandered off down a cattle trail towards the hot setting bone-drying sun and soon I came upon this cow skull, with horns and everything still attached, a bleached cowskull, and the sun in that part of the world is a Clorox sun, it bleaches everything--obviously--even the majority of the people's skin. "Why am I white, Daddy, and Isabel Arispe is brown as a berry?" "Isabel Arispe is a Mexican, son, that's why he's brown. You're an American, son, that's why you're white." I was bleached. Even my young hair was bleached white because of that sun. My hair from the time I was born was first the color of the yellow sun only to be bleached totally white as I developed, as I learned life, playing in that high sun year-round. The sun literally shines where I come from 365 days a year--I exaggerate perhaps, but that sun was an exaggeration of the Sun, so to me, a kid born in that bone-dry land, I was white because I was bleached and I knew what bleach was because of when I helped Mother with the laundry and she always put the bleach in the white clothes--my mom separated the colored clothes from the white clothes--wait a minute, I thought, I had a question for Daddy. He was out fiddling around under the hood of his big long Cadillac. "Daddy, Daddy," I yelped coming flying out the back door of our house, letting the screen door slam hard and slapping and, yes, I heard my mother holler, "Don't let the screendoor slam," but I did let it slam, I always let it slam and she always hollered at me not to let it slam. "What's wrong, son?"Daddy asked, raising up out from inside the opened mouth of that big car. "Daddy, you said I was white because the sun had bleached me." "OK, so?" "Does that mean I was once black like Johnny Shine I play with over at the Darbys?" "No, son, if you were ever black it was way back in ancient times...." "Back before the Bible was written?" Being dry and constantly thirsty; being a worshipper of the sun whether you wanted to worship it or not, keeps you constantly asking questions--questions asked so rapidly you build up moisture in your otherwise bone-dry mouth. "Yes, back before the Bible was written." "Was the Bible written by white people, Daddy?" "Yes, son, the Bible was written by white people."
You see how confusing being born in a bone-dry town among bone-dry people can be, people who were lucky they got bleached by the sun instead of Isabel Arispe who only got half-bleached and Johnny Shine who couldn't get bleached at all? That's why Johnny was black--his skin wouldn't bleach--like the colored clothes my mom separated from the white clothes. Bone-dry learning. The sun makes you silly. "Don't let the sun catch you cryin'," as Lil Hardin Armstrong wrote--and you couldn't cry in that bone-dry place where I was born--you couldn't cry because you were so bone-dry--bleached-bone-dry.
Damn, writing is too passionate a sport really for me--in this case, I just suddenly crashed into an immoveable wall--Boom! So me thinks, "Story's over," I'm dried up.
for The Daily Grower