Wednesday, April 23, 2008
SHADE OF THE RAINTREE by Larry Lockridge
My postmasters (I have two, one male and one female.) are my co-conspirators in managing my writing. The man is a big-time reader, though not the kind of books that I read or write. The woman bought my book about Bob Scriver and is my "political consultant." So I share a lot with them. Today I got a book in the mail from New York University and tore it open at the counter, because any day a book comes it’s CHRISTMAS. (It's cold and snowing today, too.)
This was the male postmaster, barely old enough to remember “Raintree County,” the massive saga that many consider to be the Great American Novel (though most folks remember the movie). The book was “Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr.” The postmaster was respectful. The book was sent to me by the author’s son because I asked for it. I didn’t see the inscription until I got home: “For Mary Scriver -- Fellow family biographer and to the Raintree. Larry Lockridge.”
Through all my travels and downsizings, my copy of “Raintree County” has come along with me, I suppose because of its archetypal model of “success” but also as a reminder of the price one might pay (and that one’s family might pay) for that success. The publishing paradigm that made Lockridge’s book a triumph -- quite apart from its quality -- is gone now, wiped away by digitization and commodification. But the dream and the warning live on. Anyway, wasn’t Bob Scriver’s life an illustration of the same dynamics though he was a sculptor instead of a writer?
“Fellow family biographer...” The back copy discusses -- as I gather the book does also -- the problem of following a stunner of a book like “Raintree County” with something as good, which is what everyone demands. Lockridge chose suicide, maybe for this reason, maybe for some other reason, maybe for some reason we don’t know about. His cousin, Mary Jane Ward, was the author of “The Snake Pit,” another famous book immortalized in a movie. It was about the treatment of the mentally ill. I don’t know how much of it was autobiographical. Maybe the book will reveal something. We all seem to have the assumption that genius is next to madness -- that it “helps” to be brilliantly crazy. But how much of that is just being slightly out of step or noncompliant? How much is used as entitlement for ordinary bad behavior?
Something entirely unexpected has happened to me in my retreat, maybe because of the Internet. I seem to have become the hub of a small circle of men -- maybe half-a-dozen -- slightly younger than myself -- who are writing almost daily to ask me questions or share bits of their life and writing. They know I’m writing and are simply taking it on trust that they won’t star in a blog -- or maybe they’re secretly hoping they will. One or two are infamous. In fact, a few of these men are nearby and stop by the house to talk. It’s a bit of a pattern in this community that men visit aunties or grannies for coffee, pie and a bit of listening. I don’t actually say much, even on email. Still feeling a kind of pioneer community obligation, they often just check to see if a single older woman needs help. The pattern seems natural to me because artists used to stop by Scriver Studio to check in, maybe get advice, from Bob rather than me. Networking.
I’ve always had a weakness for men in their fifties, so maybe it’s a good thing that now I’m old enough to be sort of a mom or auntie. But there’s more to it than that, more individual. We seem to have the same level of intensity about writing and we are all thoroughly anti-authoritarian. In fact, the focus of much of this writing is the problem of coming to terms with fathers who are absent, oppressive, unjust, violent, ineffective, depressed, or overwhelming. It would not be unfair to say these are my issues, too, maybe more than for most women. In many ways, my relationship to Bob was that of a son to a father but in a healing way, since I ended so violently rejecting my own father -- none of us realizing how much of his behavior was driven by brain damage. (In spite of Bob’s brain damage, he never rejected me nor I him.) Now I’m in Bob’s shadow, as though he were a successful father. I walked into this voluntarily by writing a biography just as Larry Lockridge did. Our present society tries to push these father/son issues underground, which is probably how we ended up with George W. Bush for a president.
This circle of male writers doesn’t know each other and doesn’t come from the same parts of my life. I’m not sure they would willingly sit down in the same room together. Some I’ve known since they were kids, others I’ve never laid eyes on. Some are from ministry, some from animal control, none from teaching English -- that says something. As one principal bellowed at me, “English teachers are supposed to teach punctuation and grammar. Nothing else.” We’ve created a lot of English teachers who do not read or write. But it doesn’t really matter. REAL writing is about heart. Heart lessons are everywhere.
And, as I’ve been discussing with one (who quit teaching after considerable success) it is often about the management of one’s consciousness. Authority figures hate consciousness. They just want obedience. Anyway, there’s another danger point: to really teach -- I mean REALLY teach -- one must make intimate contact and our society considers intimacy to equate with sex, to invite and legitimize sex. This was a problem I ran into with the ministry as well -- if you preach from the heart, people want to come live with you. Some of these men who are most successful with redemptive teaching are gay or bi, which the present establishment (despite protestations to the contrary) hates and will destroy. (Even though one of my undergrad roommates is still proud of being bonked by her male prof on the floor of his office throughout her academic career. It was “het,” therefore romantic. Also, she thought if she was consorting with a purported genius, that must mean she was one as well.)
Not many people have learned to be intimate and even erotic without “spending” it all on sex. Alvina Krause, the famous NU acting coach, was one who knew how to step in very close without ever crossing the line. I’m about the age she was when she retired, not that she ever quit teaching. I think about her. Like a good therapist, she could accept a transference without acting on it.
While I do my own writing -- which some of these folks have helped with over the years -- I’m delighted to have company, fellow travelers, in a way I never expected. I guess there are a few women in this circle as well, but women tend to be competitive which cuts off real sharing. These women are far more successful, which means they are too busy for much dialogue and don’t need it anyway.
This is a dangerous occupation, this writing: not just because my way of fending off depression is often through self-dosing with adrenaline, but also because I might hurt someone else, which is what always scared me about teaching. Larry Lockbridge, an English professor at New York University, may have some clues about this. I’ll report when I get the book read.
First I have to read a self-printed, limited edition, rather private, set of essays about a marshy little bay across the lake from Seattle. I’ll ask him if I can blog about them. I was up at 2AM trying to explain what it feels like to ride a really good horse who wants to please you. My dreams mixed the two.