I'm writing this on Thursday, 11/18/10. I'm back at the writers' space in Brooklyn where I work, after several weeks away. In that time I've done pleasant and unpleasant things. On the pleasurable end of the spectrum was a series of readings I did to promote my new memoir There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From. The book is partly about my moving from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to New York City in 1998 and the strangeness of being a Midwesterner here, struggling to adapt.
I had just turned 24 when I left Michigan. I burned with the desire to start publishing my work and become a great writer. I had only the most basic sense of how to achieve these things — write short stories and submit them to literary magazines — but was sure that with hard work and perseverance they would happen as planned. By the time I was 30, I imagined, I would be publishing in the New Yorker, firmly ensconced in the scene. I was confident, even arrogant. At the same time I lacked total faith in my abilities and was insecure about my Midwestern background. This toxic combination of hubris and self-loathing nearly led to my undoing as a writer. Two things saved me, neither of which I could have predicted. The first was a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people. The second was returning — in the form of a novel I wrote afterward — to Kalamazoo.
Three years after moving to the city, my dream of being a writer seemed more remote than ever. I was working as a marketing copywriter at Morgan Stanley. I had a cubicle on the 70th floor of Two World Trade Center, the south tower, where I happened to be sitting on September 11. After making it out of the building, I walked six miles uptown, got a ride to New Jersey, and stayed with friends. A week later I took the bus to Michigan. The night I arrived, delirious with trauma and lack of sleep, I wrote down everything I could remember about the attack, starting from the moment I opened my eyes that day. A few nights later I read the piece at Western Michigan University, my alma mater, at a benefit to raise money for the Red Cross. I read with several of my former teachers in the creative writing program — Arnie Johnston, Bill Olsen, Nancy Eimers, and Jaimy Gordon, who last night won the National Book Award for her novel Lord of Misrule.
Southwest Michigan has been well represented at the National Book Awards recently. Last year two people from the area were nominated — David Small, for his graphic memoir Stitches, and Bonnie Jo Campbell for her remarkable story collection American Salvage. I'm happy for Kalamazoo, for WMU, and of course for Jaimy. She's a great teacher. She was tough on me, in a good way. One time I brought a story to class, a Denis Johnson rip-off called "Tell Me What Happened" (the prose style may have been on loan from Johnson, but the title was pure Raymond Carver). As the workshop began, Jaimy addressed the group: "So, does the writing here sound like anyone you can think of? Do you detect an... influence here?" My classmates hesitated. Then one of them said: "It kind of sounds like Denis Johnson."
And with that the seal was broken. Jaimy took me to task for stealing so shamelessly and trying to sneak it by her and the class. I felt pretty low, mostly because I knew she was right. Fortunately, I was probably also on Vicodin. Early in the semester I had broken my ankle, a gnarly break requiring three surgeries and many weeks on crutches. I went through a few prescriptions for painkillers and would occasionally take them until my stomach hurt. I remember trying to milk this for sympathy, as a way to excuse being late to class or handing a story in late or something, but Jaimy would have none of it.
What happened next was somewhat surprising: Jaimy commended me on the skill with which I had aped Johnson and told me that borrowing was a crucial part of forging one's own style. I had the mimicry part down, she said, it just hadn't cohered into anything recognizably mine. I was pissed afterward, but my anger and embarrassment faded, and her remarks stayed with me. I'm happy that Jaimy won the National Book Award and remain grateful that she called me out all those years ago.
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Bryan Charles was born in Michigan and lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Open City and the anthology Before & After: Stories from New York. His books include Grab on to Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way and Pavement's Wowee Zowee
Books mentioned in this post
Bryan Charles is the author of There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From: A Memoir