Grandpa Grump’s Hemlock Brew:
(A Continuing Meditation on Life and Art)
Part One — Writers Are Nuts!
- by -
Wally Lee Parker
(all rights to this material reserved by author)
In general, writers are nuts. Fiction writers are totally nuts. Non-fiction writers only partially nuts. And I believe most any competent psychologist would agree with this. I know mine would have backed me up. At least at one time he would have. It seems I once made the mistake of paying my account off in full. Soon after, he retired.
I recognize not everyone’s likely to agree with what I’m saying about writers. And I suspect that more than a few of the world’s college educated intellectuals would opinion very much in opposition to my hypothesis. Such educated people would likely adhere to the belief that non-fiction writers are among the sanest people in the world. Now that would fit squarely into my theory, since college educated intellectuals tend to write things that are essentially essays — things like expository dissertations and scholarly criticisms. And most said dissertations and criticisms are assumed to be non-fiction. Though hardly scholarly, I am an essayist of sorts, and I happen to know as a fact just how much fiction goes into one of these damn things. Those PHDs may have everyone else fooled about this, but scams are scams no matter how many letters of the alphabet some university committee has decided to tack on the ass-end of any given graduate’s name. And as far as the papers these people write, they have to cite a whole slug of other scholars to prop up whatever social or scientific theorem they’re putting forward. Does that mean they’re exceptionally well read, or does it just mean they’re incapable of generating original ideas?
The rest of the contrarians on this subject are either people that don’t write anything more literate than a Costco’s grocery list — need spareribs, toilet paper, battery acid, and some of those chocolate covered blueberries — or people who do write but are so blissed by their own delusions that they’re never fully aware when any of reality’s sharp pointy parts accidently impinging on their private space.
It’s one of those “Catch” things. You either know you’re nuts or you don’t. If you don’t know it, you don’t know it because you’re thoroughly demented. If you’re nuts and you do know it, it’s because your particular form of nuttiness has given you some kind of special insight — which means you’re probably a genius. And since all geniuses are nuts, all the speculations I’ve scribed above still falls neatly into place.
Even though everyone I know will be happy to certify that I’m no genius, I still somehow know that I’m nuts. Such understanding despite a lack of genius is possible in my case because the revelation of my nuttiness has been the prime topic of conversation among my three older sisters for almost seventy years. And the striking thing is that all my sisters think I’m the only basket case in the family. Most everyone familiar with my family recognizes nuttiness as one of our familial traits — like the Parker nose or the Parker temper. They note such as a commonality regardless of which end of the genetic pool — shallow or deep — we were originally found floating in. But I’ve discovered a means of coping with my nuttiness that won’t require more years of psychoanalysis – more years than I’ve already had, that is. I’ve just stopped listening to my sisters. And now I feel so much better. At least I think I feel better. Regardless, my intuitive assumption is that asking my sisters if I’m better would be redundantly non-helpful.
But I digress.
I’m a writer because no one will listen to me when I talk — not unless I’m cussing, and often not even then. And I suspect this inability to be noticed is a genetic abnormality shared by almost all writers — even those in our minion whose last truly creative ancestor parted with breath more than a thousand generations back — doubtless while scribing pornographic ideograms on the walls of some long forgotten cave. We write in pursuit of some portion of the attention that falls naturally to those endowed with beauty, riches, and/or hereditary status. And the irony is, if we’re eventually celebrated as writers it will likely be our newfound status as celebrities that induces others to pay attention, not our writing.
Take Vincent van Goth for instance. You may be under the delusion that it was Vincent’s paintings that made him famous. Actually it was the six hundred private letters he wrote to his brother, and hundreds more posted to others. And the cohesive force that brought all these private missives to boil was Vincent’s sister-in-law, Johanna. Shortly after Vincent killed himself (still argued), his brother died (possibly as a complication of syphilis — and that too is still being argued). That left Johanna with a young son, a fair quantity of Vincent’s paintings, all those letters, and a need to provide for herself as well as her son. So she set about using all the art-world connections she had through friends, acquaintances, and her own family to leverage her brother-in-law’s thoughts on life, love, and art into what became his unique place in art history.
How well did she do? One hundred and twenty-one years later and at least one scholar has proposed that it was Vincent’s brother, Theo, who took a whack at Vinnie’s ear, not Vincent himself. There’s a theory floating around that Vincent didn’t’ commit suicide, he was accidently shot by a couple of neighborhood boys. And among the well-to-do of Vincent’s legion of fans and distractors, there is a documentable tendency for said fans to felonize themselves by embezzling from their companies or swindling their clients — all in pursuit of the cash needed to buy just one of Vincent’s paintings.
Due to all this residual of enthusiastic heat, art historians in specific and the numerous other brands of whack-cases in general are researching and reinterpreting everything Vincent wrote again and again and again. They and the speculations they raise are likely to keep Johanna’s pot boiling for centuries yet. And that’s how well Johanna’s plan to bring a few extra guilders in for the family has worked.
As for our current conversation, while some might argue that mixing writers with artists is like mixing nuts with yogurt, the truth is that whatever passes as our collective creative muse makes us all, writers and artists alike, more or less equally insane. (If you don’t believe things can be “more or less equal,” try getting in to see your congressman without a shovel full of cash. More cash, more equal. Less cash, less equal.)
But I again digress (get used to it).
The slippery truth is, for the vast majority of those engaged in the craft of writing it’s a lose/lose proposition. We’re unlikely to obtain what we want from writing when alive. And then, after we’re dead, whatever breed of slobbering fundamentalist eventually wins the current culture wars will quite likely gather up our surviving works and thoroughly test them for any nonconformity to the rules of piety and doctrine. Those works found wanting will be added to the swath of ash purifying the truly faithful’s path to glory.
We don’t really know how many times over the millennia certain portions of our common history have been incinerated by this or that group of true believers. We don’t know for certain since so much of our common history has already been so incinerated — the torching of almost all the New World’s Mayan’s books being one particularly shining example. Sometimes the arsonists are religious believers – such as the Catholic Church, sometimes they’re political believers — such as the Nazi Party, and sometime they’re just plain, sick, sadistic-mean bastards who believe in nothing more holy than belittling everyone else. All history can say for certain is that there’s a pattern of such vandalism, so it’s likely to happen again.
And this draws us around to the other semi-secret pathology compelling writers to write, which is their fear of death. And I’m not necessarily talking about physical death — though that’s troublesome enough. I’m talking about being utterly forgotten. For a writer, the concept of literary death is much the worse.
Most writers have an absolute hatred of book-burners. I suspect the germ of that comes from our fear of literary death. A person can die, but they’re only truly dead when all memory of them as anything other than a name chiseled into a stone has passes from the world. And most of the souls that once walked this earth have even less than a stone.
We look in wonder at the apparently simple beauty of Vincent van Goth’s paintings. If we’re sensitive, we can feel the sunlight’s heat falling across a field of wheat, the call from a rising murder of crows, the cooling bluster of a summer’s wind — all temporal things solidified and preserved as an image on canvas. We look at the work and wonder not only about that particular day, we also wonder about the person that interpreted these sensations — interpreted and then re-invented them as this particular image. If the image is preserved through time, then both the artist and the moment recorded live on. Both cheat the anonymity of death for at least a bit longer.
I wrote the following introduction to a small poetry booklet thirty years ago. For clinical reasons my shrink didn’t seem to care for my verse. He said it was too polished to reveal much. But stuff like this preface — now that would obviously be worth discussing over the course of an extra ‘paid’ visit or two.
I doubt any of my verse will survive me by much. Following generations will likely misplace or toss the few remaining copies until the last has been trashed. Then that bit of my voice will disappear. Regardless of this inevitability, here’s how I viewed the subject of writing way back then. And other than the tenor of my prose — which is a bit too flowery for me now — this is pretty much as I still feel.
It’s four AM. The rippleless quiet I need for writing flows thick around me as I sit at my library desk – eyes intent on the image of a tiny fossil fish traced into the surface of a fragment of buff colored slate. Drawn some thirty million years ago by the hand of fate, this cinnamon colored pictograph shows a finely detailed skeleton. I can assume — since the fossil resembles fish now living — that its life was little different from existent forms. I can also guess at the circumstance of the fossil’s preservation. Upon death its body settled in water still enough to allow the fine silts that form the surrounding stone to cover it — entombing it. Then, over thousands of years, the weight of layer after layer of sediment forming above pressed the silt into stone; pressed the silt into leaves of slate that reveal, when broken open, such bits of history written in the rocks.
Written words are living thoughts pressed into leaves of paper; the mood of a moment recorded — frozen in time. Through these phonetic images I can reach back thousands of years and brush the minds and hearts of people long dead. I can hear them speak as they explain their passions. I can come to know them intimately.
Just as the hand of fate drew an enduring artifact into stone some thirty million years ago, so then a poet’s words should been able to hold the mood of a particular moment for hundreds of human generations. Perhaps if I reach out with my words some skeletal fragments of my emotions will not be lost. Perhaps some part of the things I value, some shadowed images of the people I care for will endure.
Deep in this morning hour, this rippleless quiet, I turn to the task of guiding the hand of fate, of twisting emotions through the tip of my pen, of etching for those I love some trace of remembrance in the pages of time.
I’ve given up poetry and moved on to essays — beginning with oral histories extracted from tape-recorded interviews, and now moving on to things more personal. Still, the idea is the same.
Writers, poets, sculptors, photographers, and painters — we’re all historians of a sort. And if the things being threatened by deliberate malice or simple neglect are of any artistic value, we all react as historians. The loss of a painting, the burning of a book, the smashing a statue — all of this is nothing less than murdering the last bit of something once alive. It’s the deliberate grinding away of someone’s final trace, final words, final breath. Such loss deserves to be hated.