Monday, February 25, 2008

The Doctors Who Birth Stories

A few years ago, when I lived in Bucks County, I was part of a writer's circle and critique group that met at the Writer's Room that sat on the corner of Main and Oakland Streets in Doylestown. The Writer's Room was founded by Foster Winans, a former Wall-Street journalist born in Doylestown. Winans had been convicted of fraud in the mid-1980s for tipping off brokers with pre-published feeds from the 'Word on the Street' column at The Journal (read the June 2003 article in Editor & Publisher here. I remember hanging around with him and a few other writers late on a weeknight every now and then. He was always in and out and floating around, but always had something he was working on. One thing I'll never forget him saying one day to us from his office. "I am a whore! I will write anything for anyone...just pay me!" Foster Winans was the first "writer" I semi-personally kind-of knew by association. My old neighbor Joe had one up on me--he would go to parties at Norman Mailer's house on a semi-regular basis. He thought Norman Mailer was brilliant.

While one may think the quotations insulating the word {writer} are for the purpose of romanticization. Quite the contrary. Foster was a "writer" because it was his job, and all he knew. He could not not write. But he was right about being a whore. He had no shame; nothing was above him. He would spit out cereal jingles onto his desk (which was simply a sea of papers, drafts, newspapers, etc.) as he was at the same time banging out a chapter for his new book. I imagine if I could mentor under any writer, I would want it to be someone like Kurt Voneghet or J.D. Salinger, even though I have not read much by either and don't even consider them to be significant literary influences (as Kerouac, Kazantzakis, Hesse, and Dostoevsky were). Nonetheless, I could see myself as a kid helping "Mr. Voneghet" change the carborators in his car on a Saturday morning and asking him not so much about Slaughter House Five but about what being a writer was like. "Well," he'd say, "I don't have a pipe and a view of the forest, if that's what you're asking." I'm momentarily embarrassed by my inadvertant romanticizing of his profession, but he goes on to say, smiling. "I wake up and eat some breakfast. And then I sit at my desk and write." And that's how books like Slaughterhouse Five are born--out the asses of very ordinary events and circumstances that, sometimes, do not differ much from that of the 9-5 office worker or the shop-owner. Having sex for a prostitute is not typically a pleasure; it has, at some point, become a job.

It's good and humbling to be with "real" anyones--that is, people who have committed themselves to a career decision that often proves to be lonely, hostile, competitive, and unforgiving; ie, people who don't have anywhere else to go if they get up from their desk. The checks in the mail, the food on the table, are dependent on your ability to sell the fruits of your trade, find your niche in the market, and maybe plant your seed of greatness underneath some unsuspecting person's feet. The motivation for writing has suddenly changed. It is a pregnancy of sorts, the birth of a new spirit--things, situations, the fact that there is no milk in the refrigerator, has become real. A brute cognitive-schematic represents it best: WORDS = WORK = $ = J.O.B = $ = food = play. Like 18 year old teenagers on their own for the first time, the loss of innocence that accompanies seeing the grownup world of 'selling words for money' for the first time. There is a reason there are guilds; there is a reason there are copyright laws that threaten federal prosecution for violations--these are people's jobs, people's work and intellectual property. Writers are actual people. If anything, the WGA strikes have shows us this and offered a view into the lives of the behind-the-scenes of relatively ordinary people--people with relatively ordinary jobs as writers, who have kids and families and mortgages, whom they financially support with the financial strength of their own words captured to text. These are the people in "the industry" and, like some kind of commonly known inside joke, their "honeymoon" with the writing life started to fade when they got serious and made it their life--they committed to their life as a writer. Without romanticizing it too much, their choice to live in a life devoid of safety nets, has my sincere respect and admiration.

After seeing 'Juno'--the result of a script (her first) written by a young ex-stripper-turned blogger-turned-now-millionaire--take home an Oscar, the fantasy of hitting it big with a Golden Script has begun to seem less fantasical. It's like hearing of someone in New Jersey, winning the 1.3m Super 6--suddenly "the winner" has become "Leroy C. Jones III of Cherry Hill," who resides at such-and-such Drive, coaches Little League, and likes to drink Milwakee's Best (you assume) because there is always two recycling bins filled with crushed Beast cans set out every Monday morning in from of his home. You start to imagine your own story within theirs. Like miracles, and affirmations, and Hope, these are the events that are happening every moment in the unfolding of the universe to keep us forgeting that we are connected; that his story is my story, weavings in the same tapestry that is being knit together from that massive yarn-ball of collective experience known as the Collective Unconscious. Like the encouragement found in the Communion of Saints, those who have gone before us and who share with us what its like, and what to expect based in their own writings, which have been passed along through the centuries like wisdom literature.

Without going into it too much, some inspiration came tonight, that kind of recognition of "hey, we might have something here": like George and Jerry's pitch of the 'Jerry' pilot to NBC, or Steve Jobs in his garage, or the "Foreman Grill." I was thinking in all seriousness in J.K. Rowling proportions of success, that the idea for a metaphysical sitcom that my friend and I came up with about our time spent as neighbors living in opposite sides of a duplex. The mainstreaming of 'gay commedy' was pioneered by writers of shows like Will and Grace--actual writers who became famous and well paid for an idea of theirs by a combination of luck, persistence, talent, ingenuity, and motivation. I tend to think the last one is what keeps me from making a full Kerikegaardian leap to writing (or at least more seriously entertaining the idea of writing as a profession). I am so impressed by the work Jeannie does because it is all self-motivated. She doesn't get work, she doesn't eat. It takes a lot of courage, faith, trust, and optimism to put yourself out there like that and rely soley on your own talent to earn your daily bread. Even being around Foster, who had used his gift (or at least his insider-status as a member of a greater community of ethically-responsible journalists) in a less-than-noble way and did eight months in federal prison for it, I still respected his commitment to his profession. He and Matthew the tax collector would have a lot in common were they to meet in the present day, because they understood one another's sin.

Having babies is sometimes known as the 'gift of life'; at the moment of birth, there are four parties present: the life itself, its Creator, its home, and its delivery man. All four work together to bring a new life into the world. Writers are like doctors--when they move away from Ego and embrace their responsibilities as a 'bearer of words,' they guide the raw, lucid, primordial energy found in a newborn child into a new world, a world enfleshed in Experience. It is this Experience that a child, from the moment he comes into existence, finds himself born into, begging the question: can one be born outside their own reality? It will have to be a question for another time but suffice it to say that doctors are paid well because they are trained to perform common miracles. They have accepted their role in society and seek to use it to serve the common good, stressful and under appreciated as it is. Writers are called to shoulder their own responsibilities of birthing Experience (both their own and that of others), or interpreting data and presenting it to general audiences, or spinning"just the facts, ma'aam" into thread for next morning's edition of 'The 2nd-Hand Experience' (60 cents). He should recognize the power and ability of his words to give life to the common, to the everyday, and treat it reverently, in service to--and for the benefit of--the salvation and enlightenment of others. Mahayana Bodhisattva style.

1 comment:

Foster Winans said...

Hello, Rob! It was interesting to read your take-away of my days at The Writers Room. I don't remember writing any jingles but I sure wrote a lot of books, and still am. And I'm still a happy hooker who loves what I do and likes to get paid for it. Coincidentally, my uncle was best friends with Vonnegut (they attended Cornell together) and tells a funny story about warning Vonnegut in the 1950s to give up writing because "nobody's buying short stories anymore." So much for conventional wisdom, right? I hope this finds you well. The Writers Room sadly withered and died after I left it (and all my money, too!) to try to make a living again. I still admire the true writers of the world (the ones who aren't whores), but I still wouldn't trade places. I'm having too much fun, and I've gotten to meet a lot of great people. My latest book, from Random House, is the memoir of a Chinese diplomat who worked for Mao Zedong. It got me two trips to China, and the chance to meet some fascinating people. "The Man on Mao's Right" is due out in July. My new web site is Anyway, your posting reminded me of all the people who I got to meet, and some to help, during my experiment in nonprofit. I hope this finds you well and relatively content. Foster