15 May 1999

Artless at work

THE WOMAN IS STARING INTO SPACE. A notebook lies open beside a mug of coffee. Her hand lies flat across a book, as if she were blind and it were Braille. Across the room, a goatee wearing a nervous man pinwheels a pencil at eye level, diverting attention from the mound of medical books bunkering him down. There is the discordant music of fast, brutal typing: if the laptop woman is composing a love note, she will swallow her lover whole. I have discovered all this while staring into space, my comp book open beside a mug of coffee, a book on my table.

We are writing.

Novelist and essayist Michael Ventura tells young writers about commanding "the talent of the room." "Unless you have that," he writes, "Your other talents are worthless. Writing is something you do alone in a room."

But what exactly are all these people doing? Reports, makework, mastering computer Solitaire? Ventura's room can be anywhere: "If you’re the young Ernest Hemingway, your room is a café table;" he continues. "If you’re Emily Dickinson, your room is your garden; if you’re Marcel Proust, you write in bed; if you’re William Faulkner, you compose 'As I Lay Dying' in six weeks in a humid shack while you work days in a factory... but whoever you are, whatever shape it takes, that room is the center of your life and it’s very crowded. Everything you are and everything you’re not backs you up against the wall and stares at you. You stare back. And eventually you get some writing done."

I read these words aloud as I sit in a tavern, talking to a painter. It is near midnight and we are in a crowd. He stands, moves his hands, creates scenes with words, then wipes them away; I sit on a stool, back against the formica bar. We swap the good, all-too-colorful stories about the prodigious quantities of drink and gossip and fisticuffs that Manhattan's abstract expressionists who lingered in the 1950s-era Cedar Tavern are legend. The room is filled with conversation, but this is the kind we will wind up having. But we are not nostalgic for a time in which neither of us lived, yet we wonder for a moment about the friends and acquaintances who surround us. We wonder, too, about the writing and the painting that gets done before a line is drawn or a sentence drawn out. Sure, there are people around us who are here to drink or flirt or brag about how much they drink or how flirted-out they are or how work has worn them down. Most of these familiars, our communicants, have done a lot of work, whether they are musicians or cinematographers or record label owners or architects or artists or the opposite sex, seeking any of the above. Faces bear flickers of contentment, nothing morbid in the mood of the room.

But is the work really put away for the day? Or are thoughts racing behind the stares-into-space? What is being examined in the middle distance? A melody; paint that no longer requires more paint; a few good sentences. These lustrous designs surface and recede amid the mash of bodies, the play of smile or glare, the faces, alert, searching, content to be out of the writing room or studio. After being alone with one's words, oneself, all the livelong day, this indoors is expansive as all outdoors.

Then, after shucking the creative trance, what is this need to observe, to take in this murmur? To be among others instead of sinking into television? Strangers to a place like this tend to sniff at those assembled. (That is the job of being a stranger: to find things strange.) In "Bohemia," a book about his travels through San Francisco and New York from the 1950s onward, Herbert Gold writes, "Pernicious and premature nostalgia was one of the felonies of the Bohemian life; nameless longing merely a misdemeanor, punishable by being forced to linger at cafe tables, gazing at representatives of whatever dream of fulfillment passed by. The passersby were probably committing the same error, only with different fulfillments in mind."

This is a pretty picture of students, want-to-bes, dreamers, none yet prepared to crack the nut of life. (They will be haute-bourgeois little worker-bees soon enough.) But by those I know, in their thirties, in their forties, work is being done. And part of the work is contemplation, gestation. The lingering is a vastly underestimated component of it. Serendipity is being taken on all around us like crates of precious spices that Hannibal would have caravanned over the Alps. Rilke wrote in 1899, from his "Diaries of a Young Poet": "For the solitary person there are no chance occurrences... With each meeting chance begins. It exists where two or three are together in its name, and its power increases with the number of those assembled."

The beer or the cigarette, the coffee or the greasy breakfast, these are motions repeated while the subconscious churns, seeking the epiphany that only seems unbidden, a gift, instead of a product of all the hours of the days of our lives, diamonds that twinkle in the coal fields of the imagination. We look outwards, into ourselves, until a friendly face looms up or the red-and-black pattern of the floor tile makes our eyes cross. Camel Lights are bummed, Leinenkugel is lavished, these are the ways of our life. This is the project of no apparent project, awaiting an insight like—oh!—a shiny dime on a sidewalk.

You can plow thoughtlessly through the familiar food served by accustomed faces, let the lizard brain negotiate the chores of sustenance, leave the mind free for the unexpected daydream, the unwarranted thought. What's the line from James Salter's "A Sport and a Pastime"? "A flash of calf and I am tumbled into unbearable love"? You look up from your cup, the waitress turns kitchenward, her ankle blooms with daisy. I do not know her name, only this tattoo and smiles of hello or good-bye. This is a demonstrative solitude. Even silent and shy and swathed in shadow in barroom darkness, this, too, is sociability, the contact buzz of other human existence. I will write about you: but that is another story.

In David Mamet's essay, "Writing in Restaurants," which has very little to do with writing in restaurants, he asserts, "When we demand a rational and immediately practical translation of rituals, we deny their unconscious purpose and power; we, in effect, reject our own power to solve problems—to deal with the abstract. So doing, we are forced to ignore those problems incapable of immediate, rational solutions. As these are the problems most important in our life, by denying their existence we create deep personal and communal anxiety."

The poet and novelist Jay Parini is less the philosopher on the subject. In "Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics," he says: "Surrounded by people you don't necessarily have to interact with, you feel free to concentrate. Once I'm involved in the tactile process of writing—the pleasurable transference of emotions and ideas into language—I find that I don't really have to worry about concentration."

Writing, we must always remember, is labor. It is not a romance, it is not some idyllic subsistence. In his agile, glib Greenwich Village memoir, "Kafka Was The Rage," the late New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard recalled, "Half the young men in the village were writing notes. They wrote them in cafés, in the park, even on the street. You'd see them stop and pull out their pads or notebooks to get down something that had just struck them—the color of the sky, the bend of a street, an incongruity. These notes were postcards to literature that we never mailed." Harrumph. A passage that demonstrates just how easy it is to cross the line between being Walter Benjamin's "attentive flâneur" to becoming a self-regarding boob. And it is a dangerous impulse to covet the lives of people already dead instead of deciphering one's own, craving a colorful life of "high abstraction" that would warrant a chapter that opens with the sentence, "One night in the San Remo Bar Delmore Schwartz invited me to sit in a booth with him." I pass time in a world of week-old cold pizza and dollar-fifty beers.

I'm more partial to Bertolt Brecht's "Of Poor B.B.," as translated by Michael Hamburger:

In the asphalt city, I'm at home. From the very start
Provided with every unction and sacrament.
With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy.
To the end, mistrustful, lazy and content

Another day passes. Two hours outlining an essay, typing up some hasty scrawl for a story I must finish tomorrow. Then strange coffee and the New York Times in the lunchroom down the street. There is no fever, yet somehow there is focus. Weaving between the murmur of words and the working of the kitchen comes rain on the roof. A thought arrives, an observation, for another motley piece. I scrawl it hastily. The rain breaks, and I walk home to finish reading a book, and decide I should bat out a fast, short review. When everything hums and works well, there is commonly a jangle, a nervousness that follows and all that can fix it is more of the same. I settle into the specific stink of a particular bar in a pool of book-friendly light and take another plunge into the sea of words. I plan to be alone, not lonely, in the crowd. (Writing is a kind of companionship with yourself.)

A friend says hello after weeks away. A stranger, on first glance, dazzles me with a smile, then on second glance, annoys me. A cell-phone wielding baseball cap is parked in a knot of pals, reporting their slumming whereabouts to another cell phone somewhere in the crackling night. I put my book down to ask how another friend's screenplay is coming. Now the conversations come fast and furious. Patterns are readily decipherable, anecdotes mesh with history and gossip becomes the fuel of friendships, further stories to be built. The architect is flying first thing in the morning to check on a project in Moscow, a filmmaker wants to tell me the latest barrier thrown up in the path of his unreleased movie. Everyone works. Everyone has stories to share.

The play of all these distractions is a heightened form of the tumult of the subconscious, that which allows you, when the time is right, each day, every day, to squeeze out the necessary word-count, pages, to embroider hard-won perceptions. To challenge one color with another, shifting what you thought the first color had been. A warm-bodied analogue to the primordial soup of the next page waiting to be written, the inchoate painting. These are your friends, this is your life, but this is what it is as well.

Night grows deeper still, the day is ended, work pushed aside at least until the next, familiar itch to reach for the UniBall Micro that must be instantly gratified. The deeper thoughts, of love and God and death and the many ways of postponing the contemplation of death or deadlines will wait. These thoughts, and words, unbidden, unformed, will accumulate once more, awaiting the next day, later. For now, the sped-up cartoon of commerce and social intercourse before our eyes in the saloon or coffee shop, the always-hypnotic play of unchoreographed, serendipitous communion. No one person created this. If art reflects one person's vision, then this room is not a work of art. But it is a metaphor. It represents the pages that await peopling, the blank of the next day's work to come that all this sweet-faced fracas defies. A day nearer the grave, a few moments closer to the opening of the next paragraph.

[Published in a slightly different form in Newcity, 15 May 1998]