Sunday, June 07, 2009


Tim Barrus and I have been working together on a book called “Orpheus Pressed up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” which used to be called “Kickstart” which is about “Cinematheque,” which used to be “Storyboard,” and is now “Vraisemblance.” If you can’t keep up with the name changes, don’t worry about it. It’s more about the writers than the readers unless you’re trying to Google. I mean, I have four other blogs which I try to keep separated by keeping their names in mind and I frame subjects in different ways according to which blog I’m writing. For instance, “Merry Scribbler” is the English teacher stuff (nothing posted for quite a while) and if I were going to talk about Tim’s and my collaboration I would approach it quite differently on that blog.

What I’m going to talk about here could fit on that blog because it concerns young people trying to write. The collaboration between Tim and I has been entered by a third person, one of Tim’s students and also one of his -- well -- I’ll choose the Western term “ramrods.” Remember “Rawhide?Eric Fleming was the trail boss, Mr. Favor (sp?), and Clint Eastwood was the ramrod, “Rowdy Yates.” Eavan is Tim’s ramrod.

Eric Fleming, you probably don’t remember, was making a movie with a director who was notorious for risking his actors. Fleming was in a canoe on the Amazon River that overturned. He was eaten by piranhas. Clint Eastwood became a big star -- actually more of a “force of nature” in the Hollywood community.

In “Suddenly Last Summer,” you may remember, Sebastian on the beach in his Speedo is eaten by beach-dwelling boy hustlers. That’s a sort of companion story to “Orpheus Descending,” another Tennessee Williams play. The mythic Orpheus is torn to pieces by one of those mobs of Dionysian over-ecstatic devotees, something like modern paparazzi. And of course, Tim has been torn to pieces by a million tiny bloggers, all repeating the same accusation: that he ripped off America’s Indians by telling their story as though it happened to him. One of the more active condemners is not even American and has only visited once, to present a paper on Gerald Vizenor.

“Orpheus Pressed up against the Windows of the Catacombs” started out to be the story of “Mr. Favor” and somehow turned into the story of his trail herd -- at-risk boys -- which is the story AFTER the dismemberment, with the reconstituted Tim continuing his other life, quite apart from Native Americans. In fact, he moved to Europe.

I’m not sure how I fit into this, but I’m not much like Miss Kitty, so you can’t go by gender. (Anyway, she was in "Gunsmoke," not "Rawhide".) I might be Wishbone. Sheb Wooley is probably Kilian, Eavan’s partner. He pays close attention and often rescues the situation. Also, Sheb became famous by singing about purple people-eaters. I don’t know about Kilian’s singing.

Frivolous as these comparisons are, there is some serious business here. In some places the “Orpheus” manuscript quotes at length from Eavan’s notes about Tim. Now Eavan wants to come aboard as the third collaborator. The key question is whether this is good for his development -- he’s college-aged, no fool, but has a lot of issues to tend. On one hand a high-quality Jesuit education and on the other a very successful career as a (ahem) performer, which only fell apart due to heroin. (Happens all the time.) The secondary question is whether it’s good for the book. The tertiary question is whether it’s good for the relationship between Tim and I.

In a way I don’t know Tim. I’m perfectly well aware that I’ve been corresponding with him and reading his writing for years now and that when a reader does such a thing, a sort of cloud of the person forms behind and above them. But I know it’s a construct and all writers MUST form a construct of themselves. It’s not a matter of lying, it’s a matter of editing.

The Tim Barrus of the infamous porn
is as much a construct as the Barrus in Nasdijj form.

A good little couplet for readers to remember. I’ve never MET Tim. I’ve never talked to him on the phone. I’ve never held his hand or smelled him or eaten a sandwich he made. I’ve never played with the dog. Eavan has been traveling the world alongside Tim, ramrodding. He feels he knows the REAL Tim, up close and personal.

I’ve never even corresponded with Tina, Tim’s wife, though she sent me a Navajo rug and videos of her little-kid classes in Navajo land. I don’t know whether that was a thank you, whether it meant she was through with that life, or whether she just thought I would appreciate them. I do. I REALLY do! I put the rug on the back of my reading chair and think of her every time I sit down there, which is many times a day. (Right now there’s a heating pad on top of it.) I do know that one of the things Bob Scriver feared most was his women getting together to discuss him. (I was Bob Scriver’s ramrod.)

Back to the practicalities. To Eavan, a book is about telling the truth, the same as it is for a lot of readers, who get very upset to find out that they haven’t gotten the factual truth after all. But to Eavan, I think, it’s not about facts so much as about emotional truth. The general public will accept books about transgressive and dangerous things like at-risk boys and rez life so long as one of three other elements are present.

One is poetic expression, which we might call the Baudelaire principle. Perversion, torture, and all the other “flowers of evil” can be admired if the writing is elegant enough.

The second is analysis. If you’re wearing a white coat, you can build a machine that thrusts a penis containing a camera inside a woman and openly write about whether it gives her orgasms.

The third is as a victim/witness. If you can survive violation and abuse, you’re entitled to write about it, but only in a certain tone of voice. No bragging, no exaggeration, etc. -- just testimony along the lines of legal testimony because it is an indictment.

If you take that tack,
You must stick to fact.

This paragraph will seem like a change of subject but it isn’t. When I was an animal control officer, there was a certain kind of dog that seemed ordinary and friendly and approachable until you took hold of its collar. Then it went nuts attacking you. Unless you were strong and had a tight grip, you were likely to get bitten, but as soon as you let go, it would simply stand out of reach and study you. These dogs were fear-biters and what they feared was capture. I’m talking about Tim. As journalists have discovered, when Tim feels a hand on his collar, he goes nuts. Not biting, but using wild and vulgar language to make accusations. He has not recognized until recently that this is not essentially different from physical violence.

It is the clearest evidence that he was badly abused earlier. That’s how fear-biters get that way. I’m not talking about a thousand little duck bites from journalists. I’m talking about full-scale, testosterone-driven, near-fatal abuse in childhood from men. But that’s another book, tentatively called “Shape Shifter.

What Tim knows about his boys is that most of them are fear-biters, though some will go catatonic (play possom), so he never grabs their collars. And I never grab Tim’s. Publishers, agents and editors who have grabbed Tim’s collar have been blasted out of their “fuck me” shoes. (4 inch heels, ankle straps -- in case you’re living in Montana where one doesn’t wear such footgear.)

What will happen next? Darned if I know. Head 'em up. Move 'em out.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

You know, the debate about "truth" and "fact" in writing has been going on a long time, mostly without a lot of change.

I've seen a lot of artistically wonderful books get eviscerated because they weren't factually accurate. In some cases the author was the one who did the eviscerating, but not realizing that fiction does not equal fact, and even more importantly fiction can tell emotional truth without necessarily sticking to the "facts" of the case. Lots of cops will testify how inaccurate eyewitnesses tend to be, anyway, so in many ways even straight reporting is not really factual.

I don't think it helps an author to get hung up on factual accuracy. Not every Johnson has a Boswell, but then, not every one NEEDS a Boswell, nor should they. I don't think it helps writing to get obsessed about The Truth. A lot of young activist types get overly obsessed about The Truth precisely because they have a soapbox for the first time, and a story to tell, and dammit they're going to tell their version of the truth even if it kills them. I was a young activist once, so I know. Now I'm older and less militant, but I find my activism goes further precisely because it's more subtle, more open to nuance. The point is to get people to think outside their usual boxes. Sometimes wielding a sledgehammer is antithetic to that purpose.

What HAS changed in writing, though, is what some now call creative non-fiction (John McPhee is probably one of the most practitioners). It's not factual reporting, and it doesn't need to be. It gets as many of the facts right, but it can also be poetic in interpreting what facts mean. Facts just lie there, if that's all there is; they require meaning to be invested into them by the writer and the reader. It doesn't help the quality of the writing to put the facts inside a fence and allow no-one to jump the fence.