S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “What’s My Line?”, Park talks about his path to the writing life.
If a specter had come to me at eighteen and said, “This is the grisly road ahead, High,” I would have jumped on it. I was ready, I was born ready: being a wino fit me like a glove. So at seventy-one I don’t sit around and think, Goddamn! I coulda been somebody if it weren’t for all the booze and drugs.
Nah, it’s just the opposite, really … I was here for the highs and I’m grateful for every one of them. Plus I could argue that a specter did appear: he was Tom Fallon, my Creative Writing professor at Lower Columbia College. After reading a novel a day for most of my young life I was curious what it took to write one, so I enrolled in Fallon’s class the third term of my freshman year.
He was a very engaging guy, a thick, burly character with silver hair and a gangster mien. He even had the gravelly, prison yard voice to match (a product, I assume, of the nasty cigars he smoked). I enjoyed his class immensely, and after a series of in-class exercises he assigned us a story based on an incident from our past. We had the weekend to do it, and I reached past my colorful teenage years to my childhood, remembering the time I’d watched a handyman fall from the roof next door and die.
Sad thing for a five-year-old to witness, right? Especially when the victim was a big, sweet-natured black guy who was loved by all. I worked my piece over and over until I felt I’d achieved a properly somber tone, then stood up and read it in class on Monday.
And the longer I read, the harder my classmates laughed. I was shocked. I’d spent a lot of time on stage as a kid, but those performances were all comically scripted. My handyman yarn? I would have judged it “gently humorous” at best, even Reader’s Digest schmaltzy.
Instead the kid next to me took a bathroom break afterwards: I think he peed his pants. I was so dazed I could only stare out the window, wondering if those mill town kids knew something I didn’t. I was hardly surprised when Fallon beckoned to me after class.
I expected to be admonished for my performance. Instead we fired up a couple Roi-Tans, and after some incidental chatter he told me I was a born writer and should drop out of college immediately.
Huh? After one story?
“It’s an extraordinary time in America,” he said. “Go take it on. Have yourself some adventures while you’re young enough to appreciate them.”
I objected that I had the draft to think of, and he countered that I’d likely be too tall for service.
“And even if you aren’t,” he added. “All your assignments are typed … you must be pretty fast on a keyboard by now.”
“Well, a hundred words a minute, anyway.”
He laughed. “It figures,” he said. “I was in the army, High, and with that skill you won’t get anywhere near the front lines.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. But I’ve always felt you’re lucky if you can point to a moment when not only your life changed but your future was revealed. When Fallon suggested I drop out of school and write, a tumbler I didn’t know existed clicked into place.
Though the starker view, of course, is he was handing a gun to a killer. See what you can do with this, boy. Because now I had the perfect cover for my real ambition, i.e. being an aimless drifter.
If my two memoirs are on your bookshelf at home they’re in the wrong place: they belong atop your toilet bowl.
An hour later I’d chucked my basketball scholarship and left school. What’s interesting is that, for all the madness that followed, the professor and I were both wrong, anyway. I’m no writer … I’m a storyteller. They can be the same thing, of course (and certainly should be), but for me they simply were not. I can’t tell you what a crushing disappointment that was. Particularly because by the time I admitted it to myself it was too late to turn back: I’d already spent the best years of my life posing as a writer.
So for the sake of that life, the yarns I longed to tell and the fact it was my calling card (“Who’s that passed out on your floor?” “Oh, that’s just High. He’s a writer.”), I kept after it. It took me fifty years to get the voice right, to be able to write the stories the way I told them. I never went anywhere without a portable typewriter and sat alone in dark, shabby little rooms for thousands and thousands of hours, rewriting everything I did before tossing it out and starting over. Decade after decade after decade. That’s some pretty sick stuff; I’d like to at least laud my perseverance, except I had nothing better to do, anyway.
So. All those years and all that work, just so I could write … bathroom books. If my two memoirs are on your bookshelf at home they’re in the wrong place: they belong atop your toilet bowl. Not only that: the bathroom is probably the only place you should read them. I certainly didn’t plan it that way. It’s not the writerly niche I imagined all those years ago, it’s not what kept the dream alive. I hardly knew the category existed until the reader feedback on High & Dry trickled in:
“You can pick it up and start reading anywhere, and the chapters are the length of a good crap.”
“A must in every guest bathroom.”
“The perfect companion to a beer shit.”
This was disconcerting at first; it was, after all, my life they were talking about.
So when I sat down to write The Grass Is Greener I had a more cohesive, complicated fabric in mind. Not just a series of crazy yarns, but a memoir dependent upon its individual parts.
Good luck with that one. I spend a half century figuring out how to do High & Dry, and now I’m gonna change the formula? At seventy? Yeah, right. What’s more: if I’d had any sense I wouldn’t have thrown the kitchen sink into my first book. I’d have held some stories back, saved some juice for the sequel (much less this column). Instead, The Grass Is Greener is memories I was too embarrassed to include in High & Dry, which makes them more bathroom ready than their predecessor. I always warn audiences not to read them all at once (even if they are on the can).
In any case my memory vault is pretty much exhausted now. Which will surprise those readers who think I make it all up, anyway. I’ve met a number of ’em, and after telling me how hard they laughed at one or both of my books, he or she will sidle up and say:
“But—just between you and me—none of this really happened, right?”
This is so odd to me because the point of the stories is that they’re true. I mean … why tell them otherwise, where would the absurdity come from?
Yet even when a reader thinks I made it all up, even when, in effect, they’re calling me a liar … I’m secretly grateful. What else can you be when someone tells you your life is unbelievable, that it couldn’t have happened the way it did?
There’s no higher compliment than that.