I have loved stories since I was a child. I loved the narrative. I loved the voice over in certain movies. Making sense of things. Putting things in order. A beginning, a middle, and an end, as Aristotle observed. I started with comic books. A friend who lived across from Ashmont Station had a whole bureau draw filled with comics and I loved to sit and read. One of my favorite kinds of comics where Classics Illustrated – a kind of ‘great books’ for kids.
In middle school and high school reading fiction was an escape for me. I did not read novels because I wanted to become smarter, or because they were part of any plan. I just bumped into books in the public library and read out of curiosity.
On summer nights I would read late into the night. My mother would yell up the stairs at me to put out the light and go to sleep. She could see my bedroom light reflected on the bricks of the garage outside the kitchen window. I read under my bed covers with a flashlight sometimes when I was so involved in a book that I just had to read the next lines.
But I did learn more and more about words and context and character and plot. I tested well on the big standardized tests in school and got into Boston Public Schools exam school. I began to keep a journal in high school when I was sixteen years old. I was inspired by Winston Smith in the novel ‘1984.’ I also thought that Henry David Thoreau had some interesting ideas about living and writing with an eye on the seemingly mundane world around any person.
When I was in a pre-college program for Wesleyan University one of my teachers said that I had a knack for creative writing. He liked the flow of my words. Encouraged, I took classes in creative writing in college. I worked with Tony ….. and F. D. Reeve who urged me to concentrate and write more. I wrote a couple of dozen short stories, and as a senior project I wrote a novella about the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. I was graduated with High Honors for the work on the novella. After college I wrote another novel about working at McDonald’s and dealing with a wife and young child.
I continued to write my journal over the years, sometimes writing more, sometimes letting weeks go by without an entry.
I contacted an agent in Boston about my McDonald’s novel and he expressed an interest and asked to see the manuscript. But, nothing came of that, and I did not see much avenue of exposure for my work. I wrote mote and more in a journal, and simply did not think of publishing, or reaching any audience. My writing, and my fiction writing, was like my reading of fiction – purely for self entertainment, and enlightenment.
Then came access to the internet and social media and online blogs and places to post comments. I was off. I could write a five paragraph post in minutes. I had learned to ‘touch type’ when I was in high school during the summer because I thought my handwriting was hopelessly ugly. I took the summer school class in typing because I went to an all boys high school and there was no typing offered. I was thrilled when I saw the typing class at the Burke high summer school was all girls. But, there was hardly any interaction; we were doing typing drills, not discussing fiction and short stories.
In my twenties I typed up fiction stories and worked on my two novels and kept a journal. I borrowed my sister’s electric typewriter and felt modestly professional. Occasionally I worked as an English teacher, and had a little bit of daily interaction with fiction. I wrote short stories and vignettes at night and on weekends. But I began to sell radical left newspapers on the street and go to public meetings. The idea of putting some mildly leftist meaning into a fictional story that might be read at some future date my a few people who might get the message lost its appeal for me. Better to go out on a Saturday and sell six issues of The Militant, or Workers Vanguard or Young Spartacus than hide a meaning in an arcane fiction.
I still read lots of fiction, especially works from the past. My undergraduate major was Comparative Literature at the College of Letters. The courses were like Great Books. The emphasis was on Western European literature with American works thrown in at the end. When I was in high school I saw ads for The Great Books of the Western World which was a series of about 50 volumes put out by Encyclopedia Britannica. I filled out a postcard in a magazine ad saying I was interested. Some hapless salesman showed up at my house unannounced when I was out ‘gallivanting’ as my mother used to say. The set cost about $300 bucks back then. I thought about that series about ten years ago and looked it up online. The set was still being put out, but the cost was now $1000. I spoke with a computer expert about my desire for the Great Books and he told me that we need to rethink how we look at books. All the works in the series are in the public domain, and all of them are online for free on sites like Project Gutenberg and as audio books on Librivox.
One day I just happened to look on Craigslist in the Books for Sale section. There was the Great Books set for sale – $49. I called immediately and found to my delight that the seller was in Jamaica Plain about twenty minutes car drive away from me. When I was handing over the money after seeing the slightly worn set from 1954 I said to the seller, “There has to be a story to these books, what is it?” He told me he had bought the books twenty years earlier from a woman who had joined Scientology and was moving to Sweden to work for the church.
“Does that mean I’ll be joining Scientology if I read these books? Or is it because she didn’t read the books that she joined Scientology? ” I asked laughing.
I handed him the exact change, which surprised him. “Are you going to read them? Or are they for shelf decoration?’ he asked as we carried the books down to my car on the street below.
“Oh, I’m going to read them,” I answered. “I love these stories.’
When I brought my treasure trove home and my sixteen year old nephew saw boxes of volumes with the brown bindings and the gilt edges he said, “These look like the books in the library that nobody ever goes near.”
“Somebody better go near them, your entire civilization is based on the ideas in these books, ” I answered. His remark was worth the $49.
I loved seeing how great works of fiction from the past were turned into movies or cartoons. When my children were little I recorded a series of cartoons based on great works of literature that was on Nickelodeon on Sunday mornings. There were Dickens stories like ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ When I was watching an old VHS tape about ten years ago there was a commercial for an audio set of The World’s 100 Greatest Books. I wondered if the series was still around since the tape was about twenty years old. I looked online and found the series was still offered and bought the fifty CD set. The CD’s have a roughly ten minute introduction to the work and the author followed by a Cliff Notes kind of summary of the story. The CD’s are a good introduction to some dusty old work that might be hard to understand simply opening to the first page and diving in. I recorded videos of candles burning and the audio lecture and put them online to help other people interested in old books, and to practice my video and audio editing skills.
I listen to fiction audio books almost every day. My house is filled with fiction books and videos and movies and animations. Every room in my apartment has fiction books in it.
Yet…I have no desire to compose fiction. It never even enters my mind. I write things everyday. But I am trying to tell honest truths, honest feelings; I am not trying to clock my observations as fiction. I am not trying to cram real life with all of its loose ends and plot holes into the tidy world of fiction and short stories and long stories and novellas and novels. I live in a time and place were I have the relative freedom to simply come right out and say what I think and what I think should be done. I don’t have to hide things on imaginary islands like Lillput, or in a galaxy far away. I don’t have to dodge the censor through fiction. So….I, a lover of past fiction, do not think about current fiction. I have no idea who current fiction writers are. I was in a school cafeteria sitting with a young college student talking about old books and classic literature when she switched to some of her current favorites. I had never heard of any of them, and I had no interest in finding out who they were. I have a mountain of past classics that I still have not read. When I want to know about the current society I go right to the news and commentary online about the way things are. I’m not interested in a fictionalize version of what is right in front of me.
I always thought the novel form of writing was a great way to tidy things up to make sense of some aspect of some life. So, I do think of some things from my journal that I have been keeping for almost fifty years now. About eight years ago I was working part time as a college instructor. I wanted to avoid drinking and smoking and concentrate on my subject. I started to type up a three year section of my journal when I was going out with Amy Finegold. For five months I plowed through the journal entries written in longhand. I typed and added pictures and more descriptions. When the journal talked about a time in Harvard Square I added pictures of the square from the 1970’s when Amy and I were there. But, I found myself feeling some of the anxiety and pain I had in the relationship with that girlfriend. I got a 250 page manuscript out of the five months of typing. The night I finished I felt the need for a drink and a smoke and to meet a new woman. I went out to Vincent’s nightclub and met a woman.
I posted the 250 pages I wrote on Blogger. Not long after my account at Youtube was cancelled because of music copyright violations. My Blogger account was also cancelled and the 250 pages vanished. At around the same time the computer that I had typed the 250 page work on died, and the manuscript with it. C’est la vie.
I did have a hard copy that I had printed out. It’s almost like a novel. So my history of fiction comes down to a journal with fiction techniques applied. Next I should try putting my work in baked clay tablets like the ones that are 6,000 years old from ancient Sumer. The clay tablets are seemingly indestructible. I thought of getting a stone grinder and putting some poems or a short story in stone. I suppose I could also learn to back up my work on a USB drive. Whatever I do – I can not see myself planning any works of fiction. Why not just tell the truth.