How to Put a Time Machine in Your Writing

Time is a peculiar factor in writers’ lives. For all, there is the time when they are not known, tussling with words in obscurity, anxious of an uncertain fate. Then there might be a corona burst of notoriety’s light, where the author—often whose 20 years of work belies the falsehood of being termed an “overnight success”—enters a heady phase of fame. Think J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth Gilbert after Eat, Pray, Love, Brett Easton Ellis (though in a debut) of Less Than Zero. And for some, fame’s flare is not a comet that returns, but a thing that sputters and is still again.

And then there is the unsteady—and often unpredictable—rise and fall of fame’s tide after an author’s death. I suspect that most authors want to leave a legacy, a body of ideas or characters that live on in the public imagination long after the pen or keyboard is stilled. That’s phenomena that goes in pulses: you’ll have some of Faulkner’s works out of print for years, then there might be a Faulkner resurgence, with universities assigning new classes to pick at the authorial bones anew. It’s happened with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The reason I’m bringing this up is because I’ve started reading Mark Twain’s autobiography, published in 2010, the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death.

Can’t Get It? It Must Be Good!
Twain was no slouch when it came to marketing. He decreed that his autobiography couldn’t be published until 100 years after he lifted off this earthly plane, because he thought that some of the vinegar and piss with which he inked some of his opinions about politics, politicians, public figures and contemporary writers was just too sour. But setting that time restriction on his work created the scarcity factor in the public imagination—wow, this is a time capsule of thunder, surely worth waiting 100 years for! The University of California Press, the publishers of the work, were somewhat taken aback by the immediate sharp sales of the work, scrambling to meet demand. Or maybe Twain also mandated that the publishers pretend there was a shortage of the volume—that’s a tried-and-true technique that his own days as a publisher would have instructed.

The autobiography is a serious work of scholarship, the result of years of research by the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The introduction alone is 63 pages, the explanatory notes in the back more than 200, and the body of the book is in small type. The reason it took a team of scholarly horses to draw Twain’s carriage was that the material was like an attic stuffed with oddments, rags, treasures and trifles, and with more works scattered in other literary outbuildings. Twain began his autobiography innumerable times later in life, and as with many of his writings (Huck Finn took more than seven years of on-off writing), dropped the project only to pick it up anew. His first efforts at a more conventional autobiography left him cold. It was only when he came up with the idea of dictating his life story that he moved forward with some vigor. Yet, that capture-the-spoken-word effort too meandered over a course of years, culminating very close to his death.

Fame, Who Needs It? (Did You Quote Me Accurately?)
Meandered spells it well: Twain didn’t settle for a crawling chronology in his dictation, but approached it in the manner of one of his storyteller’s speeches: He chose a subject to speak about, and played it out in his mind and then his mouth, as he lie in bed (where a good deal of the dictation was done). Thus the work is a series of impressions, sketches, anecdotes, and profiles, at kin with the range of his lifetime’s body of works. So the autobiography is a crazy-quilt of stitching and sorting; it would undoubtedly amuse Mr. Clemens to know that it took over 200 pages of annotations to set the story straight (or less crooked, as it were). And this is only volume one! Two more are planned, unless crafty Twain had another trove of scribblings that he deemed so scurrilous that they could only be released 200 years after his death.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about the almost overwrought flailing of despair and delight in the letters between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg detailing their pre-fame literary efforts and crestfallen declarations over ever being published. I’m deeper in the book now, and it’s just after Ginsberg had his seminal Howl published, and he’s getting the attention that he’d craved. There had been an article in the New York Times that had discussed the poem and the poet, and Ginsberg referenced that article in a letter to Kerouac, saying, “Agh! I’m sick of the whole thing, that’s all I think about, famous authorhood, like a happy empty dream.”

To my mind, a “happy empty dream” seems like an apt description of fame. But maybe I’m tasting grapes gone sour—or something that will taste like wine over time. Oh well, at least I have the Twain tattoo…

Writing for an Audience of One (and More Later)

I’ve been slowly reading The Letters, a collection of correspondence between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg from 1944 to 1963. Many things have struck me in the reading, among them the tremendous insecurities writers have, in between bouts of vigorous boasting (which is perhaps a component of that insecurity). Their own self-professed literary flounderings and scrapings for a dollar here and a dollar there also put in mind how a newly open door—for instance, the publishing of Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957—can catapult the near dumpster-diving author into a life equally as bizarre (but more baroquely grand) as the one from the splintered past.

First things first: the sheer volume of their communications. The handwritten letter is nearly a relic, a nicety reserved for 50th birthday greetings or a scribbled postcard that proves you finally did make it to Lake Como. The gushing cataract of words between these two is astonishing, particularly when we consider how we communicate today. Some of the letters roll from page to page to page, chockablock with imagery, prose and poetic snippets, passages copied from other authors, asides to asides to man overboards! of exclamation and moment.

Their content feels like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights looks: a crazy quilt of devilry, debauchery, intense sniping, imagined and real enemies, anxiety over money, transcendence. The regular name-dropping of other literary and social figures is amusing too, because both Kerouac and Ginsberg struggled mightily to place their works in the hands of various literary agents and in front of the literati of the New York publishing scene, and they bewailed their contemporaries’ lack of insight. You read that Malcolm Cowley lacks the vision to see their vision, that William Carlos Williams is a good man, but somehow missing insight. But they criticize each other’s works too, often exchanging loving “you’re the sole genius” comments, only three letters later to declare the stale, derivative aspects of their opposite’s work. Not surprisingly, the criticisms would engender a new spasm of words from the other.

I Give Up. Forever. But On Second Thought…
Another thing of note: both Ginsberg and Kerouac often made world-weary pronouncements, frequently of the “I’m now an ascetic” nature, uttered as an irrevocable change. “I’ve stopped drinking forever, I won’t sleep with men again, I am through with Buddhism, Neal [Cassady] and I are no longer friends.” Of course, another week’s worth of letters would prove that drink, men, Buddhism and Neal Cassady had winning charms yet again.

I’m about 300 pages in on the 500-page book, and it’s late spring of 1955. Ginsberg had published a few poems in small journals, but wasn’t known in wide circles. Kerouac had published a minor novel, the Town and the City, in 1950, which hadn’t gained much attention. Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems would come out from City Lights Press in 1956; Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957—rapid publications for both followed, and the literary orbits of these authors widened immeasurably from there.

I’m jealous of the intimacy of this literary friendship, its depth, its crazed rages, its tendernesses, its longevity. Kerouac, always a drinker, moved even deeper into that pond, and died from alcohol-induced internal bleeding in 1969 at age 47. But it’s the pre-fame lives of these authors I find most interesting, because they are filled with the dailyness of life, the grubbing for work and attention, the comradely clap on the shoulder. It’s good to have a writer pal, to toss allusions (and illusions) to, and have them tossed back. Reading The Letters make me want to check out Patti Smith’s recent National Book Award-winning book Just Kids. There she limns her long and deep relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the hardscrabble streets of New York, long before they ascended into the limelight.

Writers, if you are keeping long correspondence with some crazed coterie, don’t be surprised to have it dissected in some creative-writing class years hence. Good reason not to reveal where the bodies or the jewels can be found—but more fun for readers if you do.

Postscript: RIP Augustus
A skull-and-lightning-bolt wave to Owsley, now on a comet ride to the Dark Star.