Returning to my vomit

I have for some years now been try­ing to read a book enti­tled A Dan­ger­ous Pro­fes­sion by Fred­er­ick Busch. It is, as its sub­ti­tle takes pains to indi­cate, “A Book About the Writ­ing Life.” Since this is a life, indeed the life that I myself wish to live, I eager­ly seized this vol­ume when I hap­pened across it in a used book bin, unde­terred by the fact that I had nev­er heard of either the book or its author.

That was some­thing like four years ago. In the inter­im I have attempt­ed to read this book at least five times. I have wal­lowed through the book’s open­ing chap­ter like a home­sick Mid­west farm­boy through a Cam­bo­di­an rice pad­dy, with no clear­er an idea of why I was where I was, or what I was sup­posed to be doing there. I have shared my frus­tra­tion about this with one or more of you as the years have passed. “I just can’t get into this book,” I have said. And I would pull it out of my Tumi man-purse and stick it back on the shelf.

Yet I keep pulling it out again. I have to believe there is some rea­son why I have not packed this book away by now, or culled in out of the paper herd to be hauled back to the used book store. Some­thing makes me hold onto it, to keep it handy even. And now I think I am final­ly break­ing through what­ev­er bar­ri­er there was imped­ing me.

Busch is good. I have still nev­er read any of his fic­tion, either long or short. But I am fast com­ing to appre­ci­ate him as an essay­ist, which is well, since A Dan­ger­ous Pro­fes­sion is more a col­lec­tion of loose­ly relat­ed pieces on writ­ing, rather than a cohe­sive and uni­form whole of a book on writ­ing. As some­one who has his­tor­i­cal­ly found it far eas­i­er to write about writ­ing than to actu­al­ly write (what­ev­er that means), I appre­ci­ate his abil­i­ty, his voice, his self-crit­i­cism cou­pled with a keen eye for detail in his own life and in the world of words. I can only strive to pro­duce such writ­ing of my own, to see the world, my world, with as much com­mand as he sees his.

The sec­ond piece in the book is enti­tled “The Chil­dren in the Woods,” a ref­er­ence to the sto­ry of Hansel and Gre­tel. Appar­ent­ly Busch has writ­ten sev­er­al short sto­ries through­out his career that con­nect — more or less explic­it­ly — with the Grimm Broth­ers’ sto­ry. The essay tracks his grad­u­al­ly win­now­ing down to what he sees as the core of the tale: hunger, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly of the phys­i­cal vari­ety.

Do I have any such themes that I return to again and again, turn­ing them over to exam­ine them from many dif­fer­ent angles? Not yet, not real­ly. I would have to actu­al­ly write things, be they sto­ries, or essays, or nov­els, or what have you, for any such leit­mo­tifs to mean­ing­ful­ly emerge from my work.

But there are hints. An over­ar­ch­ing theme of belong­ing is emerg­ing in the draft­ings of my mem­oir project, a theme I would not have pre­dict­ed or con­scious­ly sought to devel­op. I am not sur­prised, how­ev­er. A few years ago my wife was humour­ing me by read­ing through my var­i­ous false starts at writ­ing fic­tion. She point­ed out that almost every sin­gle sto­ry involved the main char­ac­ter being a reg­u­lar, usu­al­ly at a drink­ing estab­lish­ment.

You real­ly like this idea, don’t you?” she asked, not real­ly need­ing my response to know the answer. Again and again, in frag­ments of scene and scat­tered sketch­es, there is some vari­a­tion on this: the char­ac­ter walks into a bar, sits down, and either says “I’ll have the usu­al” or is sim­ply brought his bev­er­age of choice with­out need­ing to ask for it at all. Then, inevitably (or seem­ing­ly so), these pathet­ic scraps of still­born fic­tion are fol­lowed from my nib by some long ram­bling rehash of my peren­ni­al lack of com­plet­ed work, with an anno­tat­ed cat­a­logue of self-crit­i­cisms of the un-con­struc­tive vari­ety.

Not that any of this is real­ly rel­e­vant, or even coher­ent. My point, I guess, is that I could see myself, like Busch, as the kind of writer who would milk one theme until it was dry, to mine one source of inspi­ra­tion over and over again; to find a fruit­ful jump­ing-off place and just keep jump­ing off it until I felt I had exhaust­ed either its pos­si­bil­i­ties or my inter­est. But I would have would have to actu­al­ly write things for this to be true, and so far my mewl­ing solip­sism has not allowed for this.

So I’ll take up my pen, dust myself off, and forge ahead, try­ing not to expend quite so much time and ener­gy look­ing back. Rather, I’ll keep push­ing out new words, day after day, let­ting the prose pile up in untidy heaps all around me, and wor­ry about pat­terns and par­a­digms at some lat­ter date. More writ­ing, less writ­ing about writ­ing. Like I can stick to that…

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