S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “True Story,” Park celebrates this being his 70th Risen Apes column and reflects on his writing life.
Between these blog posts and the two memoirs I’ve written I’m running out of material. I thought I was done after the last book, in fact; then Greg Gerding, my publisher, approached me about this Big Smoke column.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said. “What would I write about?”
“Your life and perspective,” he replied, “the same as you have been.”
“Seriously, Greg? How many stories do you think I have!?”
“Just give it a try, Wilson,” he said.
So fifteen months later this is my 70th Risen Apes column. I’m amazed by that and wouldn’t, in my wildest dreams, have thought it possible. Along the way I’ve retold a tale or two (it’s inevitable under the circumstances), but it’s one thing to comb through seventy years of ashes, another to find something in them. Each time I do I’m surprised all over again.
But along with the normal wear and tear of life my brain’s been battered by alcoholism, delirium, a half century of drug abuse and numerous concussions and comas. This hardly portended a long, sentient future for me.
Then last night I heard from a friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. We caught up for a while before he laughed.
“Jesus, High,” he said, “you sound like your old self. How can you remember anything? Why aren’t you totally demented by now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Pot?”
Right. My memory vault’s nearly empty in any case, and that’s a fate I’ve dreaded because these blogs keep me busy in my old age. When I share this trepidation with friends their response is always the same:
“Oh, just write fiction.”
It irks me every time, mostly because I’m offended by advice to begin with. (Unless asked I never give it myself.) And these friends imagine what? That I’ve been writing and thinking about writing for a half century, and it never occurred to me to try fiction!!!!!!!!
Then I step back, tell myself I’m being too defensive. It harkens back to childhood, I suppose, as my mother was one of those people who doled out advice from morning to night (even though she didn’t, in effect, know anything), and it drove me nuts. Plus my touchiness about fiction writing is a product—not of how little attention I gave it over the years—but how much.
When I left college at nineteen, seeking my fortune as a writer, I had (of all things) Westerns in mind. This was the suggestion of Tom Fallon, the same English professor who’d advised me to drop out of school, hit the road and write.
“But what would I write?” I asked him.
“Novels,” he said. “And not just any novels, but Western ones.”
“You’re a very irreverent guy, High, and the world needs more irreverent Westerns.”
Imagine convincing a kid you’ve known two weeks to give up his basketball scholarship, drop out of college (and become draft eligible) on the strength of a notion as absurd as that. I’d have ended up a stoned drifter anyway, of course, but Fallon is the guy who flicked the switch, who recognized me before I did. So as alien as the prospect of Westerns was to me I went along because I was thinking like those friends who’ve advised me to take up fiction, that what the hell … it’s all writing, isn’t it?
I moved to a cheap hotel over the Longview bus station while I worked day shifts at the box plant and waited on my Portland draft physical. It was a perfect microcosm of my future (absent the substance abuse), i.e. a dreary job and bare bones living, with everything as simple and unobtrusive as I could make it. I’d never been totally alone before (I’d stayed in a firehouse the previous four months as part of my basketball scholarship) and I took to it instantly.
It was everything I imagined the writer’s life to be. Other than the bed the only furniture in the room was a wobbly table and chair. They were next to a window that faced a brick wall, and I set my portable typewriter there and wrote for hours at a time.
That was the easy part: I’m extremely disciplined when something matters to me, and if I’ve ever missed a deadline in my life—be it a report, a cartoon, a speech, etc.—I’m not aware of it. (I also spent thousands of hours alone on playgrounds as a teenager, teaching myself to play basketball.)
My devotion to my passions has been so consistently fervid, in fact, that it was easy (particularly in those early years) to overlook what a brusque, impatient bastard I am. I’d read plenty of Westerns, just as I had Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery books, but taking five minutes to develop a point of view, plot arc and characters beforehand, much less an outline? Oh no. I was writing like I cartooned, putting down a line and seeing where it went.
I called this my “kinesthetic” approach (operating by feel) when I bothered to think about it at all. So every day I’d produce a page or two and the next day I’d reread it and throw it out. This went on for decades, long after I’d given up on Westerns and fiction writing in general.
What kind of insanity is that? What kind of loser comes to town, hunts down the dingiest room available, then closes the door and repeats the same mistake over and over again? You could argue that, instead of the writing I claimed to be doing, I was simply typing.
Except I was never a natural writer, I was a storyteller, and though I conflated them in my mind they’re not the same thing. So the question is why I persevered, what prompted such relentless determination on my part. I wasn’t published until I was sixty-five, and I literally never wrote anything I liked until my early sixties. There had to be something keeping an assume the worst character in the game.
It was the stories, of course, the life that happened (almost as a sidebar) while I was teaching myself to write. I knew how funny they were because—not only had I been telling them for years—but they were so absurd they still made me laugh.
The problem was transferring that humor to paper: it took me forever to get the voice and point of view right. It was exasperating then but worked out well in the end, as art’s a voyage of discovery and I’ve stretched mine over a lifetime.
Plus writing (and the compulsive need to make it as spare as possible) distracted me from the life I lived in its service. What if I had figured out at, say, twenty-five, that I loved telling stories but hated making them up? Would it have taken as long to succeed? Could I have let the madness wash over me the way it did? Would I have carried journals to the mental wards and scribbled notes at A.A. meetings, or treated life like a script?
I’ll never know fortunately. Instead I’ve devoted the last thirty years to not writing fiction, even as many readers think that’s all I do.
And there’s no better ending than that.