Alan Catlin: An Essay

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Artwork by Gene McCormick

Advice to a Young Writer

It’s a long and winding road.

Life intervenes with dreams. That is Life happens. As in fathering children, needing a job, making a living. Graduate School goes by the wayside.  Writing is what you can squeeze on bar napkins. Did you know you can fit a whole shirt story on bar napkins?  99 numbered sentences  That would be a a lot of bar napkins.  Called it W for Whale.  It only took about 15 years or so to get it published. 

Working becomes a whole new life education in bars while writing in spare time. From Graduate school to checking proof in a bar to managing a bar in two years.  With two children.  Who had time to write?

Though the desire never leaves. The wanting to write novels and stories.  Poetry was an afterthought. 

Had an idea for a Vonnegut inspired dystopian novel called American Book of the Dead, I desperately wanted to write : about a boy who survives an atomic blast in a bomb shelter in greater NYC area.

Yes, I did write it. I had to quit a full time job in a nightclub to do it. But it was never published.  Who wants a book in five parts: four of which have five sections, each in the style of a different writer , with the final one a rewriting of Mark Twain’s anti-war essay “To a Man Sitting in Darkness?”  No one that’s who. No one but the Brautigan novel of unpublished books. So I sent it there and it was acknowledged, shelved, and disappeared. A perfect ending to a dream.  I often wondered what happened to it.  Did it disappear when the library moved?  Did someone steal it?  Did it fall behind a stack of newspapers or something and become trash?

 I did see a movie once that had the basic premise of the book but wildly deviated from the original concept . Who knows where they got the idea.....

By my late 20’s, I had published a few odd poems.  Emphasis on odd......   until it was suggested I write about my job.  That had always been hands off . Who wants to read about bars? I was an artist after all . Like Joyce. I wanted to write about Art. It took me a long time to get over that but eventually I did. In the meantime I struggled mightily to write my Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Prose poems that took years and while the editor who did my Selected poems book loved these but I have my doubts...


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The artist, implacable, in his double-breasted London Fog overcoat.
standing before the dull, drab form of University College.
The wind ruffling his soon-t-be shoulder length hair. The rain
forming puddles in the sparse gray spots of the futilely top soiled
lawn.  The tense faces of the eighteen year old men and women
dragging car loads of furniture and luggage down the asphalt walks
toward the twin unspired brick buildings windowed only by sliding
rain-stained empty mirrors.  The sound of an automobile door closing,
car trunks slamming shut; the end of an age


Later I would write a book called Self Portrait as the Artist Afraid of His Self-Portrait that may or may not be autobiographical.  Probably not.  Though I could be wrong about that. A reader told me I only used I twice and that was in a quote by someone else.  I had to work at that.

One poem was definitely autobiographical, a kind of recovered memory about drowning in a pool while my mother sat nearby smoking cigarettes and reading magazines confident in her knowledge that all children were born with innate knowledge of how to do things like knowing how to swim.  I still can’t swim.  But that’s another story.

The second book was all about changing the focus from the first from the personal to the abstract where personal details may be inferred from the poems.  Or not. It’s like writing a mystery novel, a true noir, with no plot. I’ve done that too. Now there was a challenge....

Apparently a lot of people wanted to read about bars. I got accepted a lot. But academics thought and I quote, “Writing about bars is not a suitable subject for poetry.” So a choice had to be made  underground or mainstream....

So I went with Underground.  Was publishing a lot in journals no one ever heard of and still haven’t:   from Wordsworth’s Socks to Planet Detroit to Street Bagel with occasional Seattle Review, Wisconsin Review, and Literary Review thrown in for variety.

And then the classic, Wormwood Review, where Bukowski was king and Catlin was one of the editor’s favorite poets. I’m most proud of having two of my books selected by the legendary editor, Marvin Malone, as most neglected books of the year  The books are still neglected and Marvin is gone, alas.

So what does it take  to be a writer?

It’s like the lottery: a dollar and dream  The dollar is for the postage (then) the typewriter ribbons the carbon paper ( I’m older than I look) the white out .... The dream is to be in print.

And it takes talent, hard work, late nights, frustration, dedication, perseverance, more perseverance and a tough skin.   And more hard work.  You should read everything you can. If you don’t love to read, you can’t love to write, because everything you have ever thought of someone else has also.  But you can learn from what these people do and make it your own. Not plagiarize but transform. You have to find a voice, or in my case, voices, that fit the subject you need to write about.  Because different subjects demand different voices.  So  I create a bartender persona to begin with. Point of view is everything.  I may not share all his views but I sure understand how he thinks and why.

Writers are always told to write what they know. Which is good,  as far as it goes.  My corollary to this maxim is: write as if you know.  Another way of looking at this is called using your imagination.  Get inside the head of others, try different points of view on the same subject. See “Rashomon” the movie. And read the book too.  Grow.

Now, I have been called man with a thousand voices  and for good reason. Read AI, yes that’s a person, a terrific black woman poet, and learn how she creates her characters in monologues  or read DFW’s  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  Even crappy people have lives too. The movie has its moments but the book will blow you away.  It’s not Infinite Jest but what is?  Even Infinite Jest isn’t Infinite Jest....

Okay, then shed the direct influence of the writers you admire most. There was only one James Joyce and he isn’t you.  Please don’t try to become Bukowski. One of him was enough. Even one of Hemingway was enough. Read Stephen Cane  Think about the following statement about Red Badge of Courage.  “I served with Crane at Antietam.”  Crane wasn’t even born when the battle of Antietam was fought.  Writing something that convincing is what Art is all about. You can still love them but you can’t be them and you have to make the trip on your own.  this is a major step The essential step. Read Maggie of the Streets.  You know Crane had been to the bars he writes about. Knows the people. Walked the walk.  What he said about run down and down and out still applies its like Down and Out in Paris and London  and nothing ever changes. Except it does.

Keep reading

And start writing.  Practice.  Maybe keep a journal. It was required to have a daily journal when I took creative writing. You had to turn it in. And he knew if you wrote it all at the last minute.  Practice, practice, practice.  What you write doesn’t have to be good What is important part is the writing. This is where ideas come from.

The ideas.  While you read,  you  can find a sentence in story or a line in a poem and you can say: this is my poem.  Or you are watching a movie and you think,  “Yeah  I can use this.....”
This is inspiration and the inspiration begets an outline or a line or two lines and these lines becomes something else.  A poem or a story is born.

I’m big on starting with an image, whether it is a sentence, a word, a place, a thing, whatever it might be,  and free associate.  Once you have the that essential first line, the rest of the piece flows from the original.  Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s awful. That’s where the hard work comes in. Revision. It’s an organic process: what’s cool is that it isn’t final once it is written down. You can play god, with a small g, the creator and fix it.  Ain’t life grand....

Once you have something you have to look at it and say yes or no.  This works,  this doesn’t. Or let’s make a set shot from the chair and see if we can sink this wad of paper into the trash.....

Shooting from downtown. He looks, he stops, he pops. Good for three.

Yeah, I write on paper. Long handed.  It  forces me to make at least three revisions.    You can do that, metaphorically, with the delete key ,if you can’t stand writing on paper, but I like the physical intimacy of it...

Prose, though,  is like work and I always do that on the computer.   So much easier to correct  and my handwriting sucks.

The there are the indefinable’s: the whatever you want to call its  For those of you who are dozing off ,  listening to just another guy talking about himself,  this is where we veer off course.  Can you teach writing?  No.  but you can help people learn how to write. You can offer guidance.  Give direction and makes suggestions.  I have been editing a magazine online for over five years and my rate of hate mails is less than 5%, which is pretty good,  especially when roughly 40-50% of the people rejected send me thank you notes for promptness and commentary.  I don’t tell people what to do, I suggest what people can do, and the rest is up to the’s your work  and only you can make it what you want it to be.

So I say trust your instincts  refine your skills.  

And read. Did I say that?

What part does inspiration take? Well, a lot, but you have to learn how to write without direct inspiration. Treat it as challenge, a job, an avocation.  When the inspiration strikes, great, if it doesn’t prepare to work extra hard.

So do you a have muse?

I can guarantee you, that if you send me a poem describing your muse, I will read it, but it won’t be in the magazine.   Your muse is yourself , and if you send me something about writing, somehow making Writing a thing that is personified,  or anthropomorphized into some creature, talisman, and/ or what have you. it will be a three point shot from way outside.

Though there are exceptions.

Let me describe a muse to you.  He’s a black man of indeterminate age.  He is muttering to himself, looks as if he has slept rough with a bottle of Muscatel as his companion, and he’s coming into the public library.  I see him right off, even though I am a large room away, card catalogues (it was a long time ago) between us, tables,  many tables, dozens of people . You get the picture. 
I  am waiting for my wife to come downstairs from her interlibrary loan job so we can go to lunch, but something is going to happen first.  I have been accused of having a weirdness magnet. It’s impossible to describe what that is but. let’s say. I have a rich history of things happening to me that never happen to anyone else.  So this is a test. To see if it’s on. 

The black guy wanders onto the floor of the library, weaves around the tables, stutter steps, here and there, avoiding large objects, people, magazine racks, and comes directly to me.  The magnet is working. He greets me as if I am his long lost best friend, embraces me, bear hugs me and starts bellowing about his best friend the white guy.  I’m actually used to stuff like this, so I go with it: he is not threatening, just drunk.  The librarians hustle over and pry the guy from me, escorting him to the door while he is declaiming loudly, “I just want to talk to my friend the white guy.” By which time my wife arrives to hear the end of the commotion.  She asks what was that all about And I say, “The weirdness magnet? I forgot to turn it off.” And she rolls her eyes.  It happens all the time.

So you think okay this is an isolated thing right?

One Summer I was working a neighborhood bar in Albany on Saturday nights and I used to take a bus to work, which in itself, is a great source of intrigue and inspiration, but that’s another book length story,  and every Saturday, for the whole Summer,  there would be a poem waiting for me to get off the bus. Granted, a small book’s worth.  Still. After a few weeks I sense a trend.  I began wondering what if I got off at random at any one of three other bus stops, I could easily walk to work from?  Would the poems still be there?  Yep, they would be. The name of the book is An Unresolved Argument with Shadows after a man who was arguing with his reflection in the glass in a picture on the side bar opposite the main bar after he threw me out of Plato’s, The Republic.

So when people asked me why are you still working that dead end job?  All the benefits.  Benefits?  Yeah, endless source of free material.

Still, at some point you realize you’ve seen it all. There is a Taoist parable that states: If you stay in one place long enough everything that can happen will.  Believe me, it happens in a bar. Forever is 25 years. 

So your job has become boring, familiar, stupid, hateful anyway , what do you do then?  Well, when you work in a public place, you  can always change the narrative. It helps to pass the down time  and it gives you a whole different way of seeing things.

Working in a bar is all about seeing things differently. I’m on one side and you are on the other. If you work nights,  well everyone else works days, except for the people like you.   You share war stories with them,  but everyone else is,  well, a day person  I’ve done both so I know how it goes. 

So I’m behind the bar, and I think what if all these people coming in , let’s say it’s happy hour  on a Friday afternoon, and you don’t know 95% of them, so you can treat it like say,  a psycho drama,  a play where everyone defines their roles for you as the plot unfolds.  How they act gives you a clue of who they are, and what the plot will be.  Think about it.  It’s more useful than it sounds at first. Deviations from the norm tell you a lot. 

Maybe that’ why I like movies so much.  My whole working life was a kind of inner movie.

I just didn’t know who the director was...

Or who the characters were going to be and how they were going to act.

I guess the moral of all the stories is : you have to pay attention,  you never know where the next poem is coming from. 

I want to talk briefly about a writer who I like.

I thought, while listening to a discussion of how they used to teach literature  in college, and how they do in upper divisions now.  There seems to be a critical remove from the work. It’s all about how you did it,  or what the doing it  is all about, and stuff like that.  As one of my poet friends wrote me as she was dropping out of a prestigious PhD program in literature said, what happened to the stories? 

The stories.  The lady at the talk I was referring to, is a former high school English teacher with a PhD,  said what we weren’t asking as teachers, and what no one ever asked her was,  how did this piece of writing affect me?  What does it mean to me? Does it move me and why?  You can read a book like Tim Obrien’s,  What They Carried, which is often thought of as non-fiction, and it tells of the author’s experiences in Vietnam. This book is visceral, immediate to the bones, writing alive, as poetry is when all the cylinders are firing, which they all are through the entire book, a rare feat for anyone.  And why is this something that moved me: it’s real . It could happen to anyone.  It happened to millions of people and is happening now. I know people who died in Vietnam   or were wounded or worse.

I think of my favorite book of poetry to come out of Vietnam war  and there are dozens of great ones, Obscenities, by Michael Casey, which won the Yale Younger Poets Series Award. Casey writes about a tank unit coming upon a farmer working his land who pisses them off  by   striking the lead tank with a rake for invading his turf, so instead of going single file through his property, they expand side to side and ruin the whole field instead of just some of it, and the concluding lines of the poem are

 “if you have a farm in Vietnam
and a house in hell
sell the farm
and go home”

Home is hell. Something the writer I really want to talk about Raymond Carver, knew well.  He was another writer who burned with the desire to create:  he had to succeed. He Needed to write.  It was all consuming. It was his passion.  But Life got in the way. He knocked up his 16 year old girlfriend, when he was 19.They got married had another kid ,and they both needed to work jobs to make ends meet. They moved all over the Northwest and he wrote in the car at night, whenever and wherever, he was, and he got nowhere. He drank. Boy did he ever drink.  He drank and he drank and he wrote and he wrote and did terrible things, he said. Read his essay On Writing. No one says it better than he does. 

No one in that family was happy. 

The drinking came from the frustration at not being able to fulfill his dreams, his need to be a writer, but he wrote, and he worked, and he persevered, and gradually good things happened. He found an editor at Esquire who liked his work. Actually The leading fiction editor of his time. This editor championed his work and edited it . Boy did he ever edit it but that’s another story . And Raymond was going to have a book published. Happy Days! But he was still drinking and then he got a job at Iowa ,which was then the only real MFA program in the country, and mostly what he did was hang with John Cheever, then the most accomplished and revered short story writer of his time, and all they did was drink. Where did that get either of them?

At some point we have to pause and ask ourselves about some of the myths about the artist and the writers whom we admire.  Do they really have to all die young and leave beautiful corpses? Like, say, Byron who died at 37,and some said was still beautiful in a year or so later when he was unearthed from the crypt he lay in state in, but that is a completely different story why that happened, but inside, he had the body of a dissipated 70 year old.  His buddy Shelley died at 30 and when his body washed ashore from where he drowned a week later, no one accused him of leaving behind a beautiful corpse. Hemingway and Faulkner  drank like madmen and won the Nobel Prize for literature. They are taught today but could either of them say that drinking  was an aid to their work?  They won despite it. They didn’t end well.  And, Fitzgerald, their equal,  what was he? Early 40’s?  The list is endless. At some point you have to decide, as Carver did, and it is conscious decision, that you have to change the narrative  or you are going to die.  Carver changed the narrative
He continued write about people of modest means, people who were drunks, gamblers, desperate in love and falling out of it.  People that were easy to recognize.  People you could say fit the title of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, my favorite book of his stories,

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Through the cracks in the ceilings and the walls,
the scuffed and gouged hard wood floors;
Through the piled insulation, hanging from rafter
boards, shedding fibers, roof rot, oil
sickened dreams;
Through the lumps of asbestos ripped from sweating
pipe, clumped in basement corners, closet
spaces, silent as carbon monoxide, broken gas
lines, unlit stovetop pilots;
Through the lines of yellowed legal pads, broken                                                    
pencils, tattered manual typewriter ribbons,
illegible scrawls, carbon copies facing
negative sides in, smeared lettering of                                                                       yesterdays, todays, tomorrows;
Through the broken whiskey bottles, thin stemmed wine
liters topped by melted candle wax and the
relentless stench of warm flat beers;
Through the endless nights and equally as endless days,
entropy creates, the mice in the wall sing as
they scatter crumbs and love;
Through it all, the blind lovers groping toward each
other on worn, torn, gritty sheets, red wine stains
like blood on dry, scaly fingers that smell
of nicotine and death;
Through it all a crazy music that almost sounds like                                                
children singing of somewhere else, somewhere
where we talk about what we talk of, when we talk
about love.

And he wrote poetry,  Poems that use simple language that are often autobiographical, always easy to understand, and readily identifiable as a real person, living a life that is not always beautiful, but is ultimately satisfying. He does not spare himself . Even the rough parts, because he was an honest man, a flawed man who learned to deal with his limitations and make the best of what he was given and worked hard for. He learned to change the narrative.  And he fell in love with someone who saved him, who was not an enabler, but an angel of mercy.

Carver has been criticized for writing the poetry of someone with the vocabulary of an11 year old.  Which is as unkind as it  misses the point. How complex do you need to be when you are writing about your ex-wife, who you still love, sleeping with another man,  in your bed, because you drove her from your side? He uses all the language he needs. And that is enough. We understand every word. This is what writing is all about.