Fall 1988, Volume 5.2
Personal Essay


The Importance of Missing the Mark

I. Commitment

Deciding to become a writer is dangerous. It guarantees nothing but the realization of how little one truly knows and how much patience, commitment, and acceptance of cosmic irony one needs. I made that decision in 1965 when I was a graduate student in English at New Mexico State University.

My mentor there was poet Keith Wilson. His advice was to expect at least a ten-year apprenticeship period: ten years of learning, of commitment, of patience before any major publications, before I could say with any--any--confidence that I had become a writer, or even worse, a poet. Ten years, at least, of cosmic irony. It has been 22 years. I do occasionally admit to being a poet.

I am also a teacher, like most poets in the USA. Our system of higher education supports most poets and many fiction writers and playwrights. I know very few writers who actually live on the earnings of their writing, and those who do spent a long time in the teaching mills before they could. For most of us, writing is a second occupation, a "shadow occupation" as Sam Hamill calls it in an essay in the American Poetry Review. That, I guess, is part of the irony: what we commit ourselves to seldom becomes more than a shadow seeping below the country's footsteps.

I teach writing: poetry, nonfiction, and, occasionally, fiction. I teach introductory, advanced, and graduate levels. I hesitate to ask my students to make the sort of commitment I believe is necessary to "become a writer." Of the 2,000 or so creative writing students I have taught, perhaps five have made that commitment. Two have begun to make a mark for themselves--after at least ten years.

My point here is that beginning writers--young or old--seldom understand what writing demands of its victims. I often receive phone calls, especially during periods of economic woe, from beginners who want me to "look at" their writing. Usually, I think, they want me to tell them how wonderful it is and how much money they will make--they need the money soon. Ten years is not soon enough.

The pattern of development that has emerged in the USA is this: you begin by taking creative writing courses (high school and college), then publishing in the school magazines. If you are "committed," you then begin to submit to local and regional journals, then national ones. The idea is to build a vita of publications leading to a first book publication, usually a chapbook issued by a small press. Eventually, you hit the reading circuit to sell the chapbook and build a reputation, all the while still submitting to journals around the country. Finally, you either win a major literary competition or have a book accepted for publication by one of the larger publishing houses--or a well-known university press. This pattern is most common for poets. Of course, if you persist, if you live long enough, you will win the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and the Ronald Reagan Award--USA's version of knighthood. If you're doing all this for money, your odds are probably better trying to win a Publishers' Clearing House contest.

Not everyone chooses this path, of course. Some refuse to load their poems into the shotgun of mailings and blast them at journals they've never even looked inside, or to dog it out on the reading circuit--a reading here, a reading there, plus a summer workshop gig for one week with a dozen beginning writers who want to hear how good their work is and how much money they will make.

Some countries have pubs, some have salons. We have the creative writing workshop.

Though I make my living teaching such workshops, I am not convinced that they represent the only way to learn to write in the USA, or even the best way. I work hard to keep attentive to what writing is all about. Workshop discussions can deteriorate into "technical writing" briefs--cold, precise word processing--or dogfights with everyone barking at each other about where a line should break.

Of course, we need to learn our craft, but, above all, we need to remember why we're learning it. More often than not, we miss the mark. Learning to hit it takes patience, takes years of trying.

When I shoot a mature pheasant rooster, surely one of the most beautiful of birds, I cannot find the words to express that feeling. I can describe how my Golden Retriever worked the scent, doubling back, circling, nose in the snow and tail thwacking the bitterbrush and thistle. I can describe the burst of feathers and whirring as the pheasant finally flew, but I would have to say it was like a jack-in-the-box popping out through dry leaves and a chandelier made of bamboo shoots and whistles. But even this is "missing the mark," because I have to describe what it is by saying what it is not, as if all things are somehow the same. And, finally, the clean shot, the gun tight to my shoulder, the report, the way the bird seemed to freeze in mid-air then fall, a graceful, bloody death, every bit as beautiful, as ugly, as a graceful, bloody birth. Still, I miss the mark. Words are not as accurate as steel shot.

II. Writing and Waltzing

How, when, where, and why did I become a writer? I don't know exactly, but I think it had something to do with waltzing. I never learned to waltz, yet many people think I'm a good dancer. Fast dancing, that's what I'm good at--isolated, alienated, standoffish, fast dancing. I move well--for such a big man--when I can set my own rules, dance my own steps, find my own rhythm in the music. But I can't waltz.

I remember taking waltzing lessons, as well as foxtrot, rumba and tango, when I was in elementary school--the P. S. 62 Ballroom Dance Class that ended the school year with a formal ballroom dance. I hated the entire experience. Not only am I a "big man," I was a "big boy." Actually, I was a fat boy, which meant I could never dance with the cute girls--the ones whose initials I wrote secretly in my notebook. I was stuck with the tall, skinny, gawky girl whose bony sternum met my eye level in waltz grip; or the three-foot dwarf whose hair stood straight in the air like an electrified pompom. Of course, as I look back (as I write), I realize what these two girls, who are probably charming, attractive, middle-aged women, must have felt having to dance with the fattest kid in school who always sweat a lot.

So I didn't pay attention, got terribly ill the day of the formal ballroom dance and stayed home, leaving, I guess, giant and dwarf to dance with each other. My failure to learn to waltz was the first sign of a lifetime of disasters.

Ironically, I love to play waltzes on my guitar; of course, I never learned to read music, so I play my own versions. I also write open form poetry rather than traditional, formal poetry. Politically, I'm independent. Religiously, I'm nothing. My taste in music ranges from Rimsky-Korsakov to Paul Simon to Lightnin' Hopkins to Emmylou Harris; some would say I have no taste at all. My favorite novels are The Tin Drum and The World According to Garp. I wear a three-piece suit to school one day, then sweater and levis the next. I like a meal of bologna-cheese-and-onion sandwiches with Grand Marnier mousse for dessert; some would say I have no taste at all. I like strong, independent women who let me win all the arguments.

But I can't seem to stay married to such women. I don't communicate well about important problems. Isn't that ironic: a writer who can't communicate! Oh, I'm good at talking, as long as it's about writing or literature or current events. But when it's how to pay the bills without going bankrupt, or how to deal with troubled children, or how to tell a wife that I'm depressed because I can't seem to write anything worth a damn lately--these are the times I become a human conch shell sitting in a chair and hoping, I guess, for someone to put her ear to my mouth--or my heart--and listen without my actually having to speak. So I listen to my own voice inside that hollow, empty shell, and I listen to music--alone, of course, the same way I dance.

I'm at the trumpet's end of my second marriage it sounds like, and I'm beginning to realize, as I write this, how I have designed my life. I could have saved this marriage several years ago when my wife and I joined a dance club. We like to dance, feel comfortable together, fit together nicely--we say this about our love-making, too. I'm a good lover--pride myself on that--which means I could also be a good waltzer. The two acts strike me as similar.

At one particular dance club evening, my wife chided me for never learning to waltz. Adult that I am, I immediately pouted, sat out the next four dances, drank three scotches, and flirted with half a dozen other women (though I doubt they realized I was flirting). Eventually, I danced with my wife again, but only when the band hit "Proud Mary" and I could do my extravagant, self-indulgent, get-down, boogie, swing-spin-hop fast dance. If only there were such concatenators as gods! Such a moment would bring forth an epiphany. A bolt of lightning would strike the lead guitar, screech the voice of the God of Sudden Insight throughout the Country Club Ballroom: "IF YOU DON'T LEARN TO WALTZ, YOU'LL SCREW UP THIS MARRIAGE, YOU IDIOT!" But there is no such god, so it took me eight years to realize this "sudden insight" in this act of writing: if I had learned to waltz, I wouldn't be alone right now.

Waltzing is a graceful, elegant motion. To waltz is to give, to feel, to join, to love. Two people hold one another, swirl through a bounded space, know exactly how, when, where, and why they do what they do.

I can't waltz. I'm a writer.

III. Maps

My family has strong women, their strength coming from years of quiet suffering, from years of forced independence, from years of unresolved anger. The men in my family die young, from the miner's black lung, the alcoholic's cancer, the down-and-out whitefolk blues. I'm the first man in my family to graduate from college; indeed, I'm one of the few to ever finish high school. I suffer like my mother and sing the blues like all the men--but quietly and to myself.

The zygote didn't split, I guess. Too much booze gives me a headache and I don't feel much anger. The easy answer is that my early childhood "determined" this duality, shaped me to be the oddest of the Kentucky-Indiana Brewer males. I was born nine days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. My father was already in the army, didn't return from the Philippines until late 1945. My mother raised me, protected me, nurtured my loneliness with her constant womanly presence.

When my father finally had to become a father, I'm quite certain he was frightened. Tearing down and cleaning a rifle is one thing; a child is something else. Tossing a hand grenade in the air does not easily change into tossing a breathless son, who howls at the very sight of this stranger. My father was always a soldier to me, as if I could never quite see him behind all that jungle camouflage.

Alfred Korzybski writes, "The map is not the territory." I believe that is true of how we perceive and understand other people, including our parents. My experience of my parents is not them. It can only be my experience of them. Nor is what I now recollect necessarily "accurate." It can only be my imagined recollection. Not photographs, not journal entries, not my grandmother's accounts, nor any other sort of record can ever give me my parents--only their maps.

My father lived through malarial dreams and alcoholic weekends while I lived through P. S. 62 and Howe High School. My mother suffered quietly through everything. Yet I only saw her in tears twice; I never heard her shout.

When I was in sixth grade, I played hooky a good deal. The sixth grade teacher, Mrs. McDaniel, had embarrassed me in front of the entire class the first day of school. When I went to the blackboard to work a math problem, she said that I made my eights as fat as I made my body. So I spent most of that year angry at her and spiteful. One afternoon I had two of my Catholic school buddies at the house--they sometimes had holidays we public schoolers did not observe. We got into a raucous rubberband-shooting battle throughout the house. I should explain here that my parents were seldom home during the days since both worked everyday but Sunday, so I was left to myself most of the time. My mother collected salt and pepper shakers and must have had 500 pairs on display in various places throughout our very small house. She had converted a dining room into a bedroom by hanging curtains across the entrance and stationing two bookshelves to serve as room dividers, loaded, of course, with salt and pepper shakers from all over the country and several parts of the world.

Since there is no suspense as to what happened, I make the point quickly. While running from a flying rubberband, shot from the end of a ruler, I toppled one of the bookshelves, smashing dozens of salt and pepper shakers.

That night, my mother sat in the middle of the livingroom floor where I had left the shattered souvenirs--and she cried. I felt like one of the rubberbands I had stretched too tightly--one that snapped and bit my heart before I could let go. My father's belt thrashing the back of my legs would have been easier to withstand. Thirty-three years later I can still feel the pain from my mother's tears.

The only other time I saw her cry was on their twentieth wedding anniversary. My father disappeared from Friday afternoon to Sunday night on one of his drunken weekends. I was in high school then, playing football and thinking about girls. When Dad finally showed up, he presented Mom with a set of blue willow dishes. He was still drunk and barely managed to get the two large boxes into the house before he passed out at the kitchen table. My mother and I dragged him to the bedroom, then she sat on the floor next to the bed and cried. I carted those blue willow dishes through several states and two marriages of my own. I sold them last year for $10 at a garage sale. That's more than I make on most poems I "sell."

I am mostly a stranger to my parents as they are to me. I cannot say that I know either of them very well. Since I left home for college twenty-seven years ago, I have spent fewer than a dozen months with them, broken visits of a few days, a couple of weeks at most. I have my mother's eyes and hands, her way of suffering, never shouting. I have my father's failures, my father's nightmares, and his Kentucky blues.

Beyond them both, I have words. This is why I write and, I guess, what this essay is, after all, trying to tell me. I write to save myself. I know these words are maps; they are not the territory. Without them, though, I would be truly lost.