So Stephen in ULYSSES and PORTRAIT (Joyce again) and I had similar experiences with our mothers. My mother was in hospice; and Stephen’s mother was on her deathbed; the story goes that Stephen (or Joyce) refused to kneel and pray for his mother and my mother read my short story SAVED! (published on this site). In both cases the women became very concerned for their son’s soul. Stephen’s mother was dying of cancer; my mother was dying of the same thing. Both thought their sons had condemned themselves to eternal hell. My mother worried that she wouldn’t see me in heaven. SAVED! “was only a story,” or so I reassured her. Unlike Stephen, I eased my mother’s mind in this way. The idea of my story…personal, a part of me since childhood, and almost everything in it…was accurate. (But I’m not sure my views will condemn me.) But how else could I have eased my mother’s mind but by saying what I did? Out of principal, Stephen didn’t try placate anyone. However my short story, once it took shape, became a work of fiction. Therefore, I don’t feel I misled my mother. The truth is less clear.
For me writing a story about salvation, no matter how I approached it, would always be more than an attempt to write fiction. The Southern Baptist tradition of an altar call was something I knew about and had experienced since as far back as I could remember. When I was caught up in it, that experience (as I’ve said) was a very emotional one; and I don’t seem to be able to write about anything unless I am very emotional about it. Emotion always drives me forward; it always has. I was a Christian boy; I grew up in the church. I have memories of my grandfather who was a Baptist preacher; before he died I begged him to give me his audio tapes of the Bible. He did. I let my mother groom me into becoming a preacher. It brought me attention. I drew crosses on hilltops for it. My story was my way of looking back and dealing with some of my emotions and why I rejected it all. This was what gave me authority to write about it.
I followed Matt Freese’s suggestion and bought a copy of Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO. I have not attempted to read it yet because I am in the middle James Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, something I first read as a young man. In past blogs (partly because I was reading about Joyce) I have written about how big of an influence “the Irish genius” has had on me. His many styles…apart from the difficulties associated with the language of FINNEGANS WAKE…are important to me. The lyric nature and rhythm of it all is very satisfying; a good place to start is with PORTRAIT. However this discussion interestingly leads me back to Anderson and Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to the edition I bought of WINESBURG, OHIO (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics 1992). In his commentary on one of the stories “The Untold Lie” (“the best of the moments” in the book), Cowley wrote “that single moment of aliveness (in the story)…that epiphany, as Joyce would have called it, that sudden reaching out of two characters through walls of inarticulateness and misunderstanding.”
This reference to Joyce and his use of epiphany was an epiphany for me. I admire how Joyce ended each of the stories in the DUBLINERS; and I knew from reading a biography of Joyce that he had written a series of short epiphanies. Yet I had not connected the term with the endings of the DEBLINERS stories. Now it makes sense. I now think each ending was an epiphany for Joyce. How else did he get them so right? Each is different. If I had written them, I wouldn’t have known where to stop and would’ve come up with something less brilliant, unless I too had an epiphany.
Our letters home offer a detailed record of our travels around the world. They connect times and dates with location and give details we have long forgotten. But to choose something to write about from all of this information is not easy: there’s too much there. To bring the material forward and make it relative now is even more difficult. Maybe that’s why the letters remain in their box.
And the enigma why I haven’t touched the letters may lie in part in the process I use. This may explain it. But I find it remarkable that I haven’t been more straightforward and haven’t always acknowledged my models such as Joyce and Woofe. I find it equally remarkable that I haven’t found a model to help me utilize my letters. I don’t think I’ve read enough; but I would first have to make up my mind whether I wanted to cast the letters in fiction or non-fiction. The details would be the same in either case, so why would it matter? People, places, and things: that wouldn’t change. The rest would have to come from my imagination, for the letters only provide details and not the story.
James Joyce in the short stories of his DUBLINERS seems to have selected detail very carefully; and he didn’t tell everything. With our letters, the days they represented on the days we found time to write them, we gave as much detail as possible; we tried to tell everything. I am afraid there is too much there. And I don’t have (as Joyce did with Dublin) the personal connection with these places. Over there I was an outsider and would’ve always remained one. There was little over there that I could claim; whereas it’s hard to divorce me from my hometown. When I think of Irving Texas and at the same time have thoughts of Bombay, I have a more passionate (even tempestuous) response to thoughts of where I grew up.
My grandfather Daddy Carder’s death was the end of one large family cycle, containing seven smaller ones, and these broke off after his death. There were no more Thanksgiving reunions; there was less back and fourth. Major writers from James Joyce to T.S. Elliot and Virginia Woolf have focused on the circular nature of life (I realize Joyce, Elliot, and Woolf were contemporaries, but there are many other examples) and have made these patterns (some daily, others life-long and intergenerational) central to their work. W. Y. Tindall, in his book JAMES JOYCE HIS WAY OF INTERPRETING THE WORLD (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950) devoted a whole chapter to cycles in Joyce and others
Unifying a body of work or bringing unity to a single one, as in life: paying attention to cycles can bring form to something that otherwise wouldn’t have any. There is no way we can overlook the cycle we live: from birth to death, the deterioration in that process. Somewhere in that scheme we can also find renewal, as we search for eternity, infinity, and God. (As Tindall put it, writers, “immersed in temporal flux, have been preoccupied with eternity.” And Shakespeare, I might add, with “bottomlessnes.” “Some of them, (Tindall again) like Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot, have attempted to exchange the cycle of time for the still point at the center.”) My writing, so far, hasn’t taken me into these waters (waters, a simple analogy that I can handle), and though I may risk drowning (or criticism or ridicule), I think it’s where I want to go.
But our world has changed. We no longer live in the age of Joyce, Huxley, Eliot, and Woolf. It has been well over fifty years, nearly a life-time. Yet I feel I have to go back there. I want to learn and think. I take that seriously and hope it’s not too late. As everyday is a cycle, not quite at the end of a major one, maybe there’s still a chance…to incorporate some of the things that now excite me (and I’m just learning about and some original thoughts) into my writing.
It surprised me how close to home Joyce’s FINNEGANS WAKE hit. Why should I have been surprised? Readers were warned; H. C. E. or H. C. Earwicker, the father of the story, after all, was/is “Here Comes Everybody;” and in spite of the difficulties, the ambiguity and the obscurity of much of the WAKE, the character of Earwicker was meant to represent us all. The epic story, Joyce put together (“the hoax the joke bilked” 511.1-36), was hard for me to read. I have been reading it for a long time. It has been a very funny ride, (as life is) very repetitious (though disguised), and sometimes boring (as life is again), reduced often to pissing (watering) and defecating (“plop).” (“Plop” comes at the end of one of the chapters). Ah life! Think of the hours we’ve spent on the pot; and who else beside Joyce has brought this biological fact home in a novel? I also celebrate Joyce’s use of television: he predicted its use. I was a television baby. And the same with nuclear physics: Joyce also predicted that. Einstein has been a hero of mine. So there is much I’ve shared with Joyce and Joyce with me, including H. C. E.’s sin in the park.
In my case, I think, everyone riding with me on the city bus that day shared the sin. There were those on the bus who smiled over the scene of a homeless woman defecating. This woman probably mistakenly thought a wall hid her from view: who was she? No one on the bus knew or really cared. And, so embarrassed for her, with my head pointed straight ahead, I gawked at her out of the corner of my eyes. Since then, I’ve thought of this incident many times, with the repetitious sense of “Here Comes Everybody.”
There are a number of other ways FINNEGANS WAKE hit home. One example was the hen finding an undeliverable letter in a dump and what that represented to an under-appreciated Joyce. And how the WAKE itself was represented as “litter” and garbage. And how Joyce “murdered” language. Obviously, his murder was masterly deliberate. But mine has been anything but…masterly or deliberate. By my identifying with FINNEGANS WAKE… that without a lot of effort I wouldn’t have been able to do…I’m not comparing myself with Joyce. I am brighter (a poor pun. Joyce would’ve thought of something better) than that. It seems as if we share (I’m inconsistent here) some of the same pessimism, some of the same boredom, some of the same repetition, and (Yes. as in ULYSSES) sins. However, you also must keep in mind that a WAKE for Joyce represented an opportunity for renewal. For when morning came, H. C. E. woke up.
It was not easy for James Joyce…with failing eyesight and a daughter with major mental problems…to finish FINNEGANS WAKE. It had been an impossible task to begin with. But he never gave up, and without much encouragement at that. Then it hadn’t been easy for many other creative geniuses with similar problems: take for instance Beethoven and what he accomplished after he lost his hearing.
Then there are the rest of us. This has nothing to do with our trying to accomplish an impossible task. It has everything to do with sticking with something which, because we were dissatisfied with the results or having listened to criticism, we set it aside for a while; and, after a little while longer, we had to admit we weren’t going to pick it up again. The project had excited us once. We had started it with a great amount of enthusiasm and spent many hours on it in front of a computer. The story took form; it had a beginning, middle, an end; we had every intention of finishing it; then something happened. It could be as vague as that. And it would not have been all that hard for us to start again…even after losing momentum…but the story remained unfinished, destined for the closet. This scenario has been all too common. But it didn’t need to turn out that way. Only a change here and there, getting back to the routine, was all that would’ve been needed; sitting down, finding the manuscript, reading what’s there, and changing a sentence or two. Then we would have no trouble getting back on track and, yes, finishing it. Oh, yes, it ‘s often the simplest things that make a difference.
So I should be able to pick up and start over all my old unfinished projects. My biggest hurdle is procrastination and fear, yes, all kinds of fear. Okay, so I need to be fearless and not care so much. You’ve heard this from me before.