I've only just begun this project and it almost feels like it did back when I used to really write, when I started writing. Thousands of words a day came out of me, sometimes. Smoking cigarettes nonstop, I myself some kind of a living chimney with a pulse, teeth, and hair--in a cloud of smoke--I was a human vent.
My Salt Lake City friend used to write poetic lines about all the smoke and the flames. What did she write? I wish I could remember. She made it sound so interesting. She didn't smoke, nobody in her life smoked or drank except for me, so to her my vices--despite being commonplace in the world--were exotic.
The stuff poured out of me, smoke and words on pages. I wasn't even writing it. The pen would just move across the page. The typewriter sounded like a machine gun in my garret at the top of the red stairway up the back of the house, where I slept on a mat on the floor and typed on a makeshift desk made of a pallet set upon cinderblocks, blue smoke winding its way up from the cigarette in the ashtray, tobacco resin on my fingers, or I would sit in bars and write with a pencil, back when you could smoke in bars, and I would write slowly, sharpening the pencil with a knife.
For years, my excuse to keep smoking cigarettes was that if I quit smoking, I would stop writing.
Then later I quit writing and kept smoking.
And now recently I quit smoking and then started writing.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk who wrote some books. He wrote of deep things. I found one of his books recently in a place called the Friendship Club in Santa Fe, a book called New Seeds of Contemplation, it was in the shelf they have there where you can just take any book you want. I opened it and started reading and it was one of those moments it feels like a certain book comes into your hands at the exact moment you needed it.
In that book, Merton says a few things about writing that I think are probably true.
I'm not a religious man. But this stuff rings true. Merton says:
"If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men--you may make some money...and make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what yourself have written and you will be so disgusted that you will wish you were dead."
One of those paradoxes. If you want to reach men and give them joy, then don't write for men. Write for god.
There is a trunk full of notebooks and manuscripts and published clips, stuff I wrote back before the internet and so now I'm asking myself who did I write that stuff for, those million or so words I wrote when I was in my twenties.
Maybe I should be asking God that question. Merton says that each of us is a word written by God. A question in the form of a word. And the way we live is our answer to that question.
I've been tempted, for years, to dump the trunk out and burn those writings of mine in a bonfire out in the snow somewhere in a sagebrush field in some private ceremony to clean the personal slate.
My friend Dorie Hagler once posted on face book that she burned 20 years worth of journals.
I never asked her if she read them before she burned them.
Its not really a trunk, that container full of words on pages. Its more like a plastic tub the size of a trunk. Biggest one I could find at Walmart, and its full. Its in my warehouse, the plastic tub is, which warehouse isn't really a warehouse but is actually a room on the other side of my bedroom wall with a bare particle-board floor and bare sheet rock walls where I keep chimney parts and pipe.
But anyway so there is this blue purple plastic tub in my warehouse full of chimney stuff, and the tub is full of manuscripts, and in trying to decide what to do with it I am thinking of Thomas Merton, and what he said about who are you writing for.
What did I write and who did I write it for?
I wrote theater plays first, starting when I was around 21. Did I write them for men? Or for a woman who would help turn me from a boy to a man? Certainly not for God, unless those fucked-up plays were sort of like protest letters to Him, a shaking of a young fist at the sky.
Has anybody asked Thomas Merton if its possible to write for all of the above: God, Men, and the Self, at once? Only a few of the plays I wrote were ever performed by actual actors on actual stages for actual audiences. And most of those plays have, I hope, been forgotten.
Living in Salt Lake City, of all places, going to the university, walking around with a full-blown theater going on in my head and these actors would come out onto that make-believe stage in my mind, and they would do and say crazy things, and I would write it down as fast as I could.
My first little play was produced there in a barn-type building in some park near the University. The audience was all dressed up. That shocked me. Their nice clothes. These people were somebodies, and I was nobody, and they got dressed up and sat together, tears in their eyes because the whole play was two guys talking and chopping onions and the onion fumes went out into the audience, until there wasn't a dry eye in the place. I got my first royalty check.
I had no skill or technique.
I was a long way from being ready for any kind of success.