Friday, September 10, 2010

Something to Say

When I was child my favorite story was a piece by James Thurber that my mother used to read to me. It was called “Something to Say” and it was about an alcoholic writer named Elliot Vereker, an eccentric whose genius was confirmed by the number of terrible things he did; freeloading on friends, crashing parties, breaking light bulbs on the ground because he liked the sound of shattering glass, wrenching plumbing away from the walls and denouncing the achievements of those around him because they were all fools. Despite this he was loved and respected—seen as a guy who wrote something of substance. To my eleven year old mind, Vereker seemed the perfect role model.

The same year I fell in love with Vereker, my mother read me The Sun Also Rises, Portrait of the Artist, Waiting for Godot and The Canterbury Tales. It’s safe to say I came to envision a certain literary lifestyle as a child and set out to achieve it. Bums, wanderers, drunks, and lunatics populated my internal landscape. Mostly because they were to me, at nine or ten or eleven, incredibly funny, possessed of some great mystery.

I wrote every day as a kid, and every day as a teenager, and nearly every day as an adult. Writing and reading were worlds without hierarchy. Without rules. Where the sneakers you wore or the place you lived, or later, the jobs you had to take, didn’t matter. Writing was a place where experiences, euphoric, or mundane, or incredibly shitty, could be put to use. Could be made into something, instead of just making you into something.

I carried this feeling with me everywhere. It helped me leave home and leave school and leave the country. It helped me have a baby. It helped me work for a radical newspaper and leave work at a dead end literary magazine for a bartending job that brought me to the setting of So Much Pretty. And it helped me get through the days while working at a small town Daily—where people really do come into the newsroom to scream in your face when they’re pissed. Scream at me, part of you thinks. I know what the roof of your mouth looks like now. I know what it feels like to be bored and disgusted at the same time as worrying I’ll lose my job. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t make up.

Thurber wasn’t just doing a character sketch with Elliot Vereker. He was satirizing the idea of genius. The well worn concept that in order to write you have to be some kind of brilliant fuck up. Some kind of suffering monster. And this is probably what I love most about the story, how insufferable Vereker is—how he is an upfront loser, a cad with everyone but they insist he’s special, smart. His eccentricity is proof enough.

I have loved many eccentrics, and many drunks, all of them one kind of artist or another and I was for a time, in very good company with them. I love many of them still but I don’t buy the mystery. Don’t believe the hype. I think of these Vereker-esque personas a good deal these days while I am honing exactly what it is I should say to describe my life to people that may be interested. What will it be? The classic list of terrible jobs that shows real world chops and my commitment to writing all in one? The too cool for school story? There are, it seems very few templates, well worn mantles of “genius” available. Should I talk about ballet lessons or sleeping in train stations or my ethnic heritage? My politics? My child? What fable does the reader want about the writer? What piques interest and draws them to the novel, to the real thing. Because the real thing, after all, is what this is about—not persona.

The fact is this: You are what you do. There are few professions as exhaustively personal and revealing as writing—and this is true for fiction and non-fiction alike.

I can say many things about myself and already have in this short essay, but there is little I, or any other person you don’t really know, especially someone talking to a mass audience, can say about themselves that would reveal with sufficient depth who they are. If I tell you a story about who I am as a writer, it’s because I want you to read my work. If you want to know who I am, I promise you will find me there.

I want you to read my work because I have something to say. Not something about me. Something about us.

In the next several months I will be writing about these things; books, and personae, and what I do. Feel free to check back. I’ll be here.

Hoffman.

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