It is my pleasure, privilege, and honor to present to you a whirlwind of wisdom and intrigue from the author of HAWSER, our IABS&R Volume 3 selection.
Or So You Say
by J Hardy Carroll
Tell me the truth, now.
You always dreamed of being a writer. Doesn’t matter whether your dream took the shape of Erica Jong in a penthouse sipping Moet while talking into a Dictaphone or Hemingway slouched over a café crème wearing down a stub pencil in a composition notebook.
Your dream isn’t of fame, of wealth or even of the admiration of your fellows.
No. Your dream is much simpler.
Your dream is to be paid for your unadulterated idea.
It is a strong dream, a storyteller’s dream, but it is a dream fraught with questions.
Who are you to tell a story?
What makes your idea worth anyone’s time?
How in God’s name can you call yourself a writer?
You know the facts. Writing badly is easy. It just comes. You’re so pleased with it. You are proud. Until you forget.
You forget that writing well is ridiculously hard, a series of tasks, many unrewarding and some downright unpleasant. Self-delusion lurks in every dark corner and all your worst tendencies get laid out naked on the slab in public view. Your clever clichés and trite situations and penchant to lecture form a kind of cesspool though which you wade, dragging for a story as though it was the body of a murder victim.
My, how you do go on.
But tell me the truth.
Secretly, you think you’re great. Admit it.
Well, maybe not great. Not yet. But good. Good enough to get published, anyway. Except for the fact that there aren’t any publishers these days willing to take a chance on somebody without an MFA from Iowa or Emerson or Columbia.
Or maybe it’s this: maybe you’re not so great. Maybe you are only great at lying to yourself.
So start another story. Maybe this time it will turn out better. Maybe this one will actually be something you can open in six months and read with a degree of pleasure or even pride.
Did you read that piece on Andre Dubus, about how he would take a year to write a single story, how he would trim 150 pages down to twenty, how one perfect sentence followed another?
Did you read about how Jack London pawned his bicycle for postage to send out his manuscripts only to have them come back months later with form rejection notices tucked inside the self-addressed stamped envelope?
Did you read about Annie Proulx writing cookbooks?
By the way, who in hell do you think you are?
You didn’t finish college. Your father was a professor who taught Chaucer and Beowulf and who never wrote anything down. You dedicated your first novel to him but he died before he got a chance to read it. In his life he finished only one short story, the one about his father called My Father’s Dreams that you read when you were in high school, the one that made you cry and wonder why your dad didn’t write more.
Or at all. Your dad could talk an acorn into an oak, but he never could finish anything. How many stories did he start and never finish?
Is this about him? Is that all there is to the dream? No? What, then?
Don’t give me that shit about how when you first read Faulkner, hacked your way though the twisted vines of his prose only to find yourself lost in a thicket, befuddled and a little angry, how you went back and started again, trying hard to not be bored, trying hard to be smart, trying not to give up and re-read that Trevanian book instead.
Don’t give me that shit about Faulkner being hard because there was that afternoon when you realized what the story was about, when you saw that the pattern of random rocks in the road was a secret code of musical notes scoring a symphony that only grew in richness over the span of years.
Don’t give me that shit about Vonnegut, either, about how you read Breakfast of Champions at the age of sixteen when you were so depressed you wanted to kill yourself. Don’t tell me that reading that book made you decide to go to the hospital instead of jumping off the parking structure of the Pioneer Hotel. The part where you were going to be polite and wrap yourself in garbage bags so as not to make too much of a mess is pretty funny—irony—but I still don’t want to hear it.
You know what? I don’t care. I don’t care what makes you want to do this thing. I am not interested in your ambitions to have people read your work. People read your work all the time, read it and like it.
I’m not interested in your quest for a perfection you will never achieve, not interested in your heroes or even your opinions on truth, war, love, loss, fatherhood, death or any of it.
So what, then? What interests me?
I’ll tell you.
It’s the act of writing. Writing every day, writing something. Think of the hummingbird. Think of the shark. Think of the way your heart is beating away in your chest at this very moment. No rest. Ever onward.
Don’t give me your reasons. Don’t give me anything. Don’t think about it. Don’t think at all.
Empty yourself out and get to it. You can think about it later.
Shame did not come when fat Tony pressed the greasy envelope into my lap beneath the pub table. Fat Tony smiled, nodded and got up to go, winked as he left.
Brisbee thumped my shoulder then.
“Popped your cherry, you have. Let’s have another round.” Bris motioned for the whiskey. I suppose I drank, caught up in the moment.
Nor had there been shame in the blur of my room when I counted the bills, more than I would make were I to give Sultan his head and let him win by the hundred or so yards I knew him capable of.
In the gray haze of morning my head thumped from the drinking and lack of sleep, but I could take no coffee until after the race. A single cup of coffee might add a pound or more, especially when my tissues were absorbent from last night’s liquor.
Shame came only as I approached the stables. Sultan’s eyes brought it, the shame of what I would do, what I was doing. I might explain it to myself, say it was only one race, only money.
Sultan would only know what I did. He would never know why. He would never care.
It was Jill’s idea. She lives downstairs in our building, a city kid like me. She said she was a real Harriet the Spy. I never read it, so I’ll take her word. I like books about war.
Last night there was a building party and all the kids went to Mrs. Massey’s on the fifth floor. Jill and I were the oldest by a long ways. Most of the kids still ate their boogers and a few were in diapers. Jill and I went into The Late Mr. Massey’s study and sat down in front of his big RCA console to watch the Movie of the Week, The French Connection.
It was about this cop named Popeye who goes crazy trying to catch this one drug dealer. There’s a scene where they’re on the subway and the dealer gets on and off the car, Popeye trying to keep up. It’s real exciting. One steps in, the other follows, then he steps out. The dealer steps in just as the doors close and Popeye is locked out. The train leaves and Popeye runs down the platform. The dealer waves at him.
Jill said that we should try it the next day before school, go down to the 59th Street station at rush hour. I could be Popeye. It was the first day of school, so we could be late.
She got on just as the doors closed. She waved, like the guy in the movie.
Only we didn’t know it was an express to the World Trade Center station. No stops. I bet she can’t get back here until after 9:30 at the earliest.
One night I walked from my apartment up to Portland’s tiny Japan Town and witnessed two old men sitting in a vast room playing go, a young man watching from the doorway. I went home and wrote this piece. It is typical of the sort of things I was writing at the time, fragments of larger stories never written.
October 15, 1998
The Boy ran until it seemed his heart would shake itself free from his ribcage, cheap sneakers slapping the wet sidewalk, echoing off the alley walls, eyes wide and panicked, an animal’s eyes. The odors were in themselves a torture: garlic and oil in a hot wok, rich stocks on back burners throwing bellows of thick steam, wheaten buns warm from fresh baking. His shrunken stomach registered these when his mind did not. His mind was occupied with the immediate problem of escape and survival.
That morning he watched the old man playing Go with a Master who was visiting from Hokkaido, a suited, silent man who indicated his wishes with glances and intimation. Tea was served, and after some small ceremony the game board brought out. The Go Ke in their carved ivory box was retrieved from the padded chest.
The old man and the Master knelt faced one another, dry fingers aloft, cradling the first stone as a violinist will hold his bow, the artless ease won from years of practice. When the stones were placed the board sounded like strokes on a drum, each note ringing clean in the still room.
The Boy watched, daring no breath lest he alter the inexorable flow of the match.
As the middle game opened and opportunities diminished, it became clear that the Master would lose, although his loss would be beautiful,with many brilliant moments. It was a game so profound and true it should have been recorded by a scribe for future generations to study, although of course it was not recorded. The Boy watched wide-eyed as the inevitable drew closer and finally descended. Tsuru no Sugomori .
The old man was the winner, though the Boy felt he had shared the victory. It was as if a beautiful and full life had been painted before him on a living canvas; the totality and poetry of it lingered in the air as the scent of blossoms will hang about an arbor in spring.
But that was this morning. Now, because of the money, the Boy was dead. There was no place he could run where he would not be found, no one who would risk the total annihilation which aiding him would bring.