Sunday, March 14, 2021

Writer's Block

I should have been a writer. That’s a hell of a thing to conclude when you’re approaching eighty. It might be too late to write for anybody but myself. When this crystalized last October, I was thrown into a frenzy of wondering; wondering about what to write, how to write it, who to write it for and for the first time, how to pitch and sell my stuff.

I’ve never had the huevos to submit a story or a book, to make a cold call. Sure, I have a byline in a handsome online magazine for which I’m paid exactly nothing. So, I have no skin in the game. Is that real writing? As a guy who’s always measured himself by the proceeds of his efforts not being paid feels like less than a whole loaf. Which is not to suggest that I’ll stop. It’s what I do. And for that matter if the principle is that you must be paid for your creative work for it to have value I’ll have to stop photographing, too. Then what would I have? Good food, good wine, adventuring forth, a loving marriage and vying for eternal youth. Which might be enough.

Still, I need to grow a pair and take some risks. My lifelong friend, the author John Ellsworth, says that he papered his walls with rejection notices till he began self-publishing page turners through Amazon Kindle. They’re gripping mysteries, spy novels and the like. He produces one of them every 40 days. He’s really good and really prolific. His books keep you glued to the page. And he’s a machine. The man writes 2,000 words a day like clockwork. He edits that 2,000 the next day and writes 2,000 more. He does employ a high-powered professional editor to polish the manuscript. From what I’ve learned from friends who are published authors everybody needs an editor. John levels with his considerable audience right of the gate. He writes to entertain. I’d be delighted to entertain and have long felt that being able to make a buck selling entertaining fare would be nirvana. Of course, the grander dream is to craft work that is demonstrably different and definably “art.” Literary fiction John may have called it; writing that aims higher. I’m far from sure that I possess that august gene though John says I do. Hell, I’d off somebody to sell a bodice ripper.

The obvious path is to warm up with shorter offerings through an online vehicle like Medium which I follow closely and of which I’m a member. Medium monetizes based on readership and comments. It publishes work by categories; History, Travel, food and wine, aging, you name it. Those are among the subjects I originally chose but now Medium’s algorithms subject me to exposés about depraved Roman emperors, ten-year old gypsy serial killers and nymphomaniacal French courtesans. Can’t for the life of me figure out why.

John has told me on more than one occasion to submit one of my pieces to the New Yorker, to reach for the gold ring. Scares the crap out of me.

On the other hand, 1,200 words, a typical Medium essay, spring from my fingertips with some ease. That’s my typical blog. So that may be a place to start. I read that writing is hard and that you have to put your head down and do the work. I don’t find sprints unduly hard, but I haven’t often broken the 1,200-word barrier very often. Maybe that’s when writing becomes soul crushing, and your brain explodes.

When this dilemma began percolating in the fall, it dawned to me that crafting a book length tale from some 4,000 pages of blog posts would be the most expedient path. It would be more of an editing gig than scratch baking. Enough of those 4,000 pages the past 15 years were about my life experiences, some of them deeply personal, that a memoir of the path to my 80th year or something fictional that carries a big part of me is worth a real effort. John Ellsworth has told me on more than one occasion that whatever you write, however fanciful, it’s always about you. That mitigates for fiction it seems to me. The protagonist of a novel, saint or sinner, can be exaggerated, can be exponentially more flawed or heroic, can live closer to the knife’s edge of sanity and can be the redeemed or the redeemer. And who is to know when real events and characters are subsumed by fiction.

In a superficial first cut I stitched together 35,000 words from posts that moved me in some way. Gut wrenching in some cases. Using John’s “80,000 words make a book” premise, I’m almost half-way to something. Or to paraphrase the title of Jerry Seinfeld’s recent memoir, “Is this anything?” Are these 35,000 words anything? Seinfeld believes that standup is all about the writing. From that laugh line I'll extrapolate that writing’s all about writing. My son Garrett who has been a special effects make-up artist for film and television for more than 30 years says the same. You can’t tell a great story without great writing.

My story real or imagined could start like this:

Eight year old Steve Immel at Capwell's Department Store in Downtown Oakland

I have no memory of living in a household with a mother and a father. Though photographs from 1942 in Urbana, Ohio and 1944 in Antioch, California suggest otherwise. My 3- year-old self in the Antioch photo is a shirtless tyke in tighty whities who had just broken his front tooth on the concrete stoop. My father was a newly minted Navy officer who was preparing to ship out to the South Pacific where he would serve as Executive Officer of an LST, Landing Ship Tank. He was a Lieutenant Senior Grade, two full stripes. I don’t know if he saw combat. He never said and wasn’t part of the family unit when the war ended. So, I don’t remember him living with my mother and me before he sailed for the South Pacific and know he was never was part of the Immel household after the War ended.

My first memory of my father was on board his LST just before it embarked from Treasure Island across San Francisco Bay from Antioch. I was scratched by the ship's mascot, an unpleasant spider money named Sam that was tethered to the mast. I cried like a baby. Hell, I was a baby.

We moved to California to play the dutiful family, but Glenn and Rachel's marriage was already dead in the water. Just months after their wedding my father told his baby sister Ruth, “This isn’t going to work.” Ruth recounted that moment to me at my father’s funeral in North Lewisburg, Ohio where he was born. The year was 1988. He had just turned 80 when he died of a stroke. I hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years.

Putting the pieces together from what I’d observed and heard, the divide between Glenn Richard Immel and Rachel Helen Immel, nee Sykes, was sexual. He was a sexual being and she was cold to his touch. That’s what Glenn meant when he confided to Ruth, “This isn’t going to work.”

Rachel, that what I called her after she disowned me on my 2lst birthday, was a cultured and erudite lady. I use the noun “lady” for emphasis. She was a voracious reader, something she gave me, loved theatre, ballet, and arthouse films. There was an ebony Wurlitzer Spinet in our living room. My drum kit stood in the corner. Show tunes filled the house. My first 78 was Dave Brubeck's Take the A Train. My mother had a regal bearing that suggested she was living beneath her station. She and wore clothes with panache. And Jungle Gardenia. Once on a bar crawl with my father, a bonding ritual by his reckoning, he pointed out a fetching brunette with an updoo and asked me, “Who does she look like to you?” I mumbled something unintelligible. Ogling your mother’s doppelganger has creep factor of 11.

She was asexual as far as I know. She may actually have been the man hater my father’s sisters Evah and Ruth called her. Thankfully, they copulated at least once. Certainly, their lives paint pictures of wildly divergent sexual appetites. He had two more marriages, one to Denice a hot 26-year-old divorcee and the last to Irma, a stacked Latina from Nicaragua. He dated a parade of curvy babes who looked like B-movie actresses while she was defiantly solo and died childless.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

As Brian Williams on The 11th Hour is want to say "There is a lot to unpack here." John Ellsworth is right about everything (at least from what you have written) where writing is concerned. Yes, you are a writer. Yes, you should submit something to The New Yorker, and yes, you should post or at least keep rejection letters. He has. I have. It does take some gumption to be rejected, but when you have a piece of writing your heart tells you is good, you keep trying. Your opening line "I have no memory of living in a household with a mother and a father" is terrific, and exactly how to start a proper work or fiction or non-fiction. Of course, the photograph of you taken at Capwell's in Oakland is you from top to bottom. Now, as far as bodice rippers are concerned, we have a friend from tango (who will remain unnamed because she does write under a pseudonym) who writes bodice rippers. Upon meeting her, some people think she is a ditz, but she is extremely smart, and is going to do some significant scientific research one of these days. But her writing has always been a part of her. I am quite certain she does not think any less of her skills because she writes in that genre. She writes, as you said, because that is what she does and is what you do. In this season and year, which may offer so many beginnings, we hope one of those is your book or books, and future publications. We are lucky to witness your evolution!