Writing in the Wilderness
“You know, you’re a good writer,” Vance said. I was hanging on that. He went on a little, about how good I was. I forget that part. It was a long time ago, but this conversation has its place in my arsenal. For some reason that I could not quite fathom, it was about to take a nosedive into my consciousness—a crash landing.
In 1976, Vance Bourjaily had either directed or sat on the committee for my MFA thesis—a slim volume that nevertheless stands tall in the university library in Iowa City.
Five years later, I would finish the first version of my first novel. But here I am now—thirty years after that—with this memory suddenly alighting upon me. I am now at the end of a difficult piece, a critical introduction for the second version of that first novel, which I will—with luck—use as my “creative” dissertation for a doctorate I hope to get sometime this year. I’d like to publish this novel, this version of it. It came very close to having been published the first time, but I’m beginning to think it might not have been ready way back then.
“Yes, you can write,” he said, sitting there, the two of us, after a party in our house. I lived with a bunch of MFA students, among them Doug Unger, Jim Galvin, Louie Skipper—writers who’ve had books published, who’ve established a readership, all of whom I very much admire. Vance sat there, gathering his words, trying to find a nice way to say something difficult. We had a fireplace there, on Lake McBride, and our group used it. So, there we were, Vance and I, sitting before the fire, both of us on the floor. Maybe there was a rug there. He may have had my work in his hands or not. I don’t remember, but he’d read it all right. He said that I could write—I remember feeling good about that part. Then he looked at the fire, he with his hand-rolled cigarette. Maybe he was rolling it as we spoke, lighting it, taking drags, looking away from me, then directly at me. Some people’s eyes stay with you, command that you look in them, and Vance’s eyes did that. I remember they were gentle and very blue—pale, as I recall, but warm. I think I see something of that gentleness in his daughter’s eyes, although I think it’s a different shade of blue, not quite the robin’s egg color of her father’s, though her name is Robin.
It is an understatement to say that I was grateful he’d come—probably it was for a dinner party. We were always finding excuses to gather, the writing such lonely awkward work, work that demands you accustom yourself—and then become addicted—to a perpetual state of unknowingness. If there was a fire, of course, it had to be winter. It was always winter in Iowa, except when it was unbearably hot, and well, if it was winter, it meant there was a few feet of snow on the ground. It was cold. He’d have a long road back to Red Bird Farm.
I am in tears writing this, as he’s gone now, and the farm is—yes, gone—that sacred piece of land with its one-room schoolhouse, where many a writer sought and found solace, among the other assorted things we all seem to need in this life. I attended picnics there, as well as the most elegant dinner parties I’d ever been to, and I played a mean piano, well into the morning, with a bunch of other writers and grad students—well, we were all grad students, except for Vance, but some of us were lit students, and it turns out some of those students were writers as well, and they would publish, too. Anyway, Vance played the cornet—I remember a silver instrument, and I remember it hanging down when he’d occasionally sing. One song I remember: “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime.” He’d stand, and the cornet would dangle there, and then when he wasn’t singing, it would rise up again.
The schoolhouse—that world of a one-room achieving designer status in my mind, its long stone table, its loft—is no longer there, but Tina Bourjaily didn’t sell out to developers, no. That land was given to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. This happened probably fifteen years ago. In my lap, at the moment, is a piece of the brick, smoky, charred, from the chimney. I carry it with me since Robin sent it to me, packaged in a small box cradled in a nest of tissue paper, that arrived a few weeks after the email she’d sent—photograph after photograph, stills of the schoolhouse aflame, and then broken—enough to dismantle, to restore the land to its pristine self. It was time, Robin said.
“You can write, you write well,” yes—he said that, and I was holding that in, because it meant a lot coming from him. “But,” he said, looking at the fire, shaking his head, and then looking back at me. “But you haven’t learned the importance of what you have to say. It has to be so important that you would shout it out in front of a crowd.”
In front of a crowd.
I would think about this for decades. Did I know that then? I thought about the book of his I’d read, that I’d loved, The End of My Life—a powerful underappreciated book. Well, now it’s underappreciated. It was well received in 1947. He wrote it after he’d returned to America after having fought in a war, after having seen what he’d seen—nations up in arms, atom bombs—ending the slaughter with more slaughter. It was the postmodern sublime, and he’d tried his hand at walking through that fire. That he knew what he was talking about, I could not question. What could I say, what could I ever say? And how would I know when it was important? And should I stop until that moment occurred? I see now that it hits you from behind, even though it’s right in front of you.
I wrote this book, and I felt the importance of it, but it took me thirty years, to get beyond the feeling of what amounts, I suppose, to something connected with ego, or just not enough knowledge, to see what I was really after in that book, to see that I was onto something more than language, that it was a lot bigger than me, something that I wanted to live on after I left this world. I had to cut into the language itself to release it.
What I needed was the equivalent of a knife. I wonder if Vance knew that it would take me nearly forty years to learn how to use it.