The new novel we’re working on, Masks, now in fifth draft, is actually a memoir. The narrator is a man in his forties, writing about his family’s final summer as touring players. He was six at the time, and his time was around the 7th Century. His employer/patron, for whom he serves as both scribe and steward, is fascinated with the bits of story he’s heard, and urges that a full recounting be written. The narrator is willing, but challenged: it’s not just that old memories aren’t easy to dredge up, it’s that the six-year-old Bragi was immersed in a god-coup that was visited on his family through a trunkload of masks.
With each new draft, the story becomes more of a cliff-hanger. Yes, I know what happens next, but at the end of every newly-drafted chapter I’m holding my breath. And suddenly I realized—oh shit, that’s what I need to be doing in my own memoir.
I’ve been laboring away at the ghastly years between starting college (1957) and the clean break of going to California for the first time. I have reams of letters I wrote, college transcripts, helpful newspaper clippings, and my sometimes swiss-cheese memory bank, and I’ve been doing a pretty good job of writing what happened. But I just realized that’s not the point. I have to write about what it was like to be inside that increasingly terrified girl as every single brick in her artificially-constructed persona fell to the ground.
Not only that, I need to reconstruct the years of lies and forgeries and pretenses, the insane devices to wall off the truth. Insane, yes, somehow believing that each subterfuge would actually work, living in a sweat of guilt and anxiety.
I loved seeing the movie, Man on Wire, not realizing that it was a mirror inversion of my own experience. Philippe Petit was an obsessive master of his craft of wire-walking, and in 1974 he strung a cable between the twin towers and danced out there for nearly an hour. He knew exactly what he was doing, and exactly how he would be shattered if he failed; he carried his truth within himself and became invincible.
I hid my truth from everyone around me, but most of all I hid it from myself. I never allowed myself to think about what would be shattered if I failed and never considered how I might turn around and get off the wire. The world we’re living in today is full of people like that. I finally confronted the wreckage of my own making, endured the pain, and started over. Survival is possible.
In the past ten years, our writing has moved from playwriting—the profession for more than four decades—to fiction. We’ve written six novels (three self-published), a memoir, and about 40 short stories. Six of those have been published.
This past month, I’ve plunged into rewrite mode on the unpublished stories. In part that’s a way of procrastinating on the 5th draft of a new novel; in part it’s due to April deadlines for lots of magazine submissions; in part it’s just a bulldog belief in stories that’ve accumulated dozens of rejections.
To date, we’ve done rewrites—ranging from modest edits to radical amputations or heart-valve replacements—on 11 flash fictions and 22 longer stories.
It’s been a good—though obsessive—experience. The learning curve from one art form to another that’s radically different has been rapid, and I feel that at last, at the age of 77, I’m coming close to the end of my apprenticeship.
I realize that I’m no longer driven by hope. Hope is a thing with feathers, she writes, but feathers are easily plucked. Just pour boiling water over the hapless bird and the hope comes out readily. The likelihood of building a reputation—meaning a sizable audience that actually wants to read this stuff—is very scant. We’ve explored many realms of storytelling—straight plays, weird stuff, sketch comedy, solo flights, radio, puppetry, video, now prose fiction—and created work I’m proud of, but nothing that has much likelihood of outlasting our demise.
What drives me, then, to haggle with my mate and myself over every third word of a story? I guess it’s a desire for the perfection of a gift. I have a terrible time shopping for gifts: it wants to be perfect for the recipient, for the occasion, for my intention, and perfect in its execution—not to mention affordable. And a work of art is a strange sort of gift, one where you—or I anyway—stand on the street corner crying for someone to take it. Some folks do, but never enough to fill my hunger for giving.
To be a story-teller, story-maker, story-giver—I don’t know why that’s bred in my bones, but it is. It might come out of the overwhelming loneliness when you see that you don’t fit in, and it’s only story that connects you to other creatures with similar eyes and noses.
And I have no idea if the current vast round of submissions or the start on trying to sell our current novel BLIND WALLS will result in little more than a tinker’s fart in a hailstorm. But I stand firm in my support of the tinker’s right to fart.
There’s a vintage ad (1947) quoted on Digby’s website for a Pitney-Bowes postage meter. There’s a big machine in the foreground. Standing behind it, arms crossed and face turned away in disdain, is a sexy redhead in a stylish business suit. Her eyes are closed. To her right is a businessman who is clearly losing his shit. His tie has come unglued, his hair is disheveled, his reddened face is distorted into what would sound like a roar if you could hear it (or maybe a squawk), and his hands are extended in half-claws, half-supplication toward the redhead. His eyes are open, and if looks could kill . . .
What’s the Pitney-Bowes’ caption? “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?”
There’s a story imbedded in the ad. The “only good, fast, dependable, honest-to-Gregg stenographer I got, this redhead Morissey—balks at a postage meter! ‘I have no mechanical aptitude. Machines mix me up, kind of,’ she says.” Two weeks later, she’s in love with the machine. Why? “Now the mail is out early enough so I get to the girls’ room in time to hear all of the dirt.” So he sighs, “I wonder is it always illegal to kill a woman?”
OK, that’s just one ad. There were others. Both men and women read magazines, and presumably this was intended to be normal for both. This is in 1947, after the guys, what’s left of them, are back from the war, and the women who pitched in to keep our mighty engine running are now expected to do what? And what are the guys now competing for jobs expected to feel about that?
Now it’s 72 years later, but it still hits hard.. The artist really captured the guy’s rage: you can feel it, and if you’re honest, you might have a sneaky wish to smack the smirk off the redhead’s face. That’s built into the ad. Somebody got paid to normalize that.
We’re past all that now, right? Look at the rally photos, and you see female faces distorted in gleeful rage alongside their bullnecked compatriots. Equal opportunity to feel like kicking ass. The high that hate gives is now unisex, and people are still being paid to normalize violent memes.
What can anyone do, on the street, in line at the post office, within earshot of the hollering kid at the Safeway? Acknowledge the pain inside the anger, make the gesture that says, “I know, it’s hard, I’ve been there.” Anything that lets the air out of the plastic balloon that separates Our Kind from Those Others, the ones it’s OK to hate.
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Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
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a novel of puppets & renewal
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A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein