From this perspective I would like to observe the modest structures that I've thrown together over the years. None of my fiction has been published though I have learned enormously from my failures. Here are my thoughts on writing as a form of construction, a very physical act, and my experience with the metaphor of the author's home.
At the 3rd International Congress of the Spanish Language in Rosario, Argentina the authors in attendance spoke about language in small, informal press conferences. Cameras lined the walls such that the reporters entering late had to crawl up to the conference table in order to place their tape recorders near an author’s microphone.
During the poet Ernesto Cardenal’s press conference, a gruff Uruguayan reporter I met at the hostel leaned over and said, “After all the stories about him in the revolution, I thought he’d be a giant.” The old bearded poet spoke with a priest’s deliberate gentleness and was to me completely unknown, so I just smiled and turned to my notes.
“I mean, look at him. He’s a dwarf,” the reporter said, his eyebrows arched in a surprise bordering on concern.
In the question and answer period Cardenal spoke of his time as Minister of Culture in Nicaragua. On the heels of the revolution he arranged for a linguist to travel to a remote community to record an indigenous language. The scholar was delayed by weather or paperwork or funding and before he arrived at the village, the last native speaker died in her bed. Cardenal felt this loss deeply and shaking his head stated, “When a language dies, it is like the death of a species. The world is poorer for it.”
When he tired from answering questions, I watched as the old man, with his frayed green cardigan and black beret, stepped down gingerly from the stage to take the arm of a young publicist. He was smiling inwardly and lost in thought. The photographers took their last shots and he turned his watery eyes from the flashes. The eyes were soft and sad and his jaw worked slowly as he was escorted from the room.
When a poet dies, I thought, it is like the death of a species. The world is poorer for it.
The Front Door:
Ani and I lived together for a few weeks in Buenos Aires as my bank account dwindled to nothing. My first stab at being a writer had produced nothing of merit. I wrote and rewrote the same paragraph a thousand times without ever making it to chapter three. Part of it was my conviction that I could take language and force it onto the page in a string of precious, shining words. Part of it was a lack of commitment.
Before, in Ecuador, storytelling was not something I was aware of in a physical way. I knew what a story looked like but not what storytelling felt like. I simply wanted imagery of such vividness that the reader was transported impotently to my world. Without knowing, I wanted poetry.
The things I’ve learned from my wife cannot easily be summarized. The Spanish language is one, yet so is what Spanish has taught me about writing. While doing my lessons on the past preterit I was given the assignment to continue a short story by Adolfo Bioy Casares titled “El último piso.”
The protagonist of "The Top Floor" distractedly walks into an apartment building and chances into the upstairs neighbor of his actual dinner hosts. There is a sly and promising flirtation with the woman cut short by the man’s dinner plans. After promising to return and pick up where they have left off, he takes the stairs down a floor and has an enjoyable dinner with his friends. They surprise him, however, by mentioning that their apartment is on the top floor. As it turns out, the woman, the apartment, and the entire upper floor do not exist and in dumb terror the man runs from the building and into the street.
Here I picked up the story, writing in Spanish despite my clumsiness and ignorance. What I soon found was that my weakness in Spanish was a boon for my narration. No longer was I trapped by a cage of precious words – chiaroscuro, unctuous, piquant, miasma, arabesque, patina, dappled, etc, etc, etc. Had I known it at the time, I would have said that, like Samuel Becket, I was liberated by a foreign language from my knowledge of English. It was a “siege in the room” type scenario, and though nothing of brilliance was produced, I finally felt myself building the story by connecting plot pieces for the first time.
My writing before then was the room of a teenager with aspirations to be a romantic intellectual of sophisticated tastes. Instead of a fake bust of Shakespeare, I spent three weeks editing a sentence that compared a heron’s legs to the sweep of a signature. Instead of a Picasso poster and a faux-marble chessboard, I right-clicked through synonyms of synonyms to arrive at “genuflection.” With the limits imposed on my writing by Spanish, I actually escaped this smarmy punk’s room and moved into more productive digs.
The Living Room:
Back in Rosario there was a counter-conference organized to give voice to indigenous groups called the Conference of the Languages. I arrived in time to catch the closing statements of a Basque activist who looked like Fidel Castro, if Fidel had been a husky fisherman. I snapped a couple of shots and was about to leave when a woman, speaking Spanish faster than I could process, invited me to take some photos of and interview somebody. She looked at my press pass when she spoke and grabbed my arm, leading me to an older man that had just finished speaking before two news cameras. When I asked who the man was, she didn’t seem to understand and just said, “He’s that man there.”
His name was Adolfo and he wore a workman’s shirt with the sleeves rolled up. When we shook hands he was friendly but begged my pardon because he had to leave immediately to give a speech at the law school. He asked if I wanted to ride along in the taxi for an interview and I gamely agreed. When I asked him who he was he looked at me quizzically and said he was the organizer of the conference. We hurried to the street and three of us climbed into a small cab.
The ride over was brief but for me it seemed endless. I didn’t know who I was interviewing and he wasn’t saying. My questions led vaguely in the direction of biography. When I became embarrassed and quiet, he pleasantly asked where I came from. We talked about the weather in Seattle and then we arrived at our destination.
In front of the law school entrance was a group of students with signs. Adolfo shook my hand, wished me luck, and again excused himself as he was escorted to the library for his speech. When he turned away I noticed a young woman holding a sign that said, “Welcome, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.”
My internship with the paper lasted four months and consisted largely of writing for the culture section. There were almost no limitations besides subject and length. My longest articles were the pre- and post-language conference pieces. The editor was, like most editors I’ve met, short on comments.
During and after the internship I began writing a novel whose protagonist was a disenchanted ad-exec from Seattle. The character gets drunk and finds an email address in his pocket the next morning. An internet affair develops between him and a woman he vaguely remembers or imagines he remembers and all the while his marriage falls apart from apathy. The chapters are separated by “commercials” from the ad-execs portfolio and in the end, as his wife terminates the marriage, he stares vacantly at a tv screen paralyzed by pride.
Though the story wasn’t exactly original and the writing displayed many of my old bad habits, it was the first piece I’d written that had all the features of a true story. Again, I would lose myself in editing, though I fought the urge more successfully than before.
I taught English sporadically at the time and wrote regularly in the study of our Buenos Aires apartment. It was at this time that my apprenticeship in writing began. Though I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, I was enthusiastic about the chapter by chapter progress I was making. The story that I constructed cast a shadow before itself that indicated the direction of the plot like a sundial. I wrote hard and finished the novel just before catching a flight back to Seattle to begin a summer working carpentry.
We did renovations and remodels, but mostly I helped build small additions. This was my first time as a carpenter and I liked the work despite the physical demands. I’d run the chop-station while the boss, my good friend Brandon, shouted out measurements. The parallels were for me so obvious that I couldn’t help thinking that I was learning to write while hammering, that my words were sections of pine board held together by punctuation. A story, for me, was becoming something that had to withstand all of the stress that any other structure resists.
When the summer ended and I’d saved up enough to return to Ani, I flew back to Buenos Aires and picked up writing fiction again. This story was less experimental – no commercials – and the characters had a bit more depth. By the time I arrived at the final chapters, I felt like an architect drafting a familiar structure from memory. The pieces all fit together and there was nothing hidden from me, at least nothing so obvious as plot and character. Before I could finish that novel, however, we moved to South Carolina and I abandoned fiction writing.
I’ll always feel that I achieved in those two years a degree of competence that made me at ease with my writing. The fear of not writing a perfect sentence, the thrashing poetically about without direction, it disappeared and was replaced by a geographic familiarity similar to that of being at home.
Another Nobel Prize winner was in attendance in Rosario, the Portuguese author José Saramago. I was enthusiastic to see him out of a love for his writing and I raced down to the conference room to hear him speak. He was taller than I imagined, quite tall for being elderly. His face was covered in age spots and he wore glasses with enormous square frames that gave him a look of harmless awkwardness. Before we entered the press room I snapped a photo of him in the hall.
He spoke largely on early education and was questioned about his thoughts on voting “no choice” (en blanco), a topic much debated at the time. The usual hubbub surrounded the interview as noise from the street floated in through the windows and journalists kept coming in late through the heavy double doors. Saramago asked for a bottle of water and more recorders were placed near his microphone, much to his distraction. He paused in his comments when a recorder clicked loudly as it reached the end of its tape.
It was while the reporter was clumsily trying to retrieve the recorder, crawling up to the raised stage, that another reporter stood to ask a question. She was an attractive woman with an obvious and open passion for Saramago’s work. Her question was that of a literature major, thought up and presented deliberately. You could tell she had asked herself, “If you had one question…?”
Unfortunately for her, the journalist flipping the tape in front of the conference table, plus the editor or publicists to the author’s right, plus the itching of a dry throat all conspired to distract Saramago as the journalist asked, “If language is the house of the author, what is your favorite room?”
He took a drink of water and turned to the woman as she stood with her pen poised above a notepad. “What is my favorite room in the house? Well…on the patio with my dogs,” he said.
The conference ended and Saramago was escorted out in an explosion of camera flashes. I sat at the back with the old Uruguayan journalist making notes and waiting for the halls to clear a bit so we could go for lunch. We laughed quietly and winked at each other. The honesty and innocence of Saramago’s reply stayed in my mind for a long time. Had he not heard the metaphor about language, or was the patio with his dogs an extension of that metaphor? What would the dogs be in this metaphor, muses?
I returned to Buenos Aires and finished my article and the internship, but continued writing fiction. The novel took shape on the page and the parts were something tangible, no longer floating abstractions to be plucked from the clouds. There was a complete structure in my mind, a blueprint that I was working from, and all that was required from me was the brute labor of describing the character's progress through the plot. I was confident and sure about the writing and I could move around in the narrative with the kind of naked liberty one has at home.
Saramago's favorite room in this house is a place I've yet to reach. There are parts of the author's home that I haven't explored and others I'll never access. Is there a place where the author is at rest while working? Where he sits in the filtered light of his patio and dogs caress his hands with their tongues? Where the story is a structure that he knows intimately and physically? Where he is undistracted by the noise coming in from the street?