I should confess that I have a fault or difficulty or issue that has always mildly complicated my life. I am, at the same time, quite shy and a showoff. It's like being a world-class figure skater living in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Over time the shyness has lessened as has, perhaps, the desire to show off, but they still exert their force. Unfortunately, showing off is an insistent stimulus and if it can't express itself in one direction, it will express itself in another. That said, I should add that writing novels, short stories, poems, and journalism provide wonderful chances to make a display.
Many writers will find within themselves both clown and philosopher, meaning not either/or but a range of behavior. Rilke would see the apparent subject of his poem — the subject that is referred to in the title — as pretext to get to some other, sometimes abstract subject. My poem "Turd" functions in the same way; it's a method I've employed often: to use an apparent but false subject to get to a real subject. Consider Rilke's panther and my turd as loss leaders in a poet's marketing strategyA writer can be many things, but first of all he or she must be an entertainer. Once the reader has opened a book or read a title, the writer has to find ways to make him or her keep reading. Much of this is based on surprise: things happen that the reader hadn't expected. Sudden horror and sudden humor offer great opportunities for surprise. But horror and humor in such cases are not an ends but a means. I have a recent poem called "Turd," which, even though it contains an actual turd, is not about turds but about early adolescent embarrassment. I mentioned in an earlier installment that
But while a poem has opportunities to show off, there is nothing to match the novel, and The Burn Palace offered many, many opportunities.
When I was in grade school, my favorite reading material — this is an awkward admission — was the Johnson Smith Catalog from a novelty company that started up in Chicago in 1914. The company has now moved to the Internet. But when I was 10 the catalog had all the excitement for me that Playboy magazine had for me at 15. Let me say right off that the x-ray glasses and the little doohickey to let you throw your voice across the room don't work. But the whoopee cushion has been a solid seller for over 100 years. These days, of course, it has various remote control options.
Such items as rubber turds, plastic vomit, soap that makes your hands turn black, and belching powder can drive one's parents nearly hysterical. As for my whoopee cushion, my parents snatched it away.
So it was a pleasure in The Burn Palace to introduce 10-year-old Baldo Bonaldo, for whom the Johnson Smith Co. was his Shangri-La, his Holy Grail, his personal Disneyland, his undoing; and who became my substitute for showing off. However, as I said in my first installment, a writer is all his or her characters, good and bad. Baldo is just a small part of me, hopefully a smidgen.
Stephen King has called his work "passionate trash," and one has to have a passion for whatever one writes. It's very difficult to create a story with cold-blooded calculation, or at least I can't do it. If something in one of my novels is frightening or funny, it has to do its work on me first. The opening of The Church of Dead Girls with three dead girls in an attic frightened me for weeks.
Writing is a matter of sifting through thousands of choices and then, like a computer — yes, no, yes, no, yes, no — the writer makes his or her selection. This choosing, for me, requires mega-warehouses of information: stuff that I know or I've done or I've heard about or I've read about. I like to think that the more information I acquire, the more choices I'll have and the better will be the end product: a book or poem or article. This perhaps is self-deception. But I'm curious. I'd much rather hear a person talk about his or her life than to talk about mine.
About 30 years ago I imagined a nurse discovering a snake in a crib in a hospital nursery. Actually, I first thought of a dozen snakes, but that seemed too complicated, so I cut it down to one six-foot corn snake. The son of a friend of mine in LA had had a corn snake, and I'd been impressed by its many swirling colors.
Then, at another time, I imagined satanic masses deep in the woods — I'd been reading quite a bit about witchcraft. And over my bed where we live, the ceiling is made up of pine boards with many knotholes, and not long ago I thought, "What if I began to see the knotholes move?" Then there was a Polish novel I read a decade ago where a man finds a hanged cat in the woods. And several years ago, for a story I was writing for a San Diego paper, I visited a few funeral homes and interviewed the men in charge. All of this wound up in The Burn Palace, and it's the sort of minutia with which I fill my mega-warehouses.
I didn't have time to make use of my snake in the crib when I first thought of it, but a few years ago I began to think of it again: a baby stolen from a hospital nursery and replaced with a snake. Well, what would happen next? So followed a long chain of cause and effect with lots of wrong roads and cul-de-sacs, which later had to be cut, as did some favorite scenes that didn't contribute to the plot. But as I moved along, trying to answer my questions, I dipped into my mega-warehouses. If the plot is a tree, details are the tinsel.
As I said earlier, the very act of writing leads to information that wouldn't be reached otherwise. I didn't know I'd have a black detective until he suddenly appeared. I wouldn't have thought of mad Carl Krause until I imagined knotholes moving on my ceiling. It sounds easy, doesn't it? Yes, in retrospect, it seems easy if I forget about the scars on my forehead from where I kept banging my head against the wall. Having a story isn't as important as learning how to tell the story.A story to tell is like having a bag of wheat, but it means nothing if you can't bake the bread.
The purpose of my blog would seemingly be to write about The Burn Palace. That's what I've been doing, indirectly — discussing why I write and what is language, etc. But I like to think of myself not as a desk type, but an outdoor type. In the past 50 years, I've thought of riding a bike across the country or climbing a mountain or seeing if I could swim the English Channel (I like to swim). I calculate how I would do it and what I would need. I get excited and may even buy a bike or a good pair of hiking boots. I might work up a psychosomatic sweat. But then I turn away and go back to my desk, thinking that writing gives me what I imagine to be the real world. Fortunately, journalism has kept me from being too sedentary, while providing me with material to use in my writing, and I've also traveled to and wandered around quite a few countries, although I've avoided headhunters and pestilential swamps. I limit my travelling to places where cappuccino is served, outdoor cafes where I can sit and take notes.
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Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than 30 novels and poetry collections, including The Church of the Dead Girls, Cold Dog Soup, and Cemetery Nights. Among his many honors and awards are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series Prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Books mentioned in this post
Stephen Dobyns is the author of The Burn Palace