Odd Words September 9, 2010Posted by Mark Folse in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
I have been writing on a site that is not ready for the light of day, and I find that some of what I am putting down there sounds a lot like something from Stephen Elliott’s Daily Rumpus emails or Jim Carroll’s autobiographical work. It’s not surprising, as I admire their work tremendously, believe in a form of writing in which the autobiographical point of view is not the point but simply a tool to tell a different, a larger story. When I started writing again after a long quiet period (decades) my original intent was to tell the story of a place, to find a way to paint the landscape of New Orleans; not just a physical landscape but the experience of living in that landscape in a particular time, using my own experience as the most expeditious way to do so.
If I find myself sounding like or at least reminding myself of Carroll or Elliot or other first person writers, I have to ask: Am I simply aping my betters, or using the simplest path to my end? Keep in mind that I wrote nothing for a very long time (reams of bad poetry and worse stories in college, then I drifted into journalism and other things and wrote very little until perhaps five years ago). Perhaps I am simply a young writer trapped in a middle-aged body and do some of the things that a young writer does, emulating my idols as a path toward finding my own voice, but I fell into something like their model before I even started reading them, started reading them in facts because I heard echoes of what I was doing myself.
This type of narrative that is not something new. Creative non-fiction with the author as character is not a recent invention, but goes back in my own lifetime as far as Carroll and Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, and is a distant relation of the confessional poets of the 1950s and later. Diarists have been a staple of literature since Boswell. This voice and point of view serves my purpose well for now.
I started writing on these blogs, telling these stories in the first person for two reasons. The original impetus was Hurricane Katrina and the flood, and I was writing about it from over a thousand miles away. Some of what I wrote came out as straight journalism, and some of it as something else. As a dear friend and former colleague (who is still a working journalist) has frequently reminded me, I was a crappy journalist but a good writer. The pieces people responded to most, which drew the most comments and links and hits were those pieces written in the first person, that allowed me to act as storyteller. It was the reactions of my online readers in real time, a luxury writers before me did not have, that drove me in the direction of writing the way I do today.
The second reason is my position in life. I cannot make the time to sit and write The Great New Orleans Novel and not because it’s already been written. (It has and it’s not the book you think, but that’s a topic for another day). Neither can I take my experience in journalism and emulate the New Journalists and become the Wolf or Didion of postdiluvian New Orleans. I simply don’t have the time to do that sort of reporting or to try to find some grant that would pay me to write such book. I cannot just walk away from the responsibilities of middle-age, a child in college and another college-bound . He’ll want a car just like his sister and the insurance will be ruinous; a mortgage on what had to be paid for a dry house in a city where 80% of the houses flooded, the only type of house I could get insurance and so a loan; the ridiculous cost of living in New Orleans because we’ve had to pay largely from our own pockets for our own recovery.
Perhaps I could take up the amphetamine habits of the Beat generation and completely give up sleep. I did in some fashion in the years right after Katrina, would work late into the night or get up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write. My poetry blog Poems Before Breakfast, takes it’s title from that practice, stealing time to write at the edges of the day. Hell, these ideas came to me at work on day this week but there was no time to do more than jot a few notes and I started this as at 3:21 a.m. because I work up recounting these thoughts I had at work today and could not resist getting up and setting them down.
It requires a willingness to lay out your own life for all to see, to live out the stereotypical nightmare of standing naked before the class reading your essay. The nakedness of the autobiographical first person is an easy thing to do on a blog because you are not required to confront an audience in your nakedness as you first sit down to type, but over time if you succeed at what you are doing you will find yourself holding a manuscript or even a bound book and reading these same pieces to an audience, in full cognizance of your nakedness and thinking some listeners will find you self-important if not egomaniacal. If you know me personally you know that I am far from that sort of person. I used to listen to Garrison Keillor’s radio show a lot, both for the music and the storytelling. The latter struck me as fascinating because it sounded like straight Southern Gothic transposed in place, replacing race with Lutheran and Catholic, the familiar conflict between town and country. I used to find the Powder Milk Biscuit commercials particularly appealing, with their line about giving shy people the courage to get up and do what must be done.
That’s me, my reticent German roots showing through the brightly colored hair of a Carnival costume, through even my daily costume of a hat (always) and a fondness for what the rest of the world calls a Hawaiian shirt but we think of as a Jazz Fest shirt. Still, at any gathering even of some of the people I am closest to the larger the group the more likely I am to gravitate to the edge, to listen more than I talk. There is some other impulse to the way I write, and I trace it not just to the long list of writers I cited above. I write the way I do partly out of necessity.
Sometimes I worry it is the easy path, that I am not challenging myself, that I could do so more if I just pushed myself harder, if I only had the time, but I don’t. I have all the obligations listed and I am well into midlife. I have some stories I am compelled to tell, and some poems (some personal, some not) I am compelled to write, and I have to write them and grow in writing them as best I can in the time I am allotted. I said earlier I might be a young writer trapped in an middle-aged body but I’m not. I’m an aging writer who is not chasing life with the catapult impulse of youth but as a man running at once away from and toward death. I live in a city that is sinking a surely as Atlantis and I have to build this boat as best I can with the materials at hand and the skills I already have, so that something of this place will perhaps be remembered, as if I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
And so to the listings…
§ Maple Street Book Shop will feature manager Gladin Scott’s Birthday Bash the weekend of September 10th, 11th, and 12th, A donation of 20% of all book sales at the Maple Street Book Shop sales will be donated to Lusher School’s Creative Writing Program.
§ Also, Maple Street will host Brunch on Sunday, September 12 at 1pm with local students from the Creative Writing Program at Lusher Charter School reading from and discussing their original work.
§ “Before (During) After”, a photo book that combines a through-the-lens visual and literary exploration of how Hurricane Katrina has transformed the lives and work of twelve photographers. Contributors sign the book. 6 p.m. Friday. Maple Street Book Shop, 7523 Maple St., 866-4916.
§ Here’s one that sounds Odd enough it should probably be at the top of the list: author Katheryn Krotzer Laborde signs and discusses Do Not Open: The Discarded Refrigerators of Post-Katrina New Orleans. 1 p.m. Saturday. Garden District Book Shop, The Rink, 2727 Prytania St. We got the funk.
§ Poet David Rowe reads from and signs his book, Unsolicited Poems, followed by an open mike at the Maple Leaf Bar Poetry Reading. (If you catch me typing Maple Leaf Books or Maple Street Bar, well, I just need to focus. It happens all the time on the first draft. Its and it’s and its thing).