We all talk a great deal about the writer's life, which, unless you're Rudy Wurlitzer and someone invented a huge jukebox with your name on it, is generally a bit threadbare and pushed to the wall. Difficult decisions have to be made; should I eat well this month or spare myself some time to write? is a common one, at least forme. But few of us really chat about the writing itself: the ways in which it comes to us and realizes itself, the ways in which it is conceived, takes shape, and is delivered. Or not.
I have finally started posting some fiction on my Redroom site -- it's so easy and so much fun -- and started with my most recently published story, "This Is What It Is To Go Blind." (Wheelhouse Review, 2007). I moved to Oakland a few years ago, after many halcyon years in the deep woods of northern Sonoma County, (which I loved), the mall-infested suburbs of southern Sonoma County, (which I loathed), and a leafy green street in Berkeley from which I was unceremoniously evicted when I developed a disabilitiy.
At first I thought that was a disaster but then I ended up here in Oakland, in a small apartment with a wonderful ambience, incredible neighbors from all over the world and every possible sexual, cultural, and racial conjugation possible within the human race, and the greatest views I have ever had in an apartment, even when I paid a fortune to live on a posh street in New York. (Oh, except, perhaps, my views when I lived on Starrett Hill in Monte Rio and overlooked the Russian River and its myriad wildlife. It was like waking up in Paradise, and as with Paradise, my stay there was shortlived).
But back to the issue of writing. Although at first my new neighborhood seemed unfamiliar and strange, particularly because, unable to drive anymore, I was condemned to ride the city buses, it soon began to leak into my work. And leak it has; I find that the Oakland landscape, the landscape of concrete and rushing cars and a lake that looks like a European canal, has now wholly entered my imagination. So did the buses. So did the people who rode them. Not since I had left New York, roughly 30 years ago, had I been pushed up so often and so closely to other human beings whom I did not know. And frankly, the bus system in Oakland makes even the New York City subways seem mild. I know; I was just there last winter, and was startled by how polite everybody was.
But manners, the Waughs and Henry James notwithstanding, may not always be the best stimuli for a writer. And being pushed and sat on and stared at and not quite knowing where I was half the time, seems to have fed some literary hunger in me. Because all of a sudden my writing became filled with an imagery of raw oystershell skies and weathered, battered people. Bus stops entered my consciousness. Fire hydrants turned into people, and people turned into walls.I became aware of the smell of cigarette smoke, and of voices babbling at one another,not making sense, and how fast the traffic moved. And I became so painfully aware of my own inability to see anything clearly in the blur of speed and sound in which I traveled that there was nothing to do but write about it.
So I wrote the first story posted here, if you can call it a story. "This Is What It Is To Go Blind." It seemed to me that I was going back and forth on the Oakland buses in a kind of pervasive twilight; it was always February, almost really cold but not quite, always too windy, always about to rain. And when I was able to sit still on the iron benches that pass for bus shelters in this part of town, I began to notice the faces as well. In particular a single woman passed me at the International Parkway bus stop again and again, in different guises. She was never quite the same; once she was a Buddhist nun in a brown habit and prayer beads; once she was an ancient woman so bereft you couldn't even identify her nationality. These women were not Chinese; the Chinese women seemed acclimated, sure of themselves; they knew where they were going and who they were going with and they often held attractive children and bright pink plastic shopping bags filled with things that smelled so good that I wanted to rip them off and devour their contents immediately. I fell in love, again, with Asian food: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, all fully available to me in tiny restaurants and grocery stores in my new neighborhood. This new passion for food kept me anchored, almost sane, but the fact is that I felt marooned, not just in the foreign country of this new neighborhood but in the distant planet created by my blindness. Out on the street the world often looked as if it were floating in fog, and sometimes I couldn't tell whether the specks I saw in the sky above Lake Merritt were birds or cracks in the bus windows or tiny black specks that floated in my eyes.
And out of that realization some stories, or half-stories, or sort of stories ccame, the first of which is posted here, 'THIS IS WHAT IT IS TO GO BLIND.' It's less a story than the opening of an experience, not just to you, the reader, but to myself.
And maybe that's a lot of what writing is.