Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The 7 Really Irritating Sins

The 7 Really Irritating Sins

Count them down: In the publishing world subtlety is for white folks; misogyny works for Latinos; stick with Russia for sadness; chicks dig froth, vaguely psychologically-questionable sex and Italy; Zsa Zsa Gabor singing, “New York is where I’d rather stay!” is the private anthem of an entire industry (see YouTube, “Green Acres”—you’ll find it); kids will read the same book written over and over, and, lastly, black folks can be found down the hall, around the corner, and in that little box.

I’m supposed to say I was inspired by the classics to write, and in several senses I was: Native Son was the first novel to show me that books weren’t just loads of words luckily thrown together. Ninth grade English, courtesy Ms. Macklin, a grizzled black matron who probably failed Jesus and who I’d like to imagine saw potential in me but more likely thought I was a jerk, revealed an incandescent truth to me: that Bigger Thomas toward the end of the book was exactly like the rat being chased by Bigger and family through their squalid home at the beginning. My little mind said ‘Wait, you’re telling me the writer at the beginning of an actual book, not a comic or something I’m reading for fun, knew to connect the beginning with the end after all that writing in between? You’re telling me there’s more to books, writing and English than me answering enough essay questions correctly for a passing grade? You, Ms. Macklin, you crony cow heading for retirement or death, heads or tails, are going to stand in front of this classroom of bored, gullible inner-city teens and without a hint of deception open our minds to the amazing notion that art is not accidental but constructed?’ See, I’d built my share of models and Legos, and I knew that certain pieces of things had to go in certain places in order for the vision to become real.

“Yes,” the crone would have said, “After decades of teaching flat stares and hormones, I am telling you, you creative, slightly intelligent little jerk, that drawing, writing, singing, dancing, and sculpting are one and the same: constructed realities based on the inner laws of the universe. Art.”

To be fourteen and suddenly realize you’re God. My favorite thing growing up was finding broken toys and seeing if I could combine them into something new and exciting. ‘Big Head Man’ was the head of the fuzzy-bearded G.I. Joe crammed onto a much smaller green army man (the grenade thrower guy, best in the pack, I honor his brave spirit the way he quietly suffocated inside the cavernous, empty head of someone’s discarded G.I. Joe). Super Spiderman was, of course, Spiderman wearing Superman’s cloth costume. He kicked much ass. Big Head Man was cooler than 007 and could outfight just about every toy anybody else had, up to and including jointed plastic snakes, Planet of the Apes men, or the scrawny white Barbie knockoff that became a much cooler, action figure-ier Wonder Woman in disguise when my sister wasn’t around.

I’d grown up constructing things, combining disparate bits of interest, and by the time Ms. Macklin hit me with a supernova, I was primed to channel my impulses into the coolest outlet of all: fiction writing.

Native Son, however, is not what inspired this young black kid to write. Wasn’t Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man either. Or Sojourner Truth (because she had the coolest name ever), W.E.B. Dubois, or George Washington Carver, perennial icons of February blackness.

It was McElligott’s Pool.


McElligott’s Pool grabbed me years before Ms. Macklin. Language was malleable, said Dr. Seuss, language was fun. There was magic in it if you could control it or mold it. The imagination was limitless…

You tell a kid from the ghetto (before ghettos were made corporately cool) that imagination is, was and forever would be limitless, you watch him step back and fly. Seuss made me an avid reader. At times I would write in a journal and have fun in there, but mostly literature was a spectator sport. Fiction, especially science fiction (Harlan Ellison is a god, but he didn’t come till my later teens), just kind of “happened” for people to enjoy. It was manna from heaven. Ms. Macklin effectively told me that not only was there a recipe for manna, but the ingredients could be found down the aisles of any market. The day my mother told me I read so much I should probably write my own book sealed the deal and I’ve been the Muses’ pool-boy ever since.

‘Blessed is he who has found his calling,’ or some such, ‘and let him shut the hell up.’

I’m a writer.

The distinction is that I’m not an author. You’ve never read me. I’m published about as often as sex in a marriage. Poems and short stories. The novels, which are my cherished children but a wise man once said “Eat your children”, are in the purgatory of aspirations set aside for projects and dreams. I’ve written three complete novels, each different from the previous; there’ve been nibbles at each. When I was younger the nibbles elicited excitement, but then, when I was younger I wrote with the gnomic strength of destiny. I’m forty-four years old now. That’s about where Billy Joel sang, “I’m young enough to still see the passionate boy that I used to be, but I’m old enough to say I got a good look at the other side” in the song ‘The Night Is Still Young”. I may never have the pleasure of seeing someone glance at the cover then read the back jacket with interest, wondering if this Clarence Young, this presumptuous bastard attempting the telepathy of novel-writing, was worth their time. I can, however, say “I’m a writer” with that sense of pride that comes from devoted service to imagination, the Muses, construction and telepathy. I can say that if there are gods of creativity I have not sinned against them. I’m a black man who’s written about women, angels, love and androids; I’ve studied my own work, studied the works of others, and realized that falling short simply means preparing the leg muscles to spring back up.

I’m a construction foreman. I’m part of a dedicated brother and sisterhood of builders. That’s a powerful place to stand, and in a meaningless world it very much means something. We are the stories we tell not only to others but to ourselves. Actually, especially to ourselves. A long time ago I had a character realize the story we think we’re telling is never the one that’s being told. The builder is himself built. This piece is written in response to those who have not found a voice and are wondering whether the effort to build is worth it, for anyone who recognizes him or herself in the following outstanding words: “I have no mouth and I must scream.” (Harlan Ellison)

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. All praise to the writers and the tangled knots that inspire them. There is truth in solitude. Truth must, at all times, be spoken. Otherwise life is but a life of sin.

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