Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins

BurningGuitar

Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”

The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).

Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things

But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.

His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.

What Your Writing Needs Most Is You

The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.

Bonus Zevon Sighting

Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.

Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.

Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.

Words Cut Like a Knife (and It’s Often Your Heart That Bleeds)

Sunrise Wave

I went to a memorial service for a young man several days ago. My connection to him is peripheral: he was the son of my girlfriend Alice’s cousin, and neither of us had met him—and I’d only met Alice’s cousin once, long ago. So my going to the service was basically to support Alice, grieving for her cousin and her loss.

The service was held on the college campus where Al had been both a student and an employee, and the campus cafeteria was filled, mostly with people in their twenties, befitting a man who only lived to 25 before bone cancer cut him down. And that cutting was a long way down: Al was a big, strong guy, an athlete, which as the slideshow of photos demonstrated, a guy who filled the room with his body, but filled it even more with his personality.

I thought I could be nothing more than an outsider at his service, feeling the general sympathy for his friends, wife and relatives, sympathy for the inconceivable notion that a life that showed great promise was over. But as a succession of his friends and admirers spoke, I started to lean in, because what was expressed—such hurt, such pain, such shock—was profound.

Speaker after speaker told their stories of how Al coached them, encouraged them, laughed with them. How his great size and strength were intimidating at first, until the giant smile that always came with that giant strength disarmed them. How this guy, who seemed to combine goofy casualness with an intense dedication to achievement and to self-betterment, influenced anyone who spent even a short time with him.

Many of the college’s athletes spoke of how he was a role model, someone who showed them that they could always work a little harder, make a bit more effort, draw on their reserves to get a distance further. So many young people, men and women, choking with emotion spoke of how his personality and drive made them want to be better people. There was lightness too, with many accounts of college pranks and crazy escapades, the laughter mixing with the tears.

The Truth of Tears

My tears too. I work with language every day, and know its power, but sometimes language is just words on the page. These were life words, words appealing to our higher instincts. Men breaking down; more than one saying that Al made them want to be a better man. And such a wonderful, striking diversity in the crowd, the people recounting Al’s life Asian, black, Hispanic, white, his friends, his teachers—and all giving his young wife, there with their daughter, who might have only been two, a long hug after they spoke, everyone breaking down.

I was stunned at the depth of the tributes, to a fellow who had just begun to stretch out, to live the rich life that seemed so promising before the illness, to fulfill the full unfolding of the magnetism of the big smile and the strength and the warmth—to live a normal life in the tight circle of family and friends. But sometimes the book is closed before it’s even written.

I went away from the service shaken, thinking that sometimes words are all we have to try and work through the unimaginable. Of course, they are inadequate, they can’t quite parse the mind-cracking shock, the desolation after life’s earthquakes, the utter emptiness of loss. Inadequate yes, but sometimes all we have.

So on this Mother’s Day, a warm message to mothers everywhere. And to those mothers who have to face the abyss of losing their children, I hope you can find some way to assuage your grief. I doubt that anything can make up that loss. But there is no small comfort in knowing that the child was loved, and deeply.

Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and Earth

Captain Stormfield's Visit

Note: Book Does Not Include a Map

A month ago, I wrote about the death of my neighbor, and how mutton-headed I’d felt about never having even thought about discussing writing with him, a retired professor of American literature. Recently, my gal pal Alice and I were invited by James’ widow, May, to look though his big book collection to see if there was anything we wanted before she donated the books.

There were many works that I would have greedily grabbed in other days, but as it was, I just selected a few Scott Fitzgeralds, an old volume of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the sweet book you see pictured above. I’d read Captain Stormfield long ago, but hadn’t known it was the last story published before Twain’s death in 1910. The long story was serialized in Harper’s Magazine a year or two before its publication by Harper and Brothers in 1909. It’s a nicely bound volume, in great shape, still with the intact tissue paper before the title page. I didn’t realize it was a first edition until Alice pointed out its copyright page.

Cranberry Famers: Heavenly Experts

So, I get my first first edition of Twain from a Chinese professor of literature who taught on Taiwan. Twain himself would have found that amusing. The work is nothing short of amusing, much of it a conversation in heaven between the good captain and a cranberry farmer, who disabuses Stormfield of those quaint notions that heaven was all piety and angelic song. It’s a nice counterpoint to Twain’s Letters From the Earth, which was published posthumously by Twain’s estate, when the world was perhaps more prepared for some its hot-pepper views on religion. Here’s Satan speaking about man from one of the letters, and also on God’s view of man.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.
He took a pride in man; man was his finest invention; man was his pet, after the housefly . . . .

It pleases me to think that James left behind that slim volume of Twain’s, and that it’s now moved into my hands, an unexpected neighborly connection where my long-dead favorite author makes the link live. I do hope that whatever version of heaven James moved to doesn’t have a lot of off-key singing.

PS George Jones, RIP

In consideration of people who could probably only get into heaven if they snuck in in the back of a potato truck (and would surely then make vodka out of the potatoes), George Jones died the other day. I’m more inclined to rock and roll for my daily diet of noise (and in country, more toward Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), but you can hear more angel and devil in George’s songs than pretty much any singer. Jones probably never saw a drink he didn’t like, but he made some music that had a whole lotta soul. Here’s looking at you, George.

A Neighbor’s Death—and a Few Regrets

James Fu

James Fu, Holding the Harvest

“What might have been” can seem like the saddest words. They are kin to “If only” and “I should have” and other regrets that any person might muse over, founded on moments like not asking out the attractive girl in high school, not speaking up in the meeting when your idea is stolen by your rival, not reconciling with your sister over a long-dead argument—and not having a chance to reconcile when she herself dies.

I am reminded of those sad words because my neighbor James, the fellow in the photo above, died suddenly the other day. We’ve lived next door to James and May for 14 years, and from the earliest days, they have fulfilled the blessing of the term “good neighbors.” May is the orchid cloner who has given us many strikingly beautiful plants, James the retired professor, with whom I had random discussions about things in the neighborhood and other forgotten trivialities.

We often saw the couple when they walked through our rural neighborhood, and always exchanged good greetings in brief chats. Though elderly and not in good health, his death was a shock. And only afterwards did I realize that for years, just next door was a retired literature professor, and I’d never once spoken to him of books, of my own love of words. Why had that never occurred to me?

A Trailer Full of Writers

If I look out my kitchen window, I can see an old yellow trailer in their yard. It’s big: it is probably 35 feet long, up on concrete blocks. It’s filled with James’s collection of books. Of course, most of them are probably in Chinese—he taught on Taiwan, where he was raised, and where he met May. His English wasn’t great, but it was good enough to ask him, “What writers did you love? Did you write fiction yourself?” I love many writers, I write fiction—it amazes me now that I never thought to ask.

So, this isn’t a prescription for right living, me pointing my finger and saying “Mark my words: speak up, take action, make the call—before it’s too late.” No, it’s more a soft cloud of regret, mixed with a little surprise—why had I never asked?

Rest in peace James. You were a good man, and I am honored to have been your neighbor, and I hope, your friend.


Candles for the Broken-Hearted


Another angry young man with high-powered weapons, killing indiscriminately, this time little children. Yes, he was undoubtedly disturbed; there may have been signals of mayhem to come, and then the signals ebbed. People close to him may have hoped that whatever storms went on in his head may randomly clear. But they raged yesterday.

Now the arguments will come again: why are these semi-automatic weapons, designed for artful, effective killing—killing of people—so readily available? And those arguments countered by ones saying that the teachers should have been armed, we all should be armed, ready to take out those that threaten us. Our neighbors might snap at any time. Bang, bang.

More guns the answer, in our gun culture, so riddled with guns already? I have no argument with the sportsman, the collectors who appreciate the craftsmanship of weapons, those who truly feel that they need to protect themselves in their homes. But to not closely regulate the availability of these engines of death, not to keep them out of the hands of the damaged and the dangerous—it’s madness.

Five Candles of Caring

A candle for the children whose lives were snuffed in an instant, never again to run, jump and play, never to bring their kid-innocent dreams to life, never again to feel the touch of their parents’ love.

A candle for the parents whose children are forever lost to them, holes in their hearts that will never truly heal.

A candle for the parents whose children survived, knowing the fragility of life, the blindness of luck and loss, and an enduring fear.

A candle for the teachers and school workers, there to give guidance to the young, to shepherd them toward the good lives we all should be given a chance to have, their own lives cut needlessly short.

A candle for all of us, myself included, my own heart ringing with bitterness at the stupid, numbing, foul idiocy of this, the what-ifs, the whys, the will-it-ever-change.

A candle for everyone, even the lunatic killer. Maybe, just maybe, maybe this outrage will spur some common sense.

How the Ghost of New Year’s Future Calls to Her Kin

A visitation from a homeless angel

My migrant seemed to be of the spiritual sort

My New Year’s day was truly hallucinatory, and not from any absinthe I’d bathed in the night before. I don’t know if the first full day of a bad cold is like this for most people, but for me, it’s a sharp-taloned grip of flaring headache, lead-gravity fatigue, eye and ear impairment, and consciousness without focus. So, when I found out—when I’d finally been able to pull myself out of bed to leave San Francisco—that my girlfriend’s Alice’s car had a dead battery, I could only numbly nod.

We waited at the car for a tow truck to give us a jump, me lolling in the front seat with my head in my hands. I glanced up every few minutes, and despite being half-witted, noticed that a man standing across the street was staring directly at the car, or at me. Every time I looked, his gaze was fixed on the car, his stance, held up on one side by a cane, rigid. I got out of the car to get some air, turned away from the man, but when I turned back he—or rather she—was standing almost next to me, staring with a sharp ferocity.

A Migrant of the Spirit
I hadn’t realized it was a woman until she was close, because she was wearing big sunglasses, the bright sun was from her direction, and she was nearly shapeless, a tall, skinny, wraithlike creature. She looked somewhat like the migrant worker in the Dorothea Lange photograph above, but with a thinner, more angular face and nose, and an even sharper-though-faraway gaze. Having walked up Market Street every workday back in my San Francisco days brought me into contact with many a street person, and though not particularly ill-dressed, she had the overall look. Except for the piercing stare.

My wobbly consciousness had me slow on the uptake, staring back at her for a bit before I could ask “Can I help you?” But she didn’t answer, just returning my question with the caverns of those dark eyes. When I asked her again, she finally just mumbled something, a few mixed words, looking into the back of my head. But I was feeling so ill I was in no real condition to create a conversation. When I leaned back against the car, she leaned back against it too, both of us looking into the street. The tow truck didn’t arrive for about 20 minutes, and during that time, I moved to the curb to sit, and she sat down next to me. I was able to make her laugh a little with some remark, but mostly we just sat in silence, she staring fixedly off.

Back to the Future
Just before the tow truck showed up, she stood, and started to move very slowly back across the street. She’d left her cane behind, but I picked it up and showed it to her and she took it. I asked if she wanted some help across the street, and she said yes, so lightly touching her shoulder, I led her across. Then she assumed the position in which I’d first seen her, standing rigidly erect, staring expressionless toward us and the car. After the tow truck drivers arrived, I looked back toward her and she was gone.

Sometimes we connect with people in the weirdest of ways, and for the briefest of times. For me, that stark, inarticulate homeless woman was a brief companion angel, there to be a presence for me when I was barely capable of words myself. I felt an odd connection. Transient, it’s true, but connection nonetheless.

A Wave to Sarge Bentley, a Year (and a Dimension) Away
New Year’s day was the first anniversary of my father’s death. Dad, I miss you. Maybe you sent that strange street person to say hello from the other world. Hello back.

How NOT to Write an Obituary for Fun and Profit

Like a lot of self-obsessed pundits (whoops, I mean astute marketers), I use Google Analytics to check my site’s traffic statistics, such as what search engines invite people to visit, which referral sites point an arrow to mine, and what flavor of link bait might entice Lady Gaga to go gaga over my prose. (Note to Lady G: I’ve named all my strings after you.)

One of the analytic tools displays what search keywords people use to find my site. Writers and other types of peddlers have been scolded by marketeers of every stripe that we must discover and cultivate our audience, whether we want to sell words or wombats. The keyword tool does reveal what’s on the minds of site visitors, and thus is one gauge of what people are looking for when they come to a site. Apparently my people want to learn how to write obituaries.

Running from Your Audience
The greatest number of people, by far, who visited my site—as a result of organic search (not direct visits)—over the past nine months were looking for advice on writing an obituary for a family member. The reason: my father, Sgt. Robert Bentley, died on New Years Day of this year. My sister and I collaborated on writing his obituary, and I wrote a “How to” post on that strange, sad process.

I was struck at several levels by that search-tally information: one, on an emotional key, thinking of the anonymous (to me) people who have had death enter their lives, some probably suddenly, and the weight of that loss. Thinking anew of the loss of my father. Thinking that so many issues around a family member’s death are boggling, and how we seek help for those issues—such as help with writing an obituary for our loved one. And thinking that I clearly didn’t want to go into the obituary-writing business, no matter if that’s where my audience is.

Capturing the Elements of a Life
This is an age of specialists; undoubtedly, there are writers who focus on writing obituaries, though I didn’t want to search for them—probably afraid I’d see my own site come up, and add to my totals. I don’t want to consider the commercial aspects of the trade, but I could see some appeal in helping people through the process, because the obituary’s tale is part of the grieving, the letting go—obit content, narrow as it is, can sometimes atomize the elements of a life, the cherished aspects of character, the seat of a family’s love for the lost. But I don’t want to write them; that is too close, too sad.

Ironically, this post will undoubtedly bring more souls to my site looking for a way to write about things that are in some way unwriteable. The words of broken hearts. Maybe my original “How To” did help. I hope so.

At least it’s better than the searches for “long scrotum” and its variants that brought many people to my site a while back after I’d posted an article about my vasectomy. Sigh…

Memories: The Long Arm of the Writer

A long time ago, I read an article where the writer suggested that Hemingway killed himself not because of his depression, but because of the treatment for his depression. The suggestion was that the electroshock had erased a good deal of Hemingway’s memory, and that a writer without memories is not a writer—and that that loss provoked Hemingway’s hand. However, much information has come out regarding his long-deteriorating mental and physical state prior to his suicide, and the loss-of-memory issue might have only played a minor part, if any.

The reason I bring that up is because I was down in Southern California this past weekend, spending some time with my mother to honor what would have been my father’s 94th birthday, his first birthday after his recent death. We went out to the graveside and saw the stone for the first time. My mother, in her natively collected and humorous way, remarked that it was a little odd to see her own name on the stone, which awaits what I hope is a long time to make claim to its inscription.

During the visit, my mother, sister and I shared memories of my father, a couple of which were new to me. That conversation in turn pushed me to rummage through my memory attic, blowing the dust off some crusted considerations of my boyhood long ago. It struck me that I hadn’t made good use of some of the eccentric characters I’ve known over time, many of whom are easy subjects for the kind of tales that evoke a “No way! That couldn’t have happened!” response from astonished or amused listeners.

Memories Are Writers’ Clay
It’s clear to me that most lives, whether you were raised in a dusty Ethiopian village of 100 souls or born to a gilded Manhattan penthouse, are suffused with character and incident that could fill books, if you selectively shaped the telling. And that working of the clay of character or incident needn’t be exclusive to fiction’s floor—the mad workings of the human animal are prime frameworks for engaging essays as well. (Note that libel issues can sometimes constrain a telling, though with the right makeup and hat, you can hide your pawn in plain sight on the narrative chessboard.)

I’ve seen enough peculiar and striking expression of the vagaries of our species to fill the memory banks—I’m going to start withdrawing some so the investment pays off. Poke around in your skull a bit, look at some old photographs, ask a relative about the time your great-aunt poured a drink on Maurice Chevalier’s head at a dinner party. Memories are material from which writers weave.

Bonus Bloggishness
I wrote a post of copyediting tips for the Men with Pens site last Friday. Putting the post together was fun, but it was more fun yet fielding the comments. Check it out.

How to Write an Object Poem (with Tears)

I belong to a fun writer’s site, The Write-Brained Network. There are all kinds of writers, all kinds of writing issues discussed, and occasional informal contests on the site. A recent one was to write an “object” poem, using this assignment: “Discuss how objects have lives and that they are often markers in our lives that help us recognize where we’ve been. They contain a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

Though I enjoy reading some poetry (Rilke, astonishing; Billy Collins, charming), I know very little of its formal structures, and know less about writing it. That said, it’s a fun exercise to try writing out of your genre, so I thought I’d write an object poem about the humble sandwich. But instead, this came out, almost immediately after I started writing:

Sad Sandwich

Sad sandwich on the bedside tray
moved in haste, forgotten in the empty house
bedding thrown back in caught anxiety
the last sandwich

Thousands of sandwiches before
handled with his child hands
then later, workingman eager, lunchpail eager
laughing with full mouth, laughing with work friends
then later, cold sandwiches in the bomber,
cold over Berlin, cold over Korea

Then, long past being able to make his own sandwich
my father's hands, delicate, veiny, persistent
still enjoying his sandwiches
but now all slowed, a slow sandwich, eaten contemplative

Thousands of sandwiches, thousands now forgotten
the one appearing on the daybed tray forgotten in a minute, two
but still the slow pleasure of the chewing, the body's nod
yet, this last sandwich, a sad sandwich,
abandoned in the slant of afternoon light
my father, gone forever, this past New Year's Day
the plate now empty, the hunger unending

Writing That Surprises the Writer
This was one of those odd experiences as a writer, much as fiction writers say that their characters do things that surprise them as they’re written. Here, I’d intended to write a light poem, and instead, it morphed under my fingers to be a tribute to my father, who died a few months ago. Without my even intending it, the poem became “.. a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

So, an object poem, written with surprise tears. It always amazes me, the weight of words.