Perforated Lines (you can't resist 'em!)

-- Thursday, January 6, 2000 --



1:05 a.m. Neither fish nor fowl. It's a sign for a local bar and I pass it just about every other day. Their door is always open and you can always smell the twilight in there. I've never gone inside; my bar days have long been gone ... pretty much by the time my legs were long enough to reach the floor and get in the way of spinning spinning spinning, it was all over.

My grandparents had a small bar once. Some of my earliest memories involve sticky red leatherette, chunky glass ashtrays and corky Ballantine beer coasters. Three Olympic circles; almost, but not quite Godel, Esher, Bach.

But neither fish nor fowl is how I've been feeling lately about things, mostly things having to do with writing. I've now written more words on this site in the last six months than I'd normally write for a meaty novel. I am proud of my words, and I am most proud of my stamina and my, dare I even say it? My consistency.

Yes, I've managed to get here every day, and as Woody Allen has noted, the act of merely showing up is 99 percent of what we call success. It's certainly true for Hollywood success, and probably for used-car salesmanship awards as well. Just show up, do your work, clean up your mess, and leave quietly. Repeat, as necessary.

But let's say you want to do some real writing. Some fiction writing. You know the kind I mean -- the kind that involves that good old literary conceit. You get to pretend. You get to make up whole entire worlds: oh, goodie. If you're smart, you'll go for the poverty angle. If you're lucky, you'll have a dark-skinned, abusive parent. If you're good, you get a Nobel Prize.

If you don't aspire to prizes, you can pick a nice comfy genre, research your period details. dress your characters up in their native costumes and then merely wind them up. Shoot them into the future or the past, let them battle their demons ... and every six months you can take your royalty checks to the bank.

It can be so simple. I read fiction, sometimes. I've written fiction in the past. When did it stop being exciting? Am I getting too old to pretend?

I do know that the fashion for quality fiction for the last fifty years has been to write in the simple, plain-speak patois of the perceived poor. Think Hemingway in the South, on a hot day in a K-Mart parking lot. Ball up a fist and mumble fusty dialogue. Scratch something sweaty and hairy for good measure.

Don't end your story, but rather ... just stop when things are looking bleak. Bleak is an excellent all-purpose tool. Even if you were unlucky enough to grow up less than dirt poor, you can still be bleak and bitter, dissolute and depraved. And remember: Rich kids speak in sentence fragments; poor kids speak in broken English.

If you closed your eyes and listened to the stories read from any literary magazine on any newsstand today, you could easily assume you were back in the fourth grade. The language is that simple. The settings are sketchy. The words are ... spare. "Poor" is the richest literary vein you can mine.

I had an argument with Alice Walker once and she ended it by saying that I couldn't know real poverty (and thus couldn't aspire to real writing) because my teeth were too good. Only a few years earlier she could have said that I was too white. I've also been told that my characters sound too smart to be poor.

Write what you know, they always say.

So I do, and I did, and I will again. What I know is that we've had public libraries for as long as I've been alive, and every single book inside is free for the asking. Poor kids get to read them.

What I also know is that -- this stuff you're reading right now? I think it's "real" writing. It certainly feels real to me, even though I'm not making it up. My grandparents really owned a bar. I really walked by a bar in my neighborhood the other day. I didn't go in.

And, as Linda Ellerby used to say ... so it goes.


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