Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tee It Up

I was talking to a friend about writing yesterday. I had written well and was feeling ebullient as a result, and because every positive emotion conjures its opposite, as though my brain can't help but hold good things up to the mirror of let's not kid ourselves, I'd spent some time, as I so often do, contrasting that afternoon's high with the frequent overwhelming sense of doom and distress that accompanies failures. "It's like golf," I told my friend. You see, I am a passionate but lousy golfer, and like most amateurs of my particular stripe -- I've never taken a lesson, I rarely waste time at the range, I step up and hit the ball without much preamble -- I shoot consistently around a hundred. That's not terrible for an unschooled hacker, but of those thirty or so extra shots, the great majority of them tend to be the kinds of efforts after which, in most other pursuits, one would say, "Wow, I am very bad at this. I should stop wasting my money and other people's time doing it." Worm burners, three-putts, shanks, fliers, straight-up whiffs -- I've done it all. And yet I don't specifically remember a single one of those shots: I only know I've mis-hit in those and many other ways because my scorecards have told me so. What I do remember are the shots where everything came together in what can only be described as the confluence of chance and divine intervention. With rare exceptions (and believe me, in thirty years, there have been some painfully exceptional rounds), there is always a little cluster of those magical shots. I hit a hole-in-one on a 130-yard par-three in a light drizzle. I've knocked down sixty-foot triple-break putts. I've pulled out a seven iron and hooked a ball up and around a sprawling maple, landing it utterly improbably on the front edge of the green. My best round ever was an 87, which felt like all the good to great shots from an entire summer's worth of golf had come together on one magnificent Sunday afternoon and said, "Have your way with us, you big stud." And have my way I did. My point is this: I've had my moments, as every crappy amateur has, and those moments are what inspire duffers like me to climb out of bed of an early Saturday morning to lace up his spikes and spoil a good walk.

I am, for all intents and purposes, no less an amateur as a writer, although I'd argue that I'm much more proficient in this realm than I am on the fairways: not a scratch writer, but probably about a ten or twelve handicap, meaning that I don't execute perfectly with every swing, but I tend to recognize where I went wrong and know how to adjust and make up for it with my next swing. In golf, I'm not convinced there's any such thing as a natural. There are simply too many variables, and the most obvious consideration, athleticism, often turns out to be somewhat of a curse: gifted athletes, with their ease and grace and flexibility and balance, tend to expect those attributes to translate into instant success. I've seen the game of golf chew those people up and spit them out on the first tee. There may or may not be naturals in the sphere of writing, I don't know, but I certainly wouldn't say I'm a natural as a writer. I am the equivalent of the aforementioned athlete: I was born with a pretty sharp mind, and I was fortunate to be exposed to an array of experiences that honed that mind in a particular fashion. I developed an aptitude based on the combination of a gift and a lot of years of incidental education.

I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't write, but I do remember the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer: it was the first time somebody adored something I'd written. I was a sophomore in college, nineteen years old, and I'd written a sad, haunting little piece called "A Splash in the Lake" for my Creative Writing 201 class, which was taught by Jenny Boylan, who at that time was known as Jim. In the story a young married couple are vacationing at a rustic lake house, enjoying a brief respite from their new adult life of too many bills, not enough money and, as I imagined it, insufficient joy. They had a child, a toddler, and while the child napped, they stole a few intimate moments together, moments that lingered into a sleepy insouciance that was interrupted by a sound that may or may not have been the closing of a screen door. As they lie there slowly coming out of sleep another sound greets them: a splash in the lake. Yeah, a bit heavy-handed, but well received by a room full of young young adults, none of whom had ever been married or had (and lost) a child. This was a beginner's writing class, so actual bare-knuckles criticism was rare, which is too bad because that story could have used some thoughtful commentary. The good news, though, is that I benefited from the experience of having impressed a handful of readers. Don't ever let anyone kid you about this: we all want to be loved, and if we're even the least bit thoughtful, we want to be loved for the things we do well. When I sit down to write a story, I'm not thinking about who might read it and then admire me a little. But I'm definitely thinking that when I finish the story. I want to put my little stories out there, knowing full well the world is filled with firing squads, but knowing too that there might be even just one someone who reads them and her eyes light up in the same places mine did when I wrote them.

Actually, there has been one notable exception to the statement that I don't start from the perspective of writing to win affection: I spent a solid year and a half writing exclusively with an audience of one in mind. My day's work didn't end until I felt like I'd written something I could show her in the vain hope it would make her love me. And god was that a terrible book. But I kept at it as though I thought it would save my life. I was almost devastatingly wrong. After the fallout, after the dust had settled over everything and I started writing a new book, I didn't immediately realize I'd managed to reshape my approach. For the most part, honestly, I was just writing, unfettered, as it turns out, but not necessarily conscious of that. It wasn't until months later, after I'd finished a first draft of the book and I showed one of the stories to my most trusted reader, that it finally hit me. She read the story called "Teachers," and when she reached the end she looked at me and said, "Dad, your writing is brilliant." I was unprepared for what it felt like to hear those words from the person I admire most. But I'm smart enough to know I want to hear her say them again and again and again. And so I write, and I keep writing until the story is finished, and then I hope the right girl loves it.

Most days the writing falls somewhere in the range between the uninspired knock-down five-iron that does little more than keep you out of trouble while moving you closer to the green, and the topped second shot that trickles into the pond, thus negating the value of a stellar tee shot, leaving you cursing and muttering while you dig another ball out of your bag and drop it roughly in the vicinity of where the last one went to get wet. But then there are those occasions when you're just tapping away at the keys and find yourself turning an exquisite phrase, dropping perfect words from a character's mouth, or taking a scene somewhere you didn't know it could go (or you could take it), and it is the equivalent of stringing together a long, straight drive, a solid approach, and a chip-in from the fringe to eagle the toughest par five on the course. For those extended moments while you wait for your partners to putt out so you can make your way to the next tee, you replay those three shots in your head, recall nuances of stance and grip and swing, smile a little to yourself, and hope some of the mystery of what you just accomplished remains when you step up to the next hole and tee it up again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Indian Summer

Three days ago the sun shone all day and the temperature reached somewhere in the low eighties. That evening I turned the corner and strolled in the direction of the river to buy smokes and felt the day's heat radiating off the brick buildings that line the sidewalk. A three-quarter moon sat just above the spires of the Two-Cent Bridge. It's Indian summer, that stretch of sneaky gorgeous days I can't imagine happening anywhere else but here, at least not with quite the same alacrity. There's an essence to these days that, I kid you not, some part of me longs for the other three-hundred-sixty or so days of the year. Not even the most tranquil summer afternoon reaches me the same way as these un-fall days. It is autumn interrupted, the annual promise of slow death and deep freeze punked, if only briefly. If I believed in Mother Nature or god-hands of any ilk, I would be hard pressed not to admire her/their whimsical exuberance in the midst of Indian summer.

And so it is October, a month that, for as far back as I can recall, has always sort of sung for me. It's the month when baseball crowns its champion, and half the times my beloved Red Sox have found their way to the World Series in my lifetime, they've won -- way better numbers than either my grandfather or my father could have dreamt of. It is the month of frost rising from the grass in the morning and wood smoke hanging heavy in the suddenly dark early evening. It's the month in which I met, over the span of eight years, my first great love, my last college girlfriend, and the mother of my daughter, and although all of those relationships faltered and ultimately blew apart against the rocky shores of conflicting desires, something important came out of each one: teenage sex, a taste of grown-up life, and my absolute favorite person in the world (respectively). And each of those experiences began with an encounter that will always be inexorably linked to the light and sound and smell and feel of October. I am built for this month, it is my speed. I've sported some form of beard most of my life. I favor pants over shorts, shoes that lace and tie and have soles with treads in them, shirts that button, with worn, rumpled collars that flop almost impudently over the neckline of a sweater. I like throwing on a sweater. I like knowing I'm almost certainly going to need a jacket. October, you are my jam.

This is a new kind of October, though. This is an October of grim and bitter first anniversaries. In the twelve intervening months, the details -- as they should and must -- have grown less interesting, less compelling, and yet we are a culture that marks time by the recollection of events both good and bad. We grow collectively pensive on September 11, just as our grandparents once did on December 7. I've witnessed couples gazing unabashedly blissfully into each other's eyes twenty-five years to the day after they were married. Every June 15 at eight-forty-three in the morning for the past sixteen years, I've tipped my hat to the universe for an experience that left an indelible mark on me. As the years roll by, we raise glasses to fallen friends and parents, to lasting joy, to the sacred and the mysterious, the sublime and the inexplicable. However we choose to do so, and whatever our reasons, we take note of the days that stand in our past like signposts on roads that have long since been paved over.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I spent much of last October engaged in a cycle that, with little variation, looked like this: drink beer, smoke cigarettes, listen to sad or angry music, punch holes in walls, smash things with a baseball bat. I did mix it up a little. When my Louisville Slugger splintered upon meeting, for about the twentieth time, a once solid doorframe, I replaced it with a wooden softball bat I don't even know why I owned. I broke that one, too. I spent a delightful evening heaving a cupboard full of teacups and saucers against the wall of the smallest room in my apartment. It was glorious. Some days, just to get out of the house (and thereby avoid going crazy), I carted my laptop down to my favorite bar and sat with my headphones on, listening to the same songs I'd been listening to at home, drinking PBR and playing online sudoku. For hours. Also glorious. That party started right around this time last year and went on, almost unabated, into mid-November. Then it got bad.

As early October got going, a friend who'd been there for the whole ride asked how things are going, and I told him I wasn't looking forward to the inevitable trip through those memories the month would bring. "Nah," he replied, "you've got to deal with it one way or another. Can't have that sort of experience and then pretend it doesn't have resonance later on. But it's not much resonance. You made a mistake, fell in with the wrong girl, let her scramble your brain, and ended up in a psych ward for a few days. It's heavy, but it's not the end of the world. It's not even the end of the story. So, you know, buck up." I thought about that for a while before I hit "reply" and wrote a one-word response that to anyone else might have sounded flip, but which I suspect my friend understood expressed everything that needed to be said: "Indeed."

There was a time, of course, when it did feel like the end of the world. Felt like, but wasn't. I like to say I'd rather be lucky than good every day of the week, but of course that's me being grotesquely glib. I was (and continue to be) lucky, and for that I'll always be grateful. But the words I just quoted remind me of something else that same friend said to me some months after everything went very quickly to hell. It was early March by then, and somehow on the heels of having so successfully shoved my head up my own ass, I'd managed to write a book. The aforementioned friend wrote these words to me shortly after I'd finished: "Remember, (she's) a bitch and she nearly killed you, but without her, you don't have a book." I wouldn't have put it in precisely those terms, but the sentiment was spot on, and that's why these dark days of October, as well as the darker days of November still to come, deserve the same solemn recognition as all the days of joy: because without last October 3rd, 4th, 12th, 14th, and 23rd, there never would have been last March 6th. And without last March 6th, there might well not be today, or tomorrow, or next year. Again, I was lucky, but truth be told, I'm awfully glad to be able to say I'm also pretty goddamned good.

By the way, if you look it up, you'll see there's a secondary definition of Indian summer: "A period of happiness or success occurring late in life."

Welcome to the autumn of my content.