I did not mean to be this busy, and I bet I never do it again, but I've also never felt more like a writer than I do right now (and one of the best kinds--I don't have to revise and it's looking like I'll be prolific).
A recent interview produced this bit of truth from Dorothy Allison: "Well, it's always such an absurd concept, the artist life. Like you were supposed to get an endowment, a grant … You know, if you get a decent day job that's somewhat clerically related, you get access to a computer, and paper, and a reasonable desk situation. I considered that the biggest grant I could get access to. And it was."
I recently figured that out the hard way! Dropped out of school, got a nice clerical position, resigned myself to being a drunk monk indefinitely, living on the outskirts of a hayfield in a state I never wanted (Texas). Instead of only drowning my sorrows in whiskey and fiction though, I got asked to do a little research project: how about an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend? Sounds easy!
(1) Joseph and His Friend
I used my hours of daily commute time to start doing research, and it turned out to be way more than an annotation where I just identify that river, or quote from one of the author's letters for a second. I did read Bayard Taylor's letters, they don't age well and were mostly about his travels, which made him a household name in his own time, but sees his name stripped off of buildings in ours. In fact, the letters that would have been of interest to a modern reader (his fan-letters to Walt Whitman before publicly distancing himself from Whitman and that guy's sexy poems) were left out of his authorized stuff. Drama! Back-stabbing! Scandal! I had to research what that was about, which meant falling in love with Walt Whitman, then learning more about the Civil War and President Lincoln than I ever thought I would after graduating high school, then being amazed at just how many people basically came out to Whitman in letters from all over the English-reading world, and ... then I had to snap back to Bayard Taylor and his dull-by-comparison book. Secret histories: they're better than fiction! Fiction has to appear remotely plausible; real life has no such requirement.
More research had to be done on the man who inspired Taylor's book, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and then some research on Lord Byron's work and reputation just to understand what it meant to be called 'The American Byron,' then I found myself back to learning about Presidents (Buchanan this time), and Quakers and why everyone either loved or hated them, then I had to sit down with all these massive yarn balls and find the one side of the string that connected to the story I was supposed to be focusing on. I took a week's vacation from my clerical job around my birthday, which meant a nine day, brain-pummeling marathon: 33 mini papers on as many different subjects. You want to know why Joseph and His Friend is interesting? It's not for all its filler chapters on country parties and chores and decor, okay? It's for how strangely frank it is, given the climate of the time and the garbage slung at Walt Whitman for being as close to 'out' as one could be without being prosecuted for it like his devotee, Oscar Wilde. It's interesting to realize that this book was Taylor's fantasy for Fitz-Greene Halleck's happy ending, which he never got himself, but which Taylor got closer to: if you can't marry your friend, surely you can marry one of his female relatives, and thus become his family that way? That was one way to do it.
So: the best angle I found for completing my
(2) A Gay A Day
This started as a joke between my friend and I, then a sort of called-bluff situation, then it detoured into a Dueling Dandies podcast segment, and now it's well on its way to getting written. I kept finding queers under rocks in Walt Whitman's correspondence, so the idea of a Gay A Day tear-off calendar (which is now going forward as a book) felt doable, and again, seemed easy. Sure the research for the podcast was tough, but these would just be little blurbs about dead gays, shouldn't be too much work, right? Wrong again!
Acquiring 366 people (that's a standard year plus a leap day) notable enough and verifiably homo/bi/trans enough to fill the list was tough in itself. We wanted it close to even between women and men (with some wiggle room for people who identified in between), we wanted to make sure it wasn't as white as cocaine on a snowbank, we wanted diversity of contribution (we're arty types, so it's easy to fill the list with authors and actors, but what about science, sports, politics, criminals, etc.), and we were worrying we'd never find enough people for the list, but we dug around, and there are indeed enough. We've even got a slush pile in case we need to replace anyone. But now, of course, we've got to actually research and write 183 mini bios each. WHY do I keep giving myself so much homework?!
I'm using this Memorial Day weekend to try and get 50 bios completed for month one (May). That means I can do one per weekday between here and New Year's Eve and have it done in 2017, while still leaving myself time around the minimums to do other things, like, I dunno ... write fiction? That was the original plan once my Clerical Grant finally came in.
(2.5) Looking Back, Looking Forward
I've been writing original fiction for over ten years now, and the book I wrote at age 18 was the first one to get published at age 21 (I still don't understand why that didn't make me Queen Shit of Shit Mountain in grad school for Creative Writing, but oh well; I like to assume everyone else was just jealous, and hopefully I'll move on from the bitterness eventually, though it's taking a while). That book was the start of a series that's about to reach its fifth and final book, its ending. I want it done before Spring of 2018, when I'll finally turn 30.
I started out doing write-what-you-know fiction, so my first main character liked what I liked, lived in my old house, had my anxieties and issues, BUT got a boyfriend (that's the fiction part). Now that I've written six novels--four in the Disorder Series, two outside of it--the pattern appears to be that I go for researching and reworking stories that already exist, but just aren't organized the way I'd like them. I may not be a 'pure fiction' writer; I like patching together Frankenstein monsters too much!
The first to break the pattern was my queering of the Sherlock Holmes series (I needed to reframe that whole thing as gay), and the second was the Leopold and Loeb case (all the other treatments of the case focused too much on the fallout; I wanted to wallow in and exhaust the lead-up). The first book pulled from my undergraduate thesis and all I knew about Oscar Wilde and the 'bachelors' of Victorian London; the second book plunged me into trial transcripts and Chicago-iana. I had to research Chicago because, even after living there for four years, I'd always been too much of a hermit to collect my own first-hand knowledge of the world. I wonder if the new pattern isn't emerging to stay: will my YA series be the aberration someday? Because right now everything I produce outside of that series is more like ripped-from-the-Obscura-Times-headlines stuff, just digging around in the unclaimed-facts pile and pulling out novel material. Maybe my books going forward will all be collages made of stuff other people report back from the real world, since I don't like it out there myself. It's an endless well of material, gap-filling the past; it could easily be the work of a lifetime.
I've got a couple of things that I can choose between after I finish the Disorder Series. I want to write a Murder Book with my best friend, and my publisher wants a Rogues Gallery of real-life queer villains, which will be easy to populate once the Gay A Day book is complete. Maybe another annotation if the first one does well; after America's First Gay Novel, Joseph, I can do The World's First Gay Happy Ending (Imre; the thing's so obscure I don't think a digital copy even exists yet). I could throw darts at a bunch of ideas and just go forward like that, or maybe I'll be taken by a wild desire to write something of my own again. Honestly, this is next year's problem though, because I've got something to finish first.
(3) The Disorder Series: Fixation
My old love, my baby, my god have I been writing these books for a long time! I wonder if I'll end the series in a snot-bubble, sobbing mess like J.K. Rowling did with the end of the Harry Potter series, or if it'll be like finishing some spiritual trial and just numbly detaching from all the burdens that used to weigh me down. This June I'll be re-reading through the first four books (that's always a weird feeling; a sort of self-fellatio most people are too disgusted or mature to even try), making note of any loose threads, any Chekhov's guns lying around waiting to be triggered, etc. I bet I find more typos than I can stand (if I could cut a tally onto my own flesh to take away each and every one of them I would, they bother me that much), but the fourth book's read-through will be an editorial one, since it's not yet published, so I can still improve there. Then come July it'll be time to wrap it up.
The books in this series were all written during summer breaks, and summer's here again. They're all the same size (76K words), each has fifteen chapters and a prologue, they all start and end on the road somehow, all use bathrooms as transitional spaces (I learned that when the first book got included in a Gender Theory curriculum--didn't do it on purpose, but I did realize it was a thing I'd already built into every book's plot, which is neat), and they've each managed to grow up with me (slowly). They might turn out to be more therapy than craft in retrospect, but I like to think of them as little time capsules. I put a lot of my own odds and ends into these buddies.
It's starting to brew again, that's why I'm going so hard on GAD bios this weekend, so I can compartmentalize those things into manageable chunks, and otherwise focus on this. Brewing means:
- I suddenly have a ridiculous soft spot for Fall Out Boy music again.
People laugh very hard every time I mention listening to that band, but you've got to admit: there's no soundtrack more perfectly teenaged. The pettiest drama, the most heartfelt moodiness, it is the perfect way for me to tap back into a childish vulnerability and shamelessness that's pretty far in my rearview these days. Like: I've got plenty of shame now, that's what college teaches you.
- I'm fondly remembering my favorite bits from the earlier books.
Remember the one time a guy said he met his boyfriend in church, which is technically true, but ya know, not the way it sounds?! AHA. Remember that fucking burn about Romeo and Juliet laws and someone was like, 'oh yeah, so where's Juliet?' PRICELESS. Omg I can't wait to bring back that character who disappeared for a book or two! THAT'S THE LONG CON, BABY, YES. It's not that these moments are that important, it's that I'm rekindling some old enthusiasm, and making notes on new little zingers I want to include in this book. ONE LAST HURRAH.
- I've come to terms with the fact that a sixth book spin-off I had planned is never going to happen.
I can't ever see the main characters any older than myself at any given time. Right now they can be close to 30, because that's where I am, but just like for myself, I don't know what 40 will look like for any of them. The one line that made me think I'd have to write the whole life story of Tulsa (from book one) I will just fit into a flashback in book five, not a problem. When I first conceived of a spin-off, I had an idea like, 'Oh boy, by the time I'm super old and I've written all these other books, I bet I'm ready to write a book about like a whole life, saga-ish, probably.' Now that's chump change to me; I don't want to and I don't care. It was much harder to be up to snuff for the Sherlock Holmes and the Leopold and Loeb projects--I've already beat better challenges! I have nothing left to prove and no interest in it anymore. That's a victory, not a forfeit, and it's better this way.
- I know what my main man's going to be reading and I'm so tickled we'll have that in common forever.
My main character, Marley, has been a great place to stash any uncomfortable truths I have. Like Oscar Wilde said, Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth. I wrote about his anxieties and how incurable he was long before I realized I was talking about myself. Knowing that now, it's great to compare what I thought would be my fate with how I've actually turned out. It got better! It wasn't fun but I didn't die or anything, just lost some hair from the stress of it, which is a symptom I quickly gave to Marley, because in a few spots like that we're still exactly the same. He stuck around long enough to drink as much as I do, and next up he's going to read what I read, and feel just as passionately about it: Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend. Marley will also do some scholarship out of school.
(0) Charles Jackson's Native Moment
Before I got into that Joseph annotation, the aforementioned BFF recommended I read The Lost Weekend, which meant I had it during the darkest days of my quarter-life crisis. A lot of people read that book and say, "WHOA, I'll never drink again!" I've never read anything that felt so familiar to me. Blackouts, sure, and charley horses too; that roller-coastering between pomposity and self-loathing, definitely; the pathetic love for books as the only friends who'll never abandon you, OF COURSE, BROTHER; sexually confused and trying to write your way out of it? Oh, buddy.
I went down a very therapeutic rabbit hole with Charles Jackson. During the year I quit PhD classes for clerical work, and finally got enough health insurance to find out I had a permanent handicap from some sickness I caught abroad (one stone-deaf ear, anosmia and almost no sense of taste), I read all of Jackson's books and his biography. In finding out about his fucked-up childhood, his sick youth, his addictions, his fame, his fall from glory, and his deterioration, I found my new best pal: someone I can love and admire and learn some hard lessons from--he's like a very elaborate memento mori. I also found out he had an unpublished manuscript in the archives at Dartmouth College, about whatever homosexual incident chased him out of school and later haunted the drinking binges he reproduced for The Lost Weekend. And then, GOOD NEWS: Jackson's manuscripts have no restrictions on them, and Dartmouth was willing to scan and email me the pages.
Talk about scholarship out of school: I didn't have any use for digging through his drafts, I just needed to see them. I'm sure some of the notes I took will be handed over to Marley now, but I've taken a lot of notes in the past that I was able to rely on years later (for my thesis, for short stories, for all these research books I'm on about today); it's a very useful compulsion.
Anyway: Native Moment's title comes from a Walt Whitman poem (you see all these interconnecting threads?!) and is the fictionalized version of what happened to Charles Jackson in college. After a childhood where two of his siblings were killed in a gruesome car-meets-train accident, after his father abandoned the remaining family, after Charles and his brother were both molested by the church's piano player, he finally went to college and thought he was home. His reverence for the 'ugly cathedral' of the liberal arts building, his sense of belonging to a fraternity, his weekend job doing real, paid writing for the Newark Courier--he was happy for a minute!
Before he was made a full member of the fraternity, however, he caught feelings for an older pledge, wrote a letter about it, and that letter was brought as evidence against him by the upperclassmen as grounds for tossing him out. The incident is alluded to in The Lost Weekend as just some overly enthusiastic hero-worship (that was still too queer for the club), but in Native Moment it's described quite a bit more explicitly and painfully: the Jackson character, Phil, lets this much older pledge use his bed to sleep in when the guy doesn't even live in the house (or anywhere else, because he's a bum), just like he lets him 'borrow' his money and smoke his cigarettes and take his clothes. When Phil crawls into bed with the drunken guy he hero-worships, that guy pushes Phil's head under the covers for a blow job. Phil didn't know what that meant or what to do about it, so ultimately he wrote a letter apologizing for being so easily used (basically), and when confronted about the letter and the act, he got banished from the fraternity, and quit college for good. One more heartbreak for Jackson to try and drink away. I love the guy so much I could just hug him to death.
Jackson's biographer, Blake Bailey, points out that this book was once quite close to publication, and that if it had been published it would have been "a work of pioneering frankness," but it was turned down because the publisher was not "sufficiently confident of the commercial possibilities."
On that topic--the idea that people don't like buying what's uncomfortably true--we return to where I started: there's something very freeing in writing about true things, because telling the truth is some of the best armor in the world. Readers want happy endings, and in a world of fan service, they will sometimes hate a well-written book for not handing them false comfort, which is something that Jackson came up against a lot, and yet always tried to resist. Here's a quote from some of his earliest college writing, when he took on the role of theater critic:
"If there is anything that makes our blood literally boil, it is to hear someone say, 'One ought to go to the theater to be amused; there is enough sadness and trouble in life without having to see it reproduced upon the stage.' ... To believe in the theater as a place merely to be amused is like trying to 'kid' yourself that the world is a Pollyanna paradise, and that we are all little glad-children."
Myself and my Marley and Charles Jackson? We are not glad-children, and I'm happy about that.