Published in “Mensa Bulletin, November/December 2011 and also received the 2005 Society of Southwestern Authors first prize for personal essay/memoir
I was casually informed a year after the fact by the editor of Graffitti that my short story “Herbie” published in that magazine was listed in Martha Foley’s The Best American Short Stories of 1975, under “Distinctive Short Stories of 1974.”
Here I was rubbing literary shoulders with the prolific Joyce Carol Oates (seven citations), Isaac Bashevis Singer (two), and under “Foreign Authors” Milan Kundera, Heinrich Böll, and John Hawkes, and other such luminaries as Donald Barthelme, Norman Mailer, and Andre Dubus. In my naiveté I failed to appreciate or grasp who these individuals were. Dwelling in my own personal ambition, blinded, in the beginner’s dream world, I was too self-absorbed.
When I rushed through the pages to discover my listing, I was appalled to find that my story was cited under another’s name, the poet H.T. Kirby-Smith, who was on the facing page across from my story in Graffitti. I wrote Martha Foley asking her to rectify the error. She wrote back in a handwritten note, this grand dame of the ’30s, founder of the fabled Story magazine, publisher of Hemingway and Faulkner that she was sorry for the mistake and if I were patient, she would gladly correct the error in the 1976 edition. Her note was from another era, stately, informal, kind, as if Lincoln had penned a note to a grieving mother who had lost a son at Gettysburg. I would endure a rejection note by her hand at any time, so gracious in spirit.
I never did hear from her again until I came across her obituary in The New York Times. And so, for a variety of feelings, I never did bother to have the error corrected. I had been instructed about fate, and I learned that lesson well. In a fashion it all became rather unimportant to me—credits and the like. In fact, I remain grateful for that experience. I owe Ms. Foley a debt. If the editor of Graffitti had not rejected a second story of mine about a year later, making note on the rejection slip, “Oh, by the way, did you know . . . ,” I would never have known about my nomination or experienced Ms. Foley’s compassion for a new writer. When I relate this anecdote to friends with all its pearly meanings for me, they are upset, inquire if I ever remedied it. Missing the point entirely, they don’t get it which is all right with me.
At thirty-four I learned a remarkable truth about a whole lot of things in life, this Möbius strip of ifs. I could have reached my present age without ever learning about my distinction, a baby calf amid greater elephants. And it would not have made a whit of difference. I have continued to write, more emboldened than ever from what I had learned to the bone. Unknowing, in ignorance, casual random chance—spiky and spastic, serendipitous discovery, errors made, editor dies, up and down the slipstream of life, a Duncan yo-yo “sleeping.” And so I made my literary debut. And what of H.T. Kirby-Smith? What will the poet make of a stranger’s work appended to his or her literary resume? Did Kirby-Smith write a letter of different intent to Ms. Foley? (Did she nurture Kirby-Smith as she did me?) There’s a short story here, of an identity given without permission. And so it spins off into permutations.
Thirty years have passed—high school English teacher; psychotherapist; writer working part time at his craft, a small, amoebic body of work forming. Rejections never stung after the Foley encounter (I was fed well early on in the nest) unless they had that tinge of bitchy rancor some editors evince. It is the grape not the vintner that counts. The most encouraging, the kindest rejection in those early years came from The New Yorker, finding the worth even in a poorly constructed story. The anonymous editor lauded the effort and so I was again encouraged—nurtured—to go on. I knew I had to say my say, with or without recognition, and I went about doing just that. In 1996 I wrote an intensely felt novel about a death camp, i, and it was written in white heat, “Made it, ma . . . Top of the world.” Finished in two weeks, it was clearly channeled from my unconscious.
I self-published the book because I knew another book on the Holocaust was not “fashionable,” although another manual on Quicken was deemed critical to the well-being of the homeland. Subsequently I felt encouraged to write more after the first reviews came in, and i is part of a tetralogy that I am trying to publish. New York publishers, some two hundred or more, my agent queried, lauded the effort, even the writing as exemplary, but said no—one going so far as to imply that I might have stood a better chance if I were Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi. But, dear editor, Wiesel was kind enough to read parts of my book and wrote back that he was “moved.”
I am now sending queries out west, pestering small presses, the university presses, and moving north to Canada. Recently the Hungarian Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he published no more than 5,000 copies of Fateless worldwide, in what he now says was an inadequate translation by Northwestern University Press. If I am rejected again, I will publish the tetralogy for myself for, in a curious way, to publish at the hands of others is not to write for oneself. Martha Foley converted my nascent ambition into internal riches at the very beginning, bless her. I need not be extolled, given distinctions, just the merry appreciation of close ones, relatives, and children. I have readers. Writing is much like parenting; one is never done with it. Sweetly rubied as publication can be, I do not crave the fruit. I chase no chimera, and I am much less striven, much more reasonably contented with what I can do with the literary tools I own. I have much less fear about my worth as a writer and who I am, much the same thing. I publish to share.
Since 1998, I have endured personal losses—my eldest daughter committed suicide at age thirty-four. Returning to New York from sweltering Alabama with her ashes by my side in a hard, “convenient” cardboard box, I dispersed them into a lake in Colombia County in upstate New York. Haunted as I am until I die, of mistakes made, of fatherly blunders and omissions, it is not guilt that daily lacerates. It is folly. This is the life now blown up into my face, the scree I experience in everyday living. The following year I lost my wife in a horrific automobile accident in which my other daughter suffered grievous bodily injuries, her boyfriend dying in the carnage as well. Shakespeare said it well, “Oh tragic and insupportable loss.”
Two more books followed after the deaths of my wife and daughter. Doubtless, on complex levels, my feelings about them imbued my efforts, for a river of being bereft sadly meanders throughout the novels, a pallor of resignation suffuses the atmosphere. A close friend said it best: “Your whole life, as I know it, has been a holocaust.” Indeed, the early death of my mother and the depressed life we lived in our household turned me to writing. Putting on excess pounds, sleeping too much, shaving too little, I took my anguish and the bile it precipitated and metabolized all that into word. I poured my personal agonies into each page.
And so I persevere. I go on. Life is propulsive. I continue to write to explain me to me, hoping in so doing that you will see in that something of you. An irate person’s twitching tongue, a nagging debt, endless legal litigation, daily harassments; I remind myself are detritus compared to what I have endured. I go on. My very DNA demands that of me. It is liberating to have little fear. However, and so comically human, I observe, I must continually prod myself to remember that. Unfortunately it does not become automatic. One need not be a former teacher or psychotherapist to understand, to really know, that lessons are never really learned. What I really do know is that fearlessness makes for authenticity in writing.
As I reconnoiter the past as I near my end, the decades of learning my craft, stonewalling of efforts by others, the callousness of an indifferent world—and marketplace, the limitations of self and others—and the losses along the way, I am beset by questions, always by questions. Answers are expired prescriptions.
I identify with Sisyphus in Camus’s famed essay, who apparently had an Attic smile on his face while struggling—it is there, not there, but seems there—as he pressed his shoulder laboriously against the boulder for another stiff day ascending the mountain. Reeling backwards, so close now to the summit, collapsing underfoot, tumbling down once more, he is condemned by the gods to suffer this eternal charade, a mythic repetition compulsion. Apparently he realized throughout the eons that arriving was rather humdrum. The struggle mundanely to close the Lark suitcase and get to LaGuardia on time for the probably delayed flight is when mettle engages the cog of character, the struggle, daintily put.
I struggle relentlessly to sustain some serious kind of deconditioned self. It is the writer’s task to be perched outside and away from his society, to translate the telling societal hum beneath his furred talons as he squats on telephone wires outside of town. He remains off the grid if at all possible. It is a variant of the stranger in a strange land, only stranger. Rather, it is an attained awareness of self that leads to the isolation and cold sweat any truth reveals. Teiresias agonized over that with Oedipus. I write for self. I seek knowledge and clarity. I do not necessarily become wiser, that is an anointment. The windshield is clearer and clearer, I can tell you that, as I can see better ahead.
As Krishnamurti so long ago observed, every society is essentially corrupt (any arguments about that?). I try to cleanse myself as often as I possibly can. It is in my very anonymity (thank you, Ms. Foley), that I can remain steadfast, honest, and true. It is my destiny alone to sustain my losses, to endure, to wither or to last—to be gone. What I leave literarily is no more important than the creases in my pants, as this globe hurtles through space.
In a graveyard somewhere near the tip of Long Island stands a single cross that says “James Jones”—that’s class. It is, at last, all an effort for self-awareness, as we struggle against a fuzzy fate and a hazy death. We need only connect, a wise scribbler once said.