It’s funny, for a guy who claims to think no one can teach another person how to write, I sure do write about the act of writing a lot, like a snake devouring its own tail. What’s the point? Go write a manuscript and then we’ll talk.
But still. There are subjects that niggle, that pester. There are half-formed thoughts immaterialized in my haunted house of a noggin. And I feel like I should explore them, head up into that ghostly attic with a flashlight and poke around. And so I shall, at Elizabeth A. White’s expense.
When I first began writing, I was happy to just finish my first manuscript, SOUTHERN GODS. All I wanted to do was to see if I could complete a novel. And once I do, hey, I’ll be totally happy. That will be enough. That’s all I want. But, then, once the book was complete, something twisted in me, and the worm of ambition shifted and burrowed into my liver and I thought, I just want to SEE if I can get it published, because that’s how the worm of ambition works, it adjusts our goals only slightly as it seats itself firmly in the flesh, tugging at the fibers and sinew, sinking into the organs. All I want is to be published. It’s fine, even, if it’s a small press. I’ll be totally happy with that. Once that happens, I can die happy. But just having a stack of papers with a novel printed on them isn’t enough. And then, when the first publisher accepted my book, and my friend John Rector asked if I’d signed anything and I said no and he replied, “Let me introduce you to this agent I met and I think you’d be a good match,” the worm twisted in me again and suddenly new vistas opened before me to plunder. I wanted more, then, than just a small press deal. I wanted an agent. I wanted to my books to be in stores.
This ambition, this audaciousness, corrupts the flesh, corrupts the mind. When I first started writing, I was content in my writing to tell a story, and to strive to tell it well. There’s much honor in a simple tale, well told. I felt that it didn’t need to be the most original of tales, if I could just write the novel, keeping honest, keeping in touch with the characters and their realism, what more could I do as an artist? What more is there to strive for? But the worm of ambition twisted in me. After all, I’m a published author. I have novels coming out, from here to eternity. It’s not enough for me just to tell simple tales. I must strive for more.
My ambition cemented in me, hard like arterial blockage or a hand coated in superglue strangling a human heart – I read this:
Years later I read Zen in the Art of Archery and understood the book. Because I did not throw the grenades on that night on the hill under the moon, it threw them, and it did a near-perfect job. The grenades went off somewhere between five and ten yards over each machine gun, blast, blast, like a boxer’s tattoo, one-two, and I was exploded in the butt from a piece of my own shrapnel, whacked with a delicious pain clean as a mistress’ sharp teeth going “Yummy” in your rump, and then the barrel of my carbine swung around like a long fine antenna and pointed itself at the machine-gun hole on my right where a great bloody sweet German face, a healthy spoiled overspoiled young beauty of a face, mother-love all over its making, possessor of that overcurved mouth which only great fat sweet young faggots can have when their rectum is tuned and entertained from adolescence on, came crying, sliding, smiling up over the edge of the hole, “Hello death!” blood and mud like the herald of sodomy upon his chest, and I pulled the trigger as if I were squeezing the softest breast of the softest pigeon which ever flew, still a woman’s breast takes me now and then to the pigeon on that trigger, and the shot cracked like a birth twig across my palm, whop! And the round went in at the base of his nose and spread and I saw his face sucked in backward upon the gouge of the bullet, he looked suddenly like an old man, toothless, sly, reminiscent of lechery.
That is the first part of a single paragraph that occurs on the fourth page of Norman Mailer’s AN AMERICAN DREAM, and did you hear that? The fourth fucking page.
Reading Mailer became a discovery of self-indulgent yet genius prose. And I thought, “Holy shit, this guy might be a huge prick and batshit insane, but can he write? Fuck yes he can…” And then I was doing an interview and I was talking about why I continue write and I said, “Writing a book is half adulation and half audacity.” Adulation of the writers that you loved and gave you pleasure, and audacity to think you could join their ranks.
I’ve become too big for my britches, taking myself too seriously, thinking that now when I write, it has to mean something; it has to be a sublime story married to flawless literary prose. Why write if you’re not going to be audacious in style? Why write if you’re not going to be aggressive and audacious in subject? No human behavior should be off the table, no matter how vile, how beautiful, how tame, how bizarre.
I’m trying to get back to where I was when I first opened Word and typed, “The black thing walked from the forest and took the shape of a man,” instead of plotting to overthrow God himself. But it’s hard. Heaven’s gates look like they’re wide open and I’m armed to the teeth, ready to kill the bearded old fuck with my own two hands while the chorus of angels, the cherubim and seraphim wheel in concentric circles above my head singing A simple tale, well-told.
Yet, there’s something to be said for ambition, for striving to knock the stars from the heavens, or, failing that, rising high enough that if the people below squint, they might mistake you for one.
I’ll let you know when God casts me out, though you’ll probably see it all happen anyway, the bright burning thing falling from the skies. Maybe I can pick myself up in darkness visible and go back to the beginning and focus just on telling simple stories. And telling them well.