A full-page ad in The New Yorker. The May 21 issue. A young girl, staring confidently at the camera, smiling. The copy at the top of the page, the copy ostensibly transcribing this girl’s voice, reads: “I just saw my first Broadway show. Now I’m writing one, too.” I see this, and I just want to punch a wall or something. Is this what it’s come to? You only need to experience one of something before you’re qualified to create one of those things? The usual comparisons spring to mind, the usual clichés: brain surgery, rocket science. Ah, but yes, of course, the beauty of the arts is that you don’t need to have experienced any of them in order to create one of them. You don’t actually need to have read a single novel in order to sit down and string a hundred thousand words together. But what is writing supposed to be? Is it just self-expression? Is it just therapeutic? Is it some kind of psychic equivalent of taking a dump? You don’t have to be in awe of the pile of shit that humanity has already created in order to add your own small contribution every day. You don’t ever need to consider it. You make yours, you get rid of it, you feel better, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Is it Weinberger who mentions casually in one of his essays that in Egypt three thousand years ago there was an entire school of poetry devoted to the subject of anxiety that everything had already been said? Everything has already been said, but if you don’t read, if you don’t go to the theater every night, if you never go to the library, if you never go all the museums you can afford, go to them over and over again, if you don’t have any awareness or knowledge of the mountain of everything that’s already been created, if all you are is empowered, then you don’t have to even know that everything has already been said, you don’t have to have anxiety about it, you don’t have to be concerned about where your play, opera, poem fits in the magnificent, aggregating, oceanic temple of what has come before, you don’t have to even worry about ever having a reader, a viewer, an audience, all you need do is sit down, and let it out, and feel better. (My conscience: Is my worrying here just one miniscule reiteration of the long war between the Classical and the Romantic?) This ad is an ad for an investment firm that funds some sort of theater program in the schools. The girl in the photograph—is she a model, or could she actually be a beneficiary of this program, could these actually be her words?—is (partly?) of African descent; I am (mostly, as far as I know, but who knows?) of European descent. Do I have a right to complain in any way about any amount of money shuffling from Wall Street to (presumably) underfunded arts programs, to kids who benefit from those programs? (From yet another corner of my conscience: What about the irony of complaining about the celebration of empowerment and self-expression on a blog post?) And yet, and yet, there’s some great wrong here. Does this have something to do with The Cult of the Amateur? (Why do I have this sinking feeling that the contemporary celebration of the untrained has something to do with a Will Rogers populism mutated by Ronald Reagan economics into a new and subtle way of keeping the citizenry crushed under the heel of its own proud ignorance?) In this same issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes: “In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons. But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything. […] We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days.” Is this what’s missing? Do I want the young girl, rather, to be saying, “I just saw my first Broadway show; I feel humbled and in awe of this dying art, and I’m immediately writing my senators, even though I can’t yet vote, to urge increased funding for the arts; and I’m going to get an after-school job in order to pay for my new habit of going to see Broadway shows, because in the next few years I’m going to see a hundred of them, and then, if I’m lucky and I work my ass off, I’m going to go to Tisch, and I’ll keep writing all this while, but I’ll know, from all my reading and theater-going, that my work will surely be nothing in comparison, because as Jean Rhys said: ‘All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'” But investment firms presumably don’t have any interest in funding awe; and I don’t want the world to revert to what it was before Free to Be, You and Me, because that was even worse; but maybe my real subject here is this: Shouldn’t the teaching of writing really—secretly, ultimately—be the teaching of reading?
If you read Louis Menand’s great article on Kerouac and the Beats in The New Yorker a couple months ago (“Drive, He Wrote”), and you read this passage:
In his final appearance on television, a falling-down-drunk performance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” he insisted that his idea of beatness had nothing to do with the hippies (whom he despised).
and this one:
In 1959, he appeared on television, on “The Steve Allen Show.” Steverino was a jazz buff who used to noodle around on a piano while he interviewed his guests (an unbelievably annoying routine). He liked Kerouac, and Kerouac seemed less than usually guarded with him. After they chatted, a little awkwardly, two men in jackets, Kerouac read the last paragraph of “On the Road,” while Allen contributed background riffs on the piano […]. It is sensitive and it is earnest, a performance of one of the most difficult emotions to express, male vulnerability.
and you really, really wanted to see both of these things, then you should definitely rent What Happened to Kerouac? (Netflix has it.) It’s an imperfect documentary, but it has what seem to be fairly substantial outtakes from both of these television appearances, both of which are heartbreaking to watch. Among many other amazing details, the Buckley show also had, in the lineup that night—as an ostensible spokesman for the hippies, I think—Ed Sanders, founder and editor of the best-named literary journal ever, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts; and the Steve Allen clips make you wish, if not specifically for jazz improv, man, then for more talk-show hosts that spontaneous, and more writers as their guests.
The movie also has interviews with just about every member of their gang who was still alive in the mid-eighties—Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Huncke, et al.—which alone are worth the price of the ticket.
One detail from the Steve Allen show performance: Kerouac is reading from what looks like a hardcover copy of On the Road, and he’s definitely reading the very end of the novel, but the book is cracked open not to the last page, but to somewhere in the middle. Was he reading a ripped-out page? Was he performing from memory? I’m guessing this question might be completely unanswerable, but it’s probably for the best for at least some details of the lives of the Beats to be unknown.
There’s a lot going on in this picture Emily took at the Albany Race for the Cure way back on the first Saturday in October (where the hell does the time go? oh right, yes, we keep being ridiculously damn busy, I mean, just as a for example, who knew one lawn could collect that many leaves?). So many questions, like: Is orange-shirt guy sporting the biggest messenger bag ever? Also, is that a Tintin haircut? Did the white van’s wooden trailer haul up a load of blank placards for writing messages for cheering on runners, and those two or three leaning up against it were the only ones left unused at the end of the day? Who abandoned that coffee?
The important things for my purposes here, though, I’ve somewhat clumsily highlighted with these two white circles. Inside the one on the right is me, amazed that I’ve actually crossed the finish line after not going for a run even once since the 2006 Komen NYC Race for the Cure. And inside the one on the left is my totally awesome time. (I think it translates to like a five- or six-hour marathon.) As you can see on this page, a time of 34:58 (pace: 11:16) means I came in 442nd in the Men’s 5k results—out of a field of 510. Yeah!
Much more importantly, I was able to raise $528 for Komen Northeastern New York. So far! I think you can still donate if you want to, maybe? I have no idea when they’ll shut down the donations pages; anyway, give it a shot!
And huge thanks again to everyone who’s already pledged to support my run this year, and in the Komen NYC races I’ve participated in the past few years as well—you rock!
Dan: By 1995, you’ve published two more collections of stories, and the latest, Seeing Eye, includes three sections and thirty-four stories—your work is getting more economical piece by piece. Do you look back and see that you were becoming less interested in writing longer, maybe more traditional stories, at this point? Do you consider the work being done at that time to be more slice of life, or character study, than plot-driven stories?
Michael: I see having babies. I had two and began writing in the seams of time babies create. During feedings. Naps.