Fun news: I just published my 32nd piece of short magazine fiction, this time in Ink & Coda magazine. You can read it for free on their website: http://www.inkandcoda.com/issues/4-1/bora-bora/.
Best wishes to everyone in 2017!
Fun news: I just published my 32nd piece of short magazine fiction, this time in Ink & Coda magazine. You can read it for free on their website: http://www.inkandcoda.com/issues/4-1/bora-bora/.
I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?
Better: what do I need?
Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”
Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.
The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.
Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.
So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.
It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slackjawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis
John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.
In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.
Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.
Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.
Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:
I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us. So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical. Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.
I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.
I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.
Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.
Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.
In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.
Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.
The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.
On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.
Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.
That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.
Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.
I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.
Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”
Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.
She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.
With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.
Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.
I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.
I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.
So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.
Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.
I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.
When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.
In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.
Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.
* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)