Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This is later


Agnes Martin
. Alexander Liberman (American, 1912–1999)
Gelatin silver print, 1973
22.5 x 33cm (8 7/8 x 13 in.)
2000.R.19

My boyfriend in college (Lance) and his two best friends (Mike and The Mayor's Daughter) were writers. Well, they wrote things. I'm not actually sure you can call a college student a writer - in fact, I'm never really comfortable calling anyone a "writer": there are questions of quality and professionalism, focus, output... I just don't know.

This deconstructivist tendency of mine is in fact a relic of that time. Lance and his friends had used drugs and a Lou Reed live album to re-teach themselves how to talk, and they talked about writing - and occasionally music - without cease. I loved it, but after a few years in their orbit, I distrusted words so thoroughly that it once took me nine excruciating pages of tiny handwriting to tell a guy that I was mailing his wallet back to him after it had fallen out of his pocket while we were making out on my couch. That was my first letter to Bob, and, amazingly, not my last.

So... writer? I don't know. Assembler of sentences. User of written language for the purpose of self-expression. Whatever it was, Lance, Mike and The Mayor's Daughter did it. Even then more of an editor and critic than writer myself, I read what they wrote, and I liked it. Lance once wrote a story so thwarted and incoherent, I think it might be the truest imprint of suburban white college boy I've ever held in my hands. I still have it around here somewhere.

Unfortunately, into their groping, doubt-full intellectual lives came a visiting professor, a published author there to teach creative writing. And if they (and I) didn't know what a writer was, by god Lee K. Abbott did.

Boy I hated that guy. He would use the word "evil" about stories that didn't adhere to his made-up guidelines. He denounced any writing that wasn't shaped like his. My friends would come back from class so fired up - suburban kids from Ohio, nobody had ever really judged their writing before and they were inclined to swallow his commandments whole. They were apostate from the culture of their youth and looking for a guide.

I probably shouldn't be so hard on Abbott. He wasn't a teacher after all: maybe all he knew how to do was to teach people to write like he did. And it's not like I was any less malleable. As they took him as their guide, I took them. Probably why I was so incensed when he tried to change them.

But no, I take it back. I sat in on a few of their classes, and that guy brooked no disagreement, he was his own cult. He used his charisma and his cachet as a published writer to bluster and to bully them and to stunt their trip.

So, how did (does) Lee Abbott write? Let's put it this way. Yesterday I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Dark. Amazing. Like an Agnes Martin painting, it's a landscape almost completely blank and yet it is so textured and deep you could fall in. As cadenced as a requiem, repetitive as a fugue, heartbreaking, thought-provoking. Gorgeous.

Lee Abbott doesn't write like that. His stories are like Southwestern Tom Waits songs minus the empathy. And I don't think any of my old friends writes fiction any more, though The Mayor's Daughter did a stint writing for TV and I wouldn't put it past Mike to have a blog.