An Education in Lies
An Education in Lies
by Matt Briggs
When I returned from Basic Training, I started looking for classes to take in writing. I was just past the registration date for the University of Washington Experimental College where there was a short story class taught by Richard Berman, M.F.A. The title at the end of his name, tacked on like P.H.D. seemed to indicate a professional status as a writer, certification by a board that confirmed his abilities as a genuine writer, although I was unsure what it meant. I had missed the registration date, but I called the school in the off chance there might still be a spot. They took my name, and I thought that was it, I had missed my chance this quarter to study writing. I viewed this as a major setback because I only had nine months before I went to Whitman College in Walla Walla and I intended to have a novel finished before I went. Every week counted. I had to prove to myself that I could become a writer. I had a schedule to follow. As I understood it, it was a lot of work to write a novel.
Richard Berman, M.F.A., called me himself. He said if I brought the check directly to him with my application, he could almost certainly find room for me in his workshop. I asked him. How would he evaluate the material?
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Don’t I have to apply?”
“I can hear that you are a serious writer,” he said. This was enough for me. Someone could hear how serious I was.
He gave me his address and then described his apartment building at the top of the Central District between First Hill and Leschi. I followed his directions imagining what his life would be like as a writer. I imagined the long hours at a desk in his room with the windows open, listening to the ambulances going to First Hill, and then the lingering lunches in a neighborhood deli with a book that perhaps he was reviewing for the newspaper. A triangular park with crumbling cement steps and a single, gigantic maple tree that had left its leaves to rot in heaps on the dying grass sat across from the large yellow brick structure of his apartment building. I imagined the writer Richard Berman stepping out to this park to ponder a particularly difficult passage, smoking maybe, as he mulled over the dialogue – she said and he said. Seattle from my White Center vantage point seemed to be the place to be if I wanted to be a writer. I felt removed from whatever was going on by the divide of I-5, the West Seattle Bridge, and the Duwamish Valley. There was no way for me to be a part of the writing scene, wherever that was hiding, living so far out. Berman’s doorway smelled like fresh urine, still very strong and very ammonia. I prepared to say something – ask about his work-in-progress or how the work was going today, perhaps; I couldn’t decide on the precise phrasing. “How did your work go today?” Or more directly, I decided, “What you working on?” This way if he had had a bad day I wouldn’t put him on the spot. I found his name on the intercom. “Come up,” he said without even asking who I was. The door buzzed, and I walked up the musty stairs. A ragged carpet, plush at the margins and worn to the floor in the middle, filled the slightly white hallways. The plaster had been nicked and gouged and marked with long black rubber streak from someone moving. The stairs smelled like mold. A gaunt, stubbly and mostly bald man answered the door. He led me to the main room of his apartment, a living room full of a mish mash of used furniture in good repair, but clearly worn, and vaguely of the arts and craft style. The apartment smelled, too, an odor like clay kitty litter and incense. None of the windows were open. I saw no evidence of writing. There really weren’t even many books. There should have been more books. He sat down and asked if I’d brought the money. I didn’t understand what he wanted. I handed him my ten-page writing sample. Then he said, “The tuition check?”
I handed him the check. He sat the manuscript on the coffee table and glanced over the check to examine the character of my handwriting, or more probably I realized then to see if I had filled it out correctly. He folded it up and tucked it into his front shirt pocket. “What are you working on?” he asked me.
This was my question. I hadn’t thought about how to answer it.
“I’m writing stories,” I said. “I’m learning how to write stories.” I was writing stories because I assumed that the writing of successful stories would be good practice for writing successful novels. Most people think this, and what did I know arguing with what most people thought? I didn’t tell him this though because the one thing I’d picked up from my reading was that to write good stories with the aim of writing good novels would mean you wouldn’t write good stories.
“Short stories,” he asked me.
“They aren’t long,” I said.
“Welcome to the class,” he said and saw me to the door. My manuscript lay unread on the coffee table.
When I was seventeen years old, I moved into the remodeled basement of my stepfather’s house. He had just moved out. Before bed, I would sit down at my Atari ST. this was Atari’s attempt to introduce a computer mid-way between the mass-produced children’s machines such as the Atari 400 and 800 and the Commodore 64 and the still fairly new and very expensive IBM machines running DOS or the very new Apple Macintosh. Computers were still sold through department stores. The keyboard of my Atari was spongy. The keys clattered as I hen pecked my sentences. I wrote one page of single spaced, blocky, glittering pixilated text on the screen every night, writing until I saw the dotted page break line flash over my line of text.
I wrote because I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a writer because I liked writing, and there was a kind of deep back of the basement obsession in my mother’s family about writers – not as literature but as an elevating force and weapon that they could use to protect themselves against other people. Everyone in my family was going to be a novelist one day. This idea was flung out as a kind of threat when things were going bad. “Just wait until I put them in my novel.” It was a hopeful statement as well, because bad things always made good stories. My mother always had a story going, spiral notebooks filled with story ideas and paragraphs. Her brother had studied literature, and I suspect he wrote stories and books and then had stopped. Unlike my mother, he didn’t talk about it – and this silence only magnified the seriousness of his work. I believed I was driven by something – an urge that was biological in origin, like a bird that pulls out its feathers or a dog that chews off its skin – to write. The writing itself was not solely a way expressing myself but also a method of containing and making something tangible out of the uncomfortable realities of my life. I sat in my basement with its new carpet and the odor of the carpet paste, and the smoke of the pumpkin spice I burned. I was writing because I wanted to be a writer. It is common wisdom that a writer should have lived life first; but this supposes that writing is some kind of communication, that there are some observations a writer is making about the world and they must have enough practical knowledge of the world gained through experience to have enough raw material to make observations about. Flannery O’Conner addresses this, saying that a child of seven has experienced enough of human relation to become a novelist – but even so – this entire track is wrong headed because it supposed that a writer’s function is to communicate meaning. I was impressed by Richard Hugo’s admonishment in the Triggering Town that if you wanted to communicate something to someone, write a letter rather than a poem. Anyone capable of forming sentences is capable of making meaning. This perhaps accounts for the paradox that writers can create profound and knowledgeable work, but this in no way makes the writer profound or knowledgeable. The big figures of modernism, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald being examples – these people did not for the most part live admirable or particularly knowledge-filled lives, and yet they have made works that people kept reading.
I had become fixated with the look of books on shelves in bookstores, the displays of stacked books, the physical presence of books on tables. I was thought about the names on the books and the thought my name could be in the stack of books, too, that I would always go to bookstores and place my name in the alphabetic list in the fiction section, that my name mechanically reproduced and the idea that an activity as simple as sitting down at my computer and making words string out on the screen could turn into a book THAT I COULD SELL, this began the practice. But gradually as I wrote and as I began to use the stories as a tool. I became reliant on the feeling of transport that happened while I wrote.
There was an addictive thing that happened in my brain. Writers talk about this as a kind of melting away of the difficulty of writing of the physical process of putting words on the page and then it is almost as if the writer transcribes the words. Transcribing the voice that is in your head, that is at once your own voice and not your own voice. After this happened a few times, I strove for this effect. The troubling thing about this was that it didn’t always happen. But it did on occasion. It happened often enough that part of the reason I wrote was to achieve this state.
I wrote a story a week as I started to write in the basement in the spring of my junior year in high school. My stories were essentially what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s marathon composition off On the Road, “That isn’t writing, that’s typing.” I sat down to write and began to type. After some time, I had a dozen or so short texts.
I realized it would take a long time to learn to write, that it was a project that would take me years. I was fortunate to a degree to know as I started that I was a rank amateur, and that I had things to learn. But I had to start if I wanted to pass through those years of study. I liked my stories and reading them now they weren’t bad – considering – but they were odd, personal stories half informed by the science fiction and fantasy I’d been reading. I read heaps of dripping, suppressed hormonal literature written by Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and HP Lovecraft. I aspired to be like the writers that interested me in high school literature classes, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and TS Elliott and I also aspired to be like the writers admired in my family – the standard American Modern icons like Faulkner, Hemingway, but also Dashiell Hammett, SS Van Dyne, and Robert McDonald. I aspired for my writing to cause the same kind of puzzlement and absorption after the fact as The Pearl had caused in me when I was in sixth grade.
My model for success as a writer, though, was Stephen King. When I started to write it was all about Stephen King, whose books I could feel superior to because even at seventeen I could tell they weren’t well put together and this rough edge quality to his books made it seem like success hinged on other things other than an ability to write. I was unsure of my ability to write coherently. I felt like I had “some imagination.” The years of telling verbal stories had made me certain of my imagination – but I wanted to write more than I wanted to do anything else that is paint or graphic design or make movies not because I didn’t like these things but because I wanted to control the vehicle – the medium – that carried my story and writing the words that were also the medium for delivery was the only thing where I could do that. Stephen King’s books were at the root of it about the kind of thing I wanted to write about it – his books showed a pragmatic feel of American culture that was both drawn to the B-grade crassness of hamburger joints and rusting classic cars and the way the counterculture had bled into rural areas like Maine. His rural but not pastoral settings also captured a world that was more familiar to me than the kind of writing being done about places like the Pacific Northwest.
I was cut off from the world working in my basement, isolated in suburban Washington. It was in this isolation listening to copies of records I’d bought at the second and third hand record store, Golden Oldies – Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and the soundtrack to A Clock Work Orange that I really started to work. I was a type of autodidactic and melodramatic child that at the time tended to become a happily unemployable adult who my family calls “an uncle” that is rather than the spinster in the attic – like Emily Dickinson – these men become the uncle in the basement who makes a weekly trip to the library and happily works on elaborate role playing game campaigns. I suspect these uncles now form the nucleus of The Donald, Incels, and neo-nationalists. My mouth breathing was directed toward being taken seriously as a writer. I didn’t want to be seen as some delusional basement dweller, even if the activity of writing a novel is essentially the same from the outside of that of the Unabomber. I wrote a poem a day and worked steadily through a short story a week. Outside, the winter began to turn, and the tulips came up in the bed outside the front window. I was in the basement, so the tulip beds were above my head. Clouds and rain came down on the nearly silent suburbs.
I began to mail my stories out to get published. I mailed my stories to a local fantasy magazine because the Seattle Times had profiled the editor and said she was a rare example of success as a writer because she earned a living from her work. I wanted to be such a writer; so I mailed her my stories. She wrote back a scathing letter. She read my story, she said, because of the title, “Leaves Can Shatter Like Skulls.” The letter analyzed me – rather than the story – and was a rejection of the fictional personae she invented as the real-life author of the story. She said I exhibited deep psychological problems and needed professional help.
I regarded this an enormous success. There were people at the end of an address for a slush pile. I sent something into the void and received a response. I was at a stage with my writing where I couldn’t really make a convincing invocation of a human being. Instead, they saw my narrator as having debilitating mental problems. But I felt like I could improve on this. The underlying machinery of writing a manuscript, finding an address, and sending it, and then getting a response in a self-addressed stamped envelope worked.
My mother drove me to Port Townsend to turn an application to a high school creative writers camp called Centrum. I established for myself a mythology of me in my basement turning out works of unheralded genius, or rather the unheralded juvenilia of a future heralded genius. I fancied that I was outside of the literary establishment of my high school, when in reality anyone who wrote anything was a freak. My mother and I pulled into the Ft. Warden campus where the Centrum office were located among the white washed military buildings and the view of white caps on Puget Sound. I clumped up the steps and dropped my envelope into the slot and we drove away. I was accepted into the program.
Centrum lasted a week. During that week I learned that beyond the entertainment driven glossy racks of B. Dalton there were dusty, handmade bookcases in the independent bookstores. My bookstore growing up had been a small bookstore called Heritage Bookstore in the Renton Mall – run by an older and woman dispirited by the existence of the mall, kept alive by specializing in science fiction and fantasy and military books – profiles of famous battles, biographies of generals, and guides to weapons. The tiny, poorly lit store did have other kinds of fiction, but it was the back room full of racks of sword sorcery books that where I spent my time and the glass cases full of translucent polyhedron dice, the bubble packs hanging from hooks full of gray, lead-based miniatures.
After Centrum, I began to understand the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle. This large store had been established in the early seventies in a wave of independent bookstores opened as the counter culture began to age. A number of small presses opened as well. Both of these things established the roots of a small press culture that had managed to withstand to varying degrees the gradual consolidation of literary culture into a few global media companies and also the spread of super bookstores (which are modeled on the large community oriented stories like Elliott Bay – Barnes and Noble itself being an Ann Arbor Store.) In the late eighties, though, before the superstores began to descend on the city, Elliott Bay revealed the chain stores for the magazine racks they really were.
I began to understand how to use this store and find uncommon books written by living people who were not a one-man industry like Stephen King. While I did read a kind of slag in bulk, I was trying to crush the weak ore down to a kind of mineral component. There was just not enough there. The independent bookstores sold a heavier, richer kind of book. It was this recognition in the carefully modulated language of instructors like David Romtvedt and Marilyn Stablein – and in trying to track down their work – that made me aware of literary magazines and small presses. Once aware of these things, when I attended Bumbershoot in Seattle I recognized then what was in the Book Fair. This kind of successes seemed manageable to me.
I didn’t know that it would be ten more years before I managed to get a book contract. My first published book was from the same press that had published Stablein.
I assumed every obscure writer such as David Romtvedt and Marilyn Stablein earned a living from their work and did teaching because they liked to teach. What were they doing here if they had jobs? The practical reality of writing remained unresolved for me. (It still is.) If I wanted to dedicate myself to something, I would have to be able to earn enough money to buy groceries and pay rent. I didn’t have the confidence that I would somehow survive. I had to earn money at my vocation. I didn’t recognize the evidence displayed by the writers at Centrum. They didn’t have two nickels to rub together. They wore ratty, worn clothes not out of some kind of poetic affectation and assumed at 17, but because they couldn’t afford new clothes. They worked jobs at bookstores and at a ranch, not because they wanted to keep their hand in the world, but because they had to earn enough money to have a room where they could write. The poverty of bad jobs is more than a lack of money, but a kind of spiritual sink. Once your bosses and customers being to treat you as you are paid – and they do from day one – everyone begins to treat you as you are paid.
I asked David Romtvedt about becoming a writer. “How do you do it?” He said you can go to school. “Or you can just get on with it. You can just write. That’s the real way there.” I liked the sound of school because then I would have something to tell people. I would have some intermediate goal aside from the vague long-term goal of getting published. It sounded like a shortcut.
I regarded the letter from the fantasy magazine as evidence of my progress. When the high school literary magazine didn’t publish any of my fiction the year I submitted a bunch of stories, I published my own magazine called Pools of Sky, a rushed and addled thing produced on a borrowed Macintosh from spare manuscripts of people willing to give me what they had. I printed and Xeroxed and stapled at my mother’s work place in the middle of the night in Everett. Mom drove all the way to Everett and smuggled me into the office, and I produced this and passed out copies to in turn distribute to my co-conspirators.
I continued to write a story or so a week the season before I left for basic training. And then after Basic Training, I resumed writing a story or so a week after, when I was in San Antonio. I found a magazine rack and bought a copy of a Seattle Literary Magazine, Fine Madness. I wrote my story at the desk in the barracks where we studied for our laboratory classes. I drank instant coffee and set my cup down on the cinderblock windowsill. Outside, I could hear the trainees playing volleyball. On Saturdays I typed up my stories on a typewriter on onionskin paper I’d bought from the PX thinking the onionskin was the appropriate paper for a serious writer. Weeks later, the ink started to fleck off. I managed to hen peck out my finished stories. I kept at finishing a story a week, working toward a portfolio of stories by the time training ended in January.
Over Christmas, I went to the Brentano’s bookstore, one of the first chain stores – aside from the inconsequential B. Dalton’s near Westlake – to appear in Seattle. The chains have essentially eaten themselves, now. A Borders opened across the street and down the block, a Barnes and Noble opened. But it was in this bookstore that had yet to fade into stuttering florescent lights, worn carpet, and an oversized magazine rack, that I found a book that served as my key to contemporary literature. I found it on a long shelf of recently released hardbacks. I told the clerk I was looking for a collection of stories, and he handed me the heavy, ornately typeset, mustard yellow hardback of Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. These stories on top of my Stephen King fetish eventually opened me up to a different way of thinking about writing. Up to this point I had thought of stories as personal things, really, but finally they were for entertainment. A writer performed and diverted his audience just as movies or vaudeville acts did. Raymond Carver’s collection was not entertaining. However, his blunt, ham handed and oddly musical sentences managed to convey meaning in a way that I think music conveys meaning and this was along with the fact that his writing was about a world I understood, a rural America without noble outdoorsmen and farmers, and populated by working class drop-outs, dope smokers, waitresses, and bankrupts.
I read the collection straight through twice and then spent the next five years trying to find another writer who would open things up for me as much as this book did for me.
After reading his collection, I strove for a kind of realism that to me had seemed boring before. My stories were slowly becoming less gothic. The better sequences in these stories involved mundane moments. I also wrote a fantasy about growing up alongside the Snoqualmie River and a series of work and relationship stories about a man named John Clemmons. I didn’t really consider the subject of my stories, but instead a kind of kind of compulsion to keep at it. I think I had this idea that I would eventually learn what I needed to do by repeatedly doing it and it would just come to me. When I returned from Texas, I wanted to find other writers in Seattle.
At the Experimental College, I sat in an evening class of short story writers who were much older than me, more literate, and who lacked the fundamentalism that I had about writing. They had a number of reasons to write – it was something interesting to do or they wanted to publish a book with their name on it or they wanted to teach creative writing. I had descended into a kind of feverish urgency to transform myself through my writing. But I didn’t know how or into what. They had all written some stories. I turned in one of my Snoqualmie Valley fantasies called “Maurice Dreams Like Winkle” – a retelling of Rip Van Winkle – that had been infected by my primitive understanding of realism. It was about a man who was despondent over a break up, who goes into the mountains and falls into a lake. In the lake, he sleeps for thirty years, and he comes back then out of the mountains, thinking he might have passed out or something. He is a little startled by his beard and his long nails, but the day looks the same, the trees look the same and he comes down through the land and back into a much changed world. This was the full story. It was written in my awkward run-on prose peppered with clichés, and unrelated clauses growing out of the sentences like polyps. Often sentences collapsed under their own weight into complete incoherence. I had trouble with punctuating, spelling, omitting words, and it may be seemed like I was an ESL student without a first language. Richard Berman didn’t like my story. Something about the story, in fact, pissed him off. He used the class to pin the story against the wall. We went through each run-on sentence line-by-line. “What does this mean?” He asked. He was particularly angry about the phrase – a stock romance cliché – “the smell of sex.” The narrator has the small of sex on him, I think I wrote. And Richard Berman asked what this was? I didn’t know. I hadn’t had sex.
The class was populated with older students, many who worked during the day – but I wondered where they came from, and I was struck with their need to jockey for Richard Berman’s attention. When he jumped on a story, they began to jump too. The class began to dismantle my story, cliché by cliché. I don’t think many of my classmates had read the story. I know I hadn’t read many of their stories. Certain writing was good and certain writing was bad, and our stories were there as an example of the bad. Our weekly reading of The New Yorker held up the example of the good. The class was bored and confused and hungry for the off chance that their story would merit praise.
Rather than trying to understand what each student was working toward, rather than learning any skills, we acquired certain gestures. We worked on pruning stylistic excess and on maintaining a check of quality so that we could present a uniform, unobjectionable surface to our stories. Berman M.F.A. did what he was trained to do, which was to cut and shape our stories into the kind of quality fiction taught at the University of Iowa and published in journals like The Missouri Review and Antioch Review. He picked out some clotted hunks of my prose, like “smell of sex,” and dropped it with a ring onto the aluminum autopsy tray. He turned it around so that everyone in the class could cringe. My years of reading Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and Stephen King (with the added insult of Raymond Carver) weren’t just going to vanish. I needed to understand the cost of using a stock phrase, the cost being unspecific. The UW and Iowa Creative Writing Instructors seemed to think that shaming their writers like puppies who had tinkled on the carpet was the way to obey. Only I wasn’t interested in obedience. I was interested in lies that sounded like the truth. I wanted to write lies so convincing that the truth would no longer matter.
One thing I did learn in my first story class was how horrible most of the students’ were. Our work was really very bad. In a way this was a kind of consolation, but it was also demoralizing because I knew my writing was not only as bad as their writing was, my writing was worse. Their stories were very similar and predictable. The better-written stories acquiesced to the prose fashion of the moment – in the early 1990s this was a kind of spare, Ann Beattie realistic writing peppered with a lot of witty observations about life and relationships. I didn’t know prose subjected itself to fashion, then. I assumed that writers aspired to be timeless. I assumed they read the classics and strived to place their own writing in The Canon – the way lawyers aspired to make partner in a law firm. I didn’t have much reading behind me, and so I didn’t know for instance that I was turning in these longish, stilted, private obsessive tracts that only resembled a story because they had characters and were printed on eight and a half by eleven paper.
After forty minutes, we went on to the next story and I just sat with my stack of Xeroxes and looked out the chemistry library window at the streetlamp through the fir tree boughs. At home in White Center, I reviewed the mostly unread, uncommented manuscripts that evening and threw them into the dumpster.
At Highline Community College, I enrolled in an advanced English class, Creative Writing 101. It was a non-genre class taught by Lonny Kaneko, a Japanese-American writer who was part of the group of writers who rediscovered John Okada’s No No Boy in the 1970s, writers who have since attained the kind of fame that is common in the literary world. Among scholars of North American Asian writers and Pacific Northwest writers, they are a famous club. Lonny Kaneko, Shawn Wong, Garrett Hongo, Peter Bacho, Frank Chin, but even in the general population of well-read readers they are obscure and among the general population there are completely unknown. I knew about this group of writers because the history of the group retained a kind of homegrown authenticity for Seattle, something generated on the West Coast of interest to writers on the West Coast. I wanted Lonny Kaneko to take my writing seriously and he did, but he also seemed suspicious of my writing fundamentalism and about what I was writing; on one hand he clearly acknowledged my obsession which was important to me but on the other hand he questioned what that meant. I think part of this was my role as a student has always been to combat the teacher, take a beating, and complain about my wounds. This kind of confrontational approach didn’t sit well with him. I was too easy to demolish and then demolished what use did I make a student? The other students were in the class because it was a creative writing class and therefore seen as an easier load than literature or a critical composition. But this class required a lot of written work – work too that was studio based and demonstrated knowledge of specific writing technique. We wrote point-of-view exercises, scripts, scenes, sonnets, everything having form and purpose. He broke down the writing problems and then concentrated on that problem as part of technique. Where drawing is about transferring observed three-dimensional images to a surface and to make an illusion of life and captured the process of observe action, writing was the similar framed transformation of events from their inexplicable flow to a meaningful casual chain where one event really did, indeed, lead explicable to the next.
I hardly engaged in the process of that class. I was fixated on earning the title Writer. I wanted to already be a Writer with a capital W because I had spent so much time writing. I wanted to already know all of this essential material. I learned the material because I wrote and then rewrote each exercise, but I worked through them not so much to learn them but to demonstrate to Lonny Kaneko that I was a Writer.
The campus was full of blooming rhododendrons. Cedar trees lay in clumps next to the expanse of cut grass and totem poles. Spaced out cinder block classrooms coated with spider webs and moth pills sat across the campus. I sat in the classroom with the door open to the smell of the grass and the sea. This was in the spring. Because I kept rewriting and rewriting my homework, I fell behind on my homework. I dropped the class. I think I told Lonny Kaneko I was going to a “real college” in the fall. I think I told him that this class didn’t matter in the scope of things. I said I’d deal with whatever grade I got in the course, but he let me drop, anyway. This was a failure. I failed to earn the capital W. I wrote, but I wasn’t a Writer. Through all of this, I kept writing.