Use What You Need, Invent the Rest

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It wasn’t until after I had published my first two novels that I realized: (1) People think my hero is me; (2) People think that most of the events in my novels actually happened to me.

For example, because Frank Dragovic, the protagonist of Dirty Proof, states that he doesn’t like pizza for breakfast, all kinds of people have come up to me and said something akin to: “What’s wrong with you? Pizza for breakfast is delicious!”

There’s nothing wrong with me. I happen to love pizza for breakfast. It’s a character in my book who doesn’t like it. That character is somebody I created. I gave him some of my likes and dislikes, some of other people’s likes and dislikes. In fact, to make myself work harder to develop his character, I made sure he wasn’t identical to me. Likewise for other characters, major and minor: I feel free to have them live events that happened to me, and I feel even more free to invent for them their own events.

In the poem below, which I wrote in 2010-11, some of the events happened to me, and some didn’t. I’ll explain after the poem itself.

 
Crossing the Skyway: 1968

The Greyhound drones, Madison to Cleveland,
ferrying the poor, a few of them students destined
to demonstrate against the state-spawned war, fewer

thinking about French students on strike, fewest conjugating
French verbs for practice. Laboring toward the Skyway,
clever construct of Mayor Daley to circumvent laws

prohibiting toll bridges on land, the bus lurches
up the long, high arc of roadway. Belching black smoke
it slows, jolts, stops. In the back a wraith-like stranger

in worn denims and cowboy boots looks up from the marks
he’s been carving into his saddlebag and summarizes:
This animal done staggered.

The hindered and jostled board a replacement and continue
to their destination, as does the state continue to wage war,
not just that war, but more wars, repeats of wars, wars

that were, wars that are, wars to come. L’etat, c’est maw.
Despite its Vietnam defeat, despite race rebellions,
despite assassinations, the state survives, cruising

its own skyway, declaring the good life for all.
But the century turns and the bus begins to lurch —
capacity overloaded with cluster bombs, war planes,

battleships; engine clogged with devalued currency,
costly bailouts, bankruptcies; tires blown by unemployment
and homelessness. The skyway, too, is crumbling, potholes

more than roadway, and as the black smoke of human misery
spews out the bus sides, a specter awakens, pulls a dusty
Marx from his saddlebag and repeats: This animal done staggered.

How much of this poem actually happened? My bus ride from Madison to Cleveland happened. My fellow riders were students and working class. Some were indeed going to a place where they could take a bus to Washington DC to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland to join friends and together we would take one of the antiwar-rally busses to DC.

The Greyhound did indeed break down on the Chicago Skyway, exactly like my poem describes it. In the back of the bus was a man dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans and cowboy books. He had with him some sort of leather satchel that looked like a saddlebag, though I’m not certain it was. He did indeed utter, This animal done staggered.

You can see why such an event would imprint itself on my mind. It stayed with me, and eventually it came out as a poem.

arton2400How much of this poem didn’t happen? Well, the bus I was riding broke down in 1965, but in the poem I changed the date to 1968. Why? Because by 1968 the war had intensified, with President Johnson sending more and more American troops to try to quell the Vietnamese liberation struggle. By 1968 more and more students and others were protesting the war. In May of 1968 French students rose up in rebellion against capitalism; French workers staged general strikes. In the poem I wanted to tie the US protests against the war to world-wide events: hence the 1968 date

The cowboy-type character in the back of the bus was not carving marks into his saddlebags (at least not that I was aware). But I wanted an allusion to Karl Marx and to his famous statement that “a spectre is haunting Europe” (hence I made the stranger wraith-like). For Marx, that specter was communism. It was the specter of an economic system yet to be born.

When the event of crossing the skyway on a doomed bus happened to me, it was finite: it occurred, a replacement bus was sent, and the event was over with. But in the poem I move from the skyway event through the next forty years, ending in the awakening of the forgotten, dormant, wraith-like stranger who now, instead of making marks, pulls Marx out of his saddlebags, offering to the world once again the analysis that capitalism has not only outlived its usefulness, but has dragged us all downward, downward into unemployment, poverty, and war.

In poetry and in fiction, writers use what they need (from what really happened) and invent the rest — in order to tell the particular story they want to tell.

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“Crossing the Skyway” is the title poem in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.

Walden: Living Deliberately

51aVzfJ60kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A while back, in Expectations and Awakenings, I posted about the first book that ignited my thinking. That book was Great Expectations, which I read when I was in the ninth grade. What the novel awakened me to was literature.

The second book which roused my thinking was Walden, which I read when I was eighteen, as part of a course in American Transcendentalism.

While Great Expectations awoke me to the beauty of language and the power of story, Walden awoke me to the necessity of resistance. It made me realize that one need not unthinkingly follow political, social, or cultural norms just because they have endured for hundreds of years.

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Henry David Thoreau

Walden is structured into eighteen chapters, most of them 8-10 pages long — except for “Economy,” the first chapter, which is 50 pages long. Clearly “Economy” was the most important topic in Thoreau’s mind: the economy of making a living. For Thoreau, providing for one’s clothes, food, and shelter was something that should not be a daily, life-long burden. Thus he decided to live simply, with minimum wants, so that he could spend his days doing what he chose to do in life — observing nature and writing.

Thoreau’s advocacy of individual self-reliance (espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” first published in 1841, but given in lecture form as early as 1836) was quite different from what was advocated by Marx, Engels, Fourier, Owen, and other European socialists. Marx and Engels analyzed that capitalism (the social system that creates wealth for the few, poverty for the many) was the cause of social and economic inequality (and catastrophe) and needed to be replaced with a system based on production for the needs of human kind, not production for the profit of a few. They put forward a social solution, Thoreau an individual solution.

Both Transcendentalists such as Thoreau and communists such as Marx agreed that the role of philosophers should be to create a better world. Thoreau phrased it this way in Walden: To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

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Marx and Engels statue in Berlin-Mitte

While Thoreau advocated individual action instead of group action, he still understood that the purpose of capitalist enterprise was profit. In Walden he wrote: I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing . . . as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.

His words on philosophy and on the factory system are not as often quoted as are his comments on individual action, perhaps the most famous of which is the quote on living deliberately.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Thoreau studied nature intensively. He knew the names and behaviors of animals and plants, of the trees, the rivers, the ponds, and the seasons. “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails,” he urged.

Notice how deliberately Thoreau used the word deliberately in the two quotes above. He meant consciously and intentionally, in a calm and unhurried manner. And his observation about people being thrown off track  by every new thing that comes along is even more true today than it was in 1848.

A life-long belief in self-reliance did not stop Thoreau from acting against injustices that didn’t personally affect him. He was an abolitionist and a participant in the Underground Railroad. After John Brown led a poorly supported raid on the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Thoreau defended his bearing arms against a government that permitted the buying, selling, exploitation, torture, and murder of men, women, and children whose ancestors had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Neither Thoreau’s conscience nor his reason would allow him to support a government that supported slavery.

One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes.

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Today Thoreau is considered one of America’s greatest writers, though he wasn’t considered that in his lifetime. Widely read in the Greek Classics, he often alluded to them in his writing. One of these allusions was to the myth of Antaeus, son of Gaea (goddess of Earth) and Poseidon (god of the Sea). Antaeus defeated all contenders in battle because each time his opponents tossed him to the ground, he gained more strength from contact with the earth. Talking about growing beans, Thoreau stated: “They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.”

Literary critics regard Walden as sui generis: unique. And I think that is true. No other nature writer I can think of, no other experimenter, has thought so deeply or written so well. Walden awakened me to truth, social justice, nonconformity, simplicity — and many other things. It is a rich, powerful work. Even though I do not believe that the ills of the world — ills such as war, poverty, racism, sexism, and child abuse,  — can be cured by individual action such as Thoreau’s, I nevertheless have the greatest respect for his argument of encouraging each person to live deliberately.

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Spiraling Toward the Future

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards last month has been widely broadcast and commented on, particularly her remarks about publishers and distributors controlling books (subject matter, contents, price) in order to reap even greater profits. In speaking out, Le Guin showed courage.

She exhibited even greater courage in naming capitalism as the root cause of the commodification of all things, art included.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

For people who lived under monarchies, questioning the divine right of kings was dangerous. But when hunger, wars, and imprisonment proved too much, people did more than question: when conditions became unbearable, people rebelled. First the American Revolution and then the French Revolution showed that the oppressed could and would rise up against that self-serving fiction, “divine right of kings.”

The masters of capitalism — which enriches the few and impoverishes the many, which produces unemployment, depressions, ever-more destructive and aggressive wars, and which, yes, seeks to turn every piece of art, every drop of water, even the air we breathe, into commodities to be bought and sold — the masters of this system, like monarchs, do not want their rule questioned. Certainly in the US to even name the system of capitalism is to be ignored (pretend she never said that word) or attacked (unAmerican!). But as a science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin has the understanding to imagine different economic systems, with different means of production, distribution of goods, and welfare of the people. And as a writer, she has the courage to name the system that oppresses us. Writers, after all, are responsible for using the right words.

Heraclitus, by Johannes Morels

Heraclitus, by Johannes Morels

In reading Le Guin’s speech, I was reminded that several years ago I wrote a poem in response to an incident (I’ve forgotten the details) in which a public figure who questioned capitalism was vilified for not “understanding” that capitalism was the culmination of all economic systems, here forever. My poem was published in Struggle magazine, Spring/Summer 2011. (Although the poem isn’t included in my collection, Crossing the Skyway, other poems like it are.) The title refers to the writings of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who taught that all things are constantly changing.

Nothing Permanent Except Change

Roman imperialism, perfect candidate
     for perpetuity, except for
          excess
               and the veni-vidi-vici drive
which weakened it so severely
     that Goths and Vandals
          it thought conquered
                    overran
                         and destroyed it.

Feudalism, set to last forever,
     its stability resting on inequality
          of weapons,
               swords and crossbows
                         for the lords,
                              clubs and pitchforks
                              for the serfs,
and on a deep numbness
     due to ignorance,
          hunger,
               and superstition.
Breached from the middle,
     it fell.

Capitalism tramples all suggestions
     it won’t last forever,
          declares itself the paradigm
               of economic systems,
but it’s not the landing,
     it’s just another stair
          on the spiral rising
               toward the future,
and it, too, will be destroyed
     by the very conditions it creates —
          canyons of unemployment,
               devastating depressions,
                    and willful destruction
                         of the world.

Nothing lives forever,
     not even
          economic systems.