who are you,little i
(five or six years old)
peering from some high
window;at the gold
of november sunset
(and feeling:that if day
has to become night
this is a beautiful way)
—e e cummings
How did this happen, Alan? Why do I keep writing to you? And so publicly? Does it make you nervous? Do you want to call the police? A priest? It’s okay. I’d be nervous too. You’ve unwittingly become patron saint of my youth. A kooky totem. A way for me to write loose elegies to my younger self. Weird, huh?
It’s not your fault. You just happened to be there. In my past. You were, in your way, a companion to the younger self I’m writing to now. A Melburnian poet a long way from home teaching writing to misfits. And I was one of them.
Back then I was awakening to books and burning with visions of writing my own. I wanted to be Genet, Kerouac, Bukowski, Burroughs: the who’s who of writerly bums, dreamers and drinkers. To me they were saints and prophets and martyrs, brawling in a secular firmament.
Yeah, I know. But hey: at least I was reading.
I don’t want to be those guys anymore, Alan. I want clean teeth, good skin and a wife I don’t accidentally shoot in the head. And I don’t want to read Beckett and Joyce. I’ll take Waugh and Forster, thanks.
So I’ve grown up a little since we saw each other. But there are qualities of adulthood I just can’t swallow very well, Alan. I don’t want certain things anymore. This… complacency. This jobjobjobjobjob all grey and glacial. A job so well captured by The Office or The Hollowmen that colleagues have to negotiate the shock of recognition by accepting the parodies not as contemptuous and leering but as cheeky and validating homages. This deft self-effacement wards off the pit-bulls of doubt.
I miss my hunger and outsized expectations. I miss my naivete and arrogance. My hope and immodesty.
I want to write things that make hearts dizzy; I don’t want to eat my brussel sprouts. And I sure as hell don’t want to be a public servant anymore, oh no and no and no.
The last time I wrote to you I was a speechwriter, Alan. That was true until very recently. I committed all sorts of atrocities against language. Oh, the horror.
I once wrote an introduction to a speech which included a breathless retelling of C.Y. O’Connor’s achievements. I also mentioned his suicide, which I probably intended as counterfeit pathos, or, perhaps, my soul glimpsed the transcendent awfulness of my job, and I was just transposing my own desire to ride into the ocean on a horse and end it with a pistol. Either way, the “high-level” advice I received was that the suicide should not, under any circumstances, be mentioned, because—you know—“it’s really grim”. This asinine bullshit masquerades as strategic acumen around these parts.
You want more, Alan? Have you ever wondered why Labor politicians seem to only quote Democratic US Presidents? Of course you haven’t. But let me tell you anyway. One of the witless habits of partisanship in this country is the patrolling of an imaginary demarcation between the two major parties. One of the more facile detours this line takes is down through the list of US Presidents, as if there’s some kind of meaningful consistency between the Democrats and the ALP. It’s grimly hilarious.
MINISTER: We’re launching a policy.
ADVISER: What’s it about?
MINISTER: But I think the speech for it is a bit… dour.
ADVISER: Quote from FDR should fix that.
MINISTER: Thank God for Wikiquotes.
They say that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose; well, it seems true that we dream in poetry and live in the prosaic.
So. How are you? Are you still writing? Of course you are. Do you think you’re courageous for still doing so? Or is it just like breathing?
In a previous version of this letter I asked for some advice:
“I haven’t written any fiction for years. I’m terrified. I’ve read too much great stuff. How do you escape this tyranny of influence? Stop reading? I think I can hear your response: fuck influence. Shit, or get off the pot.”
My problem’s bigger now, perhaps, but it’s just your garden-variety sort of ennui. You know: what the hell am I doing? Why aren’t I pursuing the thing I love? Words. Letters. Am I already? But I think the advice remains the same, doesn’t it? Shit, or get off the pot.