You ask why I write? For all of it. To keep it going. To remember. To share. To fight injustice. Because when you find yourself in prison, there is nothing more important than a sunrise.
March 1980. Imagine a cold Sunday afternoon in a large house on Lake Huron. Spring is nowhere on the horizon. Going outside is not pleasant. A recently single-father sits at a table by a fire with a fresh pad of paper and says to his son.
-Your hero needs a name.
-Because I want to call my novel Oscar’s Odyssey.
-That’s a good title.
-What does Oliver want?
-To win The World Cup.
And subconsciously impress his father and bring his mother back. I had watched Kramer vs.Kramer, the Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep Oscar award winning film about divorce and custody. I thought the film was our families biopic. The novel never got far and was never revisited, just the idea that one could remains. We skated on a frozen river while we could, then when the river melted, soccer took all out time.
November 1988. A day before the football finals in which you kick the winning field-goal in the last play of the season. Your drama teacher asks the class to lie on the floor and close your eyes and listen. She cranks up a Michelle Shocked song called When I Grow Up. Then she tells the class to get a pen and paper and write while you hear the song again and again and again. The song never leaves you. The next class the teacher reads your story aloud, an example. You love the attention. You are the good example. I realize there is a life outside sports and I might not make the NHL.
April 1990. You are staying in a friend’s apartment in Montpellier while he has gone to visit a girl in Biarritz. You love France and being foreign and not understanding much. You have discovered hash and reading. The apartment is above an elementary school yard. You love getting high and listening to the chatter. You pretend you are Stephan Daedalus in Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, especially the scene where he is talking to the crotchety old Jesuit who asks, “Then what is God to you?” “A shout in the school yard”. That is how you choose to remember it anyway. You are smoking sticks and sticks of hash bought off the Moroccans behind The Opera House in the center of town. One night you try and cook pasta and rice in the same pot. It turns to glue and you cry and can’t stop. Eventually you pick up a notebook and write your first poem. The crying stops. The next day you buy a bucket of Nutella, several baguettes and fill a plastic bottle with cheap table wine. You write for days until your friend returns. Then you cycle to Nice.
May 1991. The freshmen and woman have gone home for the summer. You stay in the dorms as long as possible, everyday fewer and fewer people, you paid until the end of the month. You have the library and the dining hall to yourself. You translate Brian Friel’s stage play The Faith Healer into a Canadian version called Joel Glover, Hockey Great. The best part is listing the town names. You type on an electric typewriter and love the sound. All term you have been reading Kerouac and Homer. You buy half a kilo of mushrooms off a guy outside The Liquor Story and hitchhike to Saint John’s Newfoundland to see a girl who is just a friend. You get caught in a snowstorm in Gander. It is suppose to be summer, you take copious notes and mushrooms, all the way out west to Fort Saint George. West to plant trees.
October 1994. You have moved to new York City to be an actor but by this time you are writing a poem a day and short stories on Sundays. You go nowhere without a book in your hand, not even the toilet. You live in a hotel in Harlem and think James Baldwin is divine. You take jobs and go to auditions. Your walls line with used books. The bitter old Jewish booksellers outside Washington Square Park have given you a nickname; LL for Literary Lumberjack. You like it. One night you are kissing a Jewish princess from Napa Valley against the fountain in Lincoln Center and she asks, “Where will you be in 25 years?” You want to be in love with her. “I will be in a shack in Corfu writing novels about kissing girls like you.” You go back to kissing.
January 1995. You are understudying a Hollywood actor in an original play by Laurence Fishbone Off-Broadway. You never get onstage. The bastard shows up every night and every night you spend hours in the dressing-room scribbling about the best way to food poison a Hollywood actor. You watch your role on the tiny black and white monitor and live your life in the ink moving across the page.
March 1996. You are touring the US in a Mark Twain show. At night, you go to bars and drink all your money and scribble on bar-napkins, in the morning crawl back onto the bus, you never know what town is next. You read instead of talking. Even onstage you are dreaming of the stories you will write that night. You stop phoning home, because the road is home.
September 1997. You have a horrible break up with a girl you want to love and leave New York in a rental car jammed with used books. You drive North and get a skuzzy-room on Queen Street in Toronto. You read too much Bukowski and Miller and go to too many strip clubs. You paint horrible watercolors on old newspapers and cover the walls. You meet a Venezuelan ballet star and begin to heal until she moves to Paris. You land a job on a ship, not just any, but a traveling circus barge with travels at 3 knots an hour from Tampa to Bar Harbor, Maine. There are 17 in the crew and cast and you perform shows about saving the whales in towns along the way. You have time to read and write, especially on show days. You fall in love with the sea. Fit and strong three poems a day.
December 1999. Living under the Brooklyn Bridge, One Old Fulton Street, where Whitman used to live and the skyline of Manhattan from the fire escape is your morning coffee and goodnight kiss. You try to instill discipline but the temptations of the city win. The fantasy of bohemia is stronger than the call of the sentence. You are still eating books and working odd jobs. On the last night of the century, you are tending bar on the 25th floor on Canal Street, the Hudson fire-working below, the first customer tipped two dime bags of coke with a “Look after me kiddo.” You think he was younger than you. At 5 am, in the taxi home over the bridge, pockets overflowing with more money and drugs ever imaginable, you look at the city and think the center cannot hold. This place will implode. The next day you go to the closest travelagent’s and buy a flight to London with cash. You go home and write until the departure. All this time you never go back, you never re-read, you never edit, you never even imagine publishing. Why?
July 2001. You have just finished a year-long tour of Rumblefish. S.E. Hinton’s white-trash book. Martin Scorsese’s first film. 52 cities, hotels, theaters, bars, friends, lovers, fans, buses and trains and discos and pubs. You are managing a reggae bar in Brixton. Hand to mouth. You decide to get a Master’s in Directing, no more acting, no more following, you are old enough to lead and every spare minute the page is your constant. A play, a scene, a poem a snippet of dialogue. The notebooks are becoming heavy to carry. You start mailing them to your father, who doesn’t want them. There is a trunk in the garage for them.
October 2002. You have defended your thesis. As if Brecht needed defending. You walk into an art gallery in Venice and meet a painter from Bahia. Along the canal after, like a punch to the face, you decide to go to Brazil. You have been teaching English to students from all over the world. You have assistant directed your first professional play. The pompous Brits are getting under your skin, no parts have come along, you hate how they call Canada “the provinces”, even though they are, you want something new to scribble. You take more and more jobs and count your pence. Teaching 9 to 5. Pulling pints every night. Running a juice bar on the weekend. You fly to Sao Paulo on a one-way ticket.
September 2003. 12 kilometers north of Verona, in a village called Fumane, at the base of the Dolomites, you pedal into a winery called Bolla, you are ushered into the Director’s office. He opens one of his best bottles of Amarone, pours two glasses and says,
-I wanta learna adjectives.
-Well I am your man.
You learn how Italy runs. Tim Parks helps. You study grammar and the dictionaries. You cycle everywhere. The wine gets the best of you. Notes pile into mountains.
October 2004. You want to go see your Grandmother in Dublin for Christmas. You can’t even afford a fucking RyanAir ticket. Even the ferry is too expensive. You hate your job and London. You open The Guardian and see a job in Qatar teaching pilots how to speak on the radio. Three weeks later you have a ticket to Doha on your bedside table.
November 2004. You kiss a girl in Covent Garden after class. You both want the love you think you feel. Time stops.
February 2005. Doha is paid-rehab. You read Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Delillo. You chose books by thickness not theme. The girl you kissed comes to visit. You cook a lamb in a toaster. You drive the desert. You learn how to share. You will marry this girl after you write your novel. In the silent desert, after she returns to London, you construct a thousand plots, all of them beautiful.
August 2005. You are in Fort Greens Park in Brooklyn. This girl you love says she is going home to Sao Paulo, without blinking you say you will follow. You go back to the room and buy all of Machado de Assis’s works on Amazon. They arrive fast and you start the systematic approach of learning a language through literature. You will be most well-read gringo in the jungle. Another one way ticket to Sao Paulo. You arrive in a suit of white-linen. The immigration officials laugh in your face. You will be fleeced. They laugh and can’t stop.
January 2006. Barcelona. We arrive at night. It’s cold. We pull the gas heater closer to the sublet bed. The next morning you walk your wife to her new job and go down to the old port and look out to the Mediterranean. I can live here. I can work here. I start writing for a magazine. Swing dance, tattoos, falcons, I cover rock-bands and touring authors. I write listings. I start teaching at two universities. I start acting in commercials. We start saving money and traveling, Sardinia. Morocco. Formentera. India. Galicia. Basque Country. Andalusia. Portugal. France yes wine and cheese and languages, The Euro. You pump out poems, fill journals, outline great novels, plays and film-scripts, a splattering.
April 2009. We jump ship as the crisis engulfs Spain and touchdown on terra-firma in swampy Miami. Your work-visa takes six months and you have time but not discipline. You run a marathon, the one and only, so far, and write little. You land another university job, with an office, you teach four hours and day and write two, not enough but better than nothing. Moments of domestic bliss and you wonder if you are too happy to write but when you write angst spills unawares between the lines. Two novels rear their ugly skulls. You haven’t made the time to go back. There is yard work to do and new poems and plays to scribble and phone calls and shopping and life is what happens when you are planning, or so they say.
August 2011. Opportunities bring you to Rio. Things fall apart. The we becomes you again and penniless and alone in another foreign city. You like this shit. You do what I have always done when rock bottom rises to the face. Wake up early and work until exhausted. You teach and manage a pub and count centavos and get the odd tela-novella check and travel as much as you can and all this living time and not writing, ja note here, three pages there, a constant passing of nebulous ideas whizzing past like storm clouds and the skies are dramatic in Rio, let me tell you.
July 2014. Return to the USA. You are far to close to violence. Tear-gas, knives, punches, out the window in the past year you have seen eleven fatalities. Six by bus, there is a curve and lights are simply suggestions and Brazilian pedestrians, even the old, love their short-cuts, three shot by police, kids stealing phones, bicycles, flip-flops, and two by rival drug factions taking out runners and this is just your street in Copacabana. You move into a favela, safer, or at least the view is better.
January 2015. Jericoacoara, Ceara, North Brazil, deep remote nothing like the Brazil you have learned to manage. You housesit a closed resort. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. You pour cement with fisherman that can’t count. You cut wood, hands and feet tear like tissues and they laugh. The closest doctor is 200km away. Going to the bank takes a two days. You run on the beach. There are no people. On Fridays, you walk two hours into the kite-surfing town to drink. You take a job managing a hostel there. One night late on the beach, walking home after a dinner and some samba at a friend’s shack, in the sand under a symphony of stars, two teenagers start talking, then wrestle and punch and kick and you’re lucky you learned how to fight, sand in the eye kick to the balls this is real what do they want I have nothing really nothing not even a bankcard or passport, maybe four bucks and a pack of smokes. They run away and the worst part is yet to come, for the next few weeks you think every teenager in town is the culprit and want to pound them into a pulp and this energy cannot be hidden in a tiny fishing village. An email from an MFA in Albuquerque has offered a visa and a job and time and space to write and a community which values the written word.
August 2015. Los Angeles. Whole Foods. You short circuit, the land of coconut milk and non-bee honey slaps hard in the face. You spend three days in your buddy’s Granny-cottage afraid of making choices. You buy a 1982 Mercedes and drive across the desert and the shock of decision-overload subsides. The excitement of something new starts you rising early and nothing stops you from 1000 words a day, nothing, the rest is just confetti.
September 2015. Gold Ave. Albuquerque. Reading The Forest for the Trees and the lines pop out and strike like teenage muggers.
“I can assure you that you will never finish any piece of writing if you don’t understand what motivates you to write in the first place and if you don’t honor that impulse, whether it’s exile or assimilation, redemption or destruction, revenge or love.”
And you ask why I write? For all of it. To keep it going. To remember. To share. To fight injustice. Because when you find yourself in prison, there is nothing more important than a beautiful sunrise. I write to be still.