Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Please Sir, may I have another? The masochism of a new novel
The roman a clef, the deft little book, the "novel with a key" that will justify everything, make your old enemies choke on their latte and canned caviar.
Like another little Russian, I had been insulted and injured. I am just back from a contact in Detroit. I have have picked up a Detroit attitude. If you can't fix 'em, f*ck 'em.
Nice work if you can get it. Even nicer if you could write and write a little better than those around you at the time, teachers of english who fancied themselves writers.
So, still smarting after twenty years of what I then perceived as insult and injury I began to write the following:
A lifetime ago, I was a college professor. I had a secretary and a receptionist and a computer hard drive full of emails from important tliving novelists whose work I lectured about. I was still in their circle, at least with the Canadians and I missed their company, usually at the swell but old Winchester Hotel on King Street West, Toronto, Oh, I missed our mammoth drunks at that place, even the many times we writers were asked to leave, after our enthusiastic, drunken constructs of great sprawling novels in the smoky pub air, back in the days before the tobacco prohibition. Now, there were nervous, class conscious waiters anxious for tips who didn't want to hear our bullshit, and "stop all that smoking, there's a law you know." There was usually an eclectic clientele at the Winchester. Disgraced Doctors, hoboes or wandering writers, we all loved the place all the same.
But there had been a hiatus, a stoppage.I realized I was starting to drink my life away. I had to be what I told everybody in the pub I was, a writer, but some actually began to use the word phoney right to me across the hastily wiped tables. Well, I had to prove them wrong. At least to myself.
I went to Mexico to write still another novel. Carramba. The life there among the bougainvillea, those flowers that grew out of walls, and the Mariachi bands that grew out town squares -- again seemed stonger and more fascinating than the actual book I had been working on. Was I writing or was I just drinking, scribbling and fornicating? Seemed it was impossible to go off in all three directions. The book never did come out right. Finally after nine months,I stopped drinking and got it done by discipline alone. You had to be an army veteran or, (dare one say it?) disciplined academic in order to finish things. Finished on page 500, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was no good. I could not go on in the impossible profession of paid novelist. I was written out. Knew it for sure. I was finished, broke and with a hangover that screamed to God. I had to abandone the vows, try to make money and not paragraphs now. Go to work. Get a job.
I returned to Toronto to find a society of almost unbearable stuffiness, of smoke- free environments, bicycles and fitness parlors while around the old Winchester hotel there was murder and mayhem, black on black, as if to contradict it all. Soon, I arrived at another politically correct place, the college, though the politics here was local, but no less murderous as competitive faculty bent on a headship seemed to carry knives this long. Years even further back, at my first go round in teaching I had achieved an untenured professorship by way of a bestseller, a fluke, really, an odyssey of novel about about an escapee from suburbia, a refugee from the monster home-with-no-back-yard Glenway subdivision in Newmarket, Ontario, yeah, exurbanite me. There were a lot of restless, greying forty -year- olds in their in their Dilbert cube offices in Toronto who wished like hell to have done what I did, even if it meant loss of security, personal and financial.
I failed. Bad knight. Broke my lance in the quest. The goal was wrong, my talent somewhat short. At the end a year's actual writing, the outcome in Toronto had been rejection. Rejection? Who me? God's chosen?
Failure.The Alvin and the Chipmuks song in my head, as if out of a computer: "Yes you." I did not bother to resubmit the new book. I knew that the novel was no good. Just knew it. Too wordy, too long, to unstructured for someone who was supposed to be a seasoned novelist. I was also broke. I had to get a job in or around my profession. Again, Like another Johnny Helpless-Can't-Do, I took a job as a teacher.
Teaching was far easier than writing. Writing was going Gutenburg,a placing of characters of black marks on white paper, producing print, the long, hard way. Is seemed to me the most difficult part of teaching was figuring out what you were going to talk about the next day. It also paid five hundred dollars a day, whereas for an author, the pay was far from secure. It would be fifty thousand dollars flat, and if your book didn't go, you had to pay some or all of it it back. Law of deminishing returns the superior economics profs had said.
But even here, at Seneca College amng the ivied halls and park grounds of Lady Eaton's former estate in King City, I was beginning to sense there was now even less security at King than in some writer's colony in West End Toronto or Vancouver.
My employer, Seneca College, was trying to fire me.
Hubris, sin of pride. Dare I go on for another 50,000 words on this?