Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dandelion Wine

Jackson Heights, Queens (circa 1984)

I have a nice office in one of those hermetically sealed buildings. The floor I work on looks like a place where they re-evaluate your insurance needs. The people who run the place pay me to sit in my office and write. Part of me finds this as inevitable as gravity, part of me is amazed at the situation.

Twenty years ago I didn’t have an office or a computer or a regular job. I wrote then as I do now, in longhand on yellow pads, then transcribed what I wrote on a used IBM Selectric that rumbled and shuddered like a Frigidaire with a shot compressor. I know I wrote year round, but I seem to only remember the summers. Our apartment wasn’t air-conditioned and, while my first wife was at work earning the money that fed us and paid the rent, I’d sit in a t-shirt and shorts, sweating and typing. Trying to get it right or at least close, filling the shelves with scripts nobody wanted. I tried to sell out, honest I did, but I never managed. My scripts have always betrayed me; whatever it was I was saying, nobody wanted to hear.

There were winters. There must have been winters. But the only thing that comes back to me is summer and heat. Thick, subterranean heat on the F-train, riding out to sign for my unemployment check. Oily, mechanical heat rising from the chugging Selectric that, thank God, never completely seized up on me. You can get very sour after a decade or so of one flat summer after another. It can do a lot of damage to your heart, and the hearts of those around you. Writing is easy. Being a writer is murder.

Frustration and fear in a writer are often camouflaged as arrogance and bitterness. This makes the writer such a joy to be around. You can’t watch television with us because we’re always talking about how grotesquely stupid the shows are. Go to a first run movie in our company and listen to us grumble about how we can’t believe they made a particular box office bonanza and that innocent people are paying to see it. And you won’t feel safe with us on a bus because you know we want to rip that glitzy paperback out of a fellow passenger’s hand and lecture them about what fiction is supposed to do. Oh, yes, an unsuccessful writer is a regular bag of sunbeams.

Summer after summer, I kept on writing. Unemployment ran out and I went to work as an office temp. After about a year, one of the offices the agency sent me to asked me to stay and I did. It was a good job. Very grown-up, okay pay, I could look my in-laws in the eye. More important, something shifted inside my head. Having an adult job must have taken pressure off a nerve because my writing got better. Maybe it was just a normal progression, but I think it had something to do with having a regular paycheck.

I’d come home from work and write in my “spare time.” I finished a play and put it on the shelf with everything else. A year later I took it down and showed it to people, this time they listened. I got an agent, the play was produced and became a modest success. We bought an air conditioner. I left my day job one hot August afternoon and have been making my living as a writer ever since. It’s still hard. The air conditioner helped, but the sad heat of all those summers sinks deep and you have to deal with that for a long time.

Several years ago a movie was made from a script I originally wrote on the Selectric. It had a typically arduous trek to the screen. The original producer sold the option to people who wanted big, ill-advised changes. It went through two studios, the second of which fired me. The option eventually ran out and the script came back to me, wounded and limping. I nursed it back to health and found people who wanted to make the thing my way. It came out pretty good. Last year it was revived at a film festival and I got to see it with an audience for the first time in more than a decade. This year the festival brought the film back for additional screenings.

The scripts you wrote back then crowd the shelves like bottles of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, your life distilled, “burning in the cellar twilight, one for every living summer day.” I watch that movie and see scenes conceived on lunch breaks and subway rides. I listen to the characters and hear words I gave them in a humid apartment so long ago. Time acquires a Mobius twist when a trunk piece finally gets made.

You sense that messages are being sent both ways through the years: Forward, from that place where money and recognition are so far out of reach the only thing powering your pen is the passion of writing; the Galileo certainty that this is what you were meant to do. And backwards from today, with news the sacrifices weren’t in vain, and gratitude for never giving up.

They’re time capsules, those trunk pieces, and a time capsule is an optimistic thing. It is created in the belief that, somewhere in the future, there is survival and perhaps even triumph.


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