The Fourth Night
ON THIS DAY seven years ago I set off to hike up a volcano on the Italian island of Stromboli. Stromboli burps up a respectable geyser of fire-rocks as often as every few minutes, and since I thought myself a great Romantic at the time, I felt obliged by my destiny—a rare heroic one, of course—to climb it. For the excursion I packed a bottle of red village-wine and a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The plan was to pass the night atop the volcano in solitude, murmuring Nietzsche between swigs to the exploding backdrop. The signs I passed on the way up—“Warning, Explosive Volcano, Hike Only with an Authorized Guide” … “No Staying Overnight”—only served to pad my 21-year-old convictions that I was of Byronic blood, a veritable walking volcano destined for fire and flight.
But when I arrived before sunset at the summit, some 3000 feet above sea level, I was both disappointed and relieved to find that a German couple in their late twenties and a family of three, which included a pre-teen, were also there for the night. I also discovered that I would not quite be sleeping at a crater’s mouth. The craters were several hundred feet below and to the northwest of us. The elevation made for spectacular viewing of the fireworks, but after several blasts it was clear I would not be dodging any molten rock; I merely had to endure a dusting of ash and, depending on the wind, an occasional coughing fit due to the yellow sulphurous fumes streaming from the crater. As for Nietzsche, he didn’t make it out of the backpack. The cold of night came on fast and, after sharing the wine with the German couple, I retired in unromantic fashion to my sleeping bag.
I later devoted a chapter to my hike up Stromboli in what would become my first effort at writing a book. Despite the mellow nature of my night on the volcano, I hyped up the story with an overload of exclamatory adverbs and adjectives, also gleaning whatever symbolic power I could out of fire and explosions to promote the underlying message of the book—that I was a foolhardy but admirable philosopher-drifter whom men should heed and women desire. I was still what is called “fresh out of college,” which means that I had many vague ideas clogging my head as to what the world was about. I had known for some time that I wanted to write and travel, and I proceeded to do both spastically: I traveled as if a devil were after me, not really seeing anything in the end, and I filled notebooks with mawkish reflections on suffering, insanity, loneliness and the Will, all of which I knew little about.
These journals, which I had been keeping since my sophomore year, were full of capitalized words and exclamation marks, with many of the pages torn where I had applied the pen with particular gusto. Writing was riotous fun at the time, and of course anything I wrote was profound. I would photocopy the journals and then store the originals in a safe at my parents’ house. If a girl were lucky, I might show her several photocopied pages of gibberish, which I always had on hand. These journals, as well as a few awkward poems and some ugly spontaneous-prose rambles, made up the sum total of my writing history when I first sat down to write a book. It was a book that I was to coauthor at my urgings with my hapless father, who was a published and translated author. We were to alternate chapters, his dealing with the Christian monastic tradition and mine dealing with myself, which I assured him was a splendid subject. Luckily for both of us, the project was aborted soon after conception.
Embarrassing as that early writing may be to me now, it did serve a necessary laxative function. Though the dream of simplicity in prose would forever remain a fantasy, I managed over the following years to void from my writing much of the didactic poses, clichés and false emotion. I realized that I had to approach my craft the way a professional athlete approaches her sport: through sweat and guts. I was still in the early stages of this massive effort to purge my prose of gas when I turned to the novel, having essentially bypassed the short story (I wrote two); I entered the waters of fiction much the same way studs at the beach enter the sea: charging through the shallows, splashing every wader in proximity and then, after a zestful bellyflop, breaking into a thrashing of the arms that more suggests a shark attack than the front crawl.
I had no technical training in fiction, primarily out of sheer conceit (you teach me?) and defensive stereotyping (writers live, they don’t circle-jerk in classrooms), failings of character that regrettably linger to this day. As a result, I learned to write the slow hard way, which may in the end be the only way: you write a masterpiece, which you later realize is crap, so you write another masterpiece, which you also later sniff out for what it is, and so you buckle down once more, the fear now growing in you that you might die any day without having written your opus, and in this manner you keep writing and moving from cesspool to cesspool until one day you look around and see that for once the water looks like water; and even if there are a few truffles floating around you, they can at least be fished out with pole and net. Schooling might have saved me some of those early sewage-phases, but then again the experience of falling from a great height time after time does “build character,” something which no writer, as everyone knows, can have enough of.
What I did not develop alone, however, which I might have developed in a workshop is a sense of proportion, or “staying within your means.” If I first dove into the sea like a charging stud, then when I did finally learn to synchronize my arms and legs, I thought it high time to set off for the next land mass. As a result, the novels I wrote developed into roaring Hydras with two new heads sprouting up every time I lopped one off—monsters of mayhem that have proven about as easy to sell to publishers as around-the-world airline tickets are to agoraphobics. “Submission” is an apt word for describing this process of fattening up the rejection folder. When you have been given an opportunity to pursue a life of boardroom luncheons and rooftop martinis, and you instead decide to jump off the ladder, the same one that so many others ‘below’ you are desperately trying to climb, you do not fall gently into that grim night. What was at first a howl of rebellion turns to a growl of bitterness, not so much because those who were below you on the ladder are now above you, but because your decision to live by single-digit yearly incomes to devote yourself to your craft disappoints and distresses many of those closest to you including, as time goes on, yourself; and of course you growl because the publishers to whom you have submitted writing prove to be blind, deaf and, above all, dumb. The fact is that you never really wanted to jump off the ladder—you only wanted to leap onto a different one. And you never really believed you would fall for long. Writers cannot ultimately believe in the indifference of the world or they would give up at once. The illusion that their work will send tremors about them must be maintained long enough for them to survive the silence and to put in the awesome amount of grunt work required before anyone will show any interest.
Meanwhile, they must be willing to put up with accusations, usually voiced indirectly, of irresponsibility and selfishness. Here we have a loose paradox. Any lasting writing is compassionate in that it looks the world unflinchingly in the eye; but to write well, one must often behave like a scoundrel. A responsible citizen is a goulash of sacrifices: sacrifice to community, to family, to country, to God, etc. If a writer were busy with such noble self-sacrificing, he or she would get no work done. There is sacrifice in writing, although it is true that the writer sacrifices to himself. Add to this the writer’s desire to “broaden his horizons” which is code for getting in trouble, and it is no surprise that the committed writer comes across from society’s perspective as a delinquent. For this reason a writer cannot be too dutiful or good. A dose of callousness is needed alongside the sensitivity, or social guilt will get the better of him.
In the end, however, one does not mind being a rogue wave if there is a shore to smash on. It is rejection and silence, rather than guilt, that ultimately breaks the writer, especially the young writer who is full of rosy self-glory. One can keep on making love to a tiger that snarls and claws back, but unless one is a necrophiliac, a corpse won’t do. A wall separates the writer from the world, and many have fallen before it in resignation; walk the length of this wall and you will find skulls grinning over quills, rotting meat slumped over typewriters, corpses still warm at their laptops. I do not intend to drop off any time soon, but I have grown bored with conventional means of scaling this wall. I might have taken cue from Berlin and put a sledgehammer to it, but I recognize that one man can only make so much rubble. So I have instead decided to tech-up and set up a small green space in this sprawling public park we call the Internet. I know that the bulk of my efforts shall still go to that great hairy mistress, fiction, in whose arms I am most alive and lustful; and I know I will go on tediously stuffing query letters into bottles and lobbing them over the wall; but in the meantime I see no reason why I shouldn’t also have some fun and take to my regular electronic spot once a month in hope that a few people on the other side of the wall might pause to lounge with me for a few moments in the cyber grass.
I opened with the Stromboli episode because it stands as a symbol of the nebulous beginnings of my writing life. It was also a time of ends, as I had set off to the Mediterranean fresh with the pain of a lovers’ parting. Seven years later I am again Mediterranean-bound with similar desires and troubles, except this time I have more tenth-round guts in me and less cocksure sunshine. Over these years I have, by society’s standards, turned into a failure of sorts; the unpublished manuscript is, I have learned, a non-existent entity for all but a few insiders. But despite this outward failure, moments of solitude make it clear that the standards we set as herd-creatures have less gravity than the moon. Each of us is not a society but an individual, and as individuals we cannot look to the public posting board for guidance.
There is also the obvious fact that my 4th of July night on Stromboli and this Fourth Night posting share an anniversary. Now, I am not one to flutter-up over national holidays. I’m not even able to get sentimental over them for their utilitarian value as vacation days since I have never, except for one three-month internship at Random House, held a job that marks its hours by the national work calendar. Nonetheless, I do think it fitting, considering the date, to make some reference to independence or perhaps even to just make a declaration of some sort. So here it is: I declare that I will post a piece of writing on the fourth night of each month. It’s not much as far as declarations go, but it is sincere and for a capricious fellow like myself, it is a hefty pledge.
Internet-savvy friends have told me that the Fourth Night, based on my vague outlining, sounded like it might be a ‘blog’ of sorts. I hope not. A word that brings to mind ‘bog’ and ‘blueh’ does not suggest a pleasant pit stop for readers. Also, from what I have gathered, most of these blogs have themes of some sort like ‘diary,’ ‘satire,’ etc. There will be no theme to Fourth Night as I dislike cramped quarters. It is possible that Fourth Night will be now a pulpit, now a fire-circle, now a street corner. I do not want to turn it into a soapbox, but I have no doubt that polemics will sometimes come through. In these times when jingoism gets you a weekly newspaper column and a chestload of explosives wins you instant martyrdom, it takes a stoic or a stump not to occasionally lapse into ranting. I would in fact take a gob of poetry any day over the most revealing—but from, say, God’s perspective, trivial—investigative report. But to be ever apolitical in these times is to be, at least to a large slab of life, dead. Political apathy makes sense if you are a hermit, but if you are interested in this flesh-and-blood world and you never attend to the grimy business of politics with all its tedious details and unending claptrap, then you must at least face the fact that you have something in common with the ostrich.
As for independence, I can only say that I will write what I want to write. I’d be sorry if it were not what you wanted to read, but I could not change the writing. Once you have carved out a niche from which you might resist, even for a few moments each day, all the priggishness, evasion, conformity and torpor that make up mass culture and respectable living then you make sure to hold the fort even if you must contend with solitude, pauperism and the periodic ambush. In short, you do not easily give up the few moments when you are actually able to be yourself. That said, despite popular misconceptions about essays being ‘real’ or ‘true’ unlike fiction, my more authentic part lies in my novels, which is exactly why they are such knotty forests. I am not nearly as clear-headed as this writing may suggest, but I will nonetheless keep up the act and play lucid.
I can hear a few backyard fireworks snapping outside. I am in Stillwater, a village on the outskirts of a rural Maine mill town. No doubt, necks are currently craned all along the eastern seaboard. I cannot in these postings offer the kind of spectacles now underway in Boston, New York, Atlanta or Stromboli. I can only offer a few pages of print once a month. It is not a flashy offering, but it seems to me that in a world of increasing glitter and noise, it is not a bad thing to maintain a starry space.
- None Found