Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Diary: The Life of a Writer
Austin’s Page Turners is a community-sponsored book club. Local people serving as committee members select a novel written by a Minnesota author. The selection is announced in the newspaper and posted at the library and everyone in town is encouraged to read the book. Those interested may procure the book from the public library or buy the volume. Several lectures open to the public are convened on the topic of the book and, then, the author is invited to town to participate in a day-long colloquium relating to his or her novel. Events include a writer’s workshop, a few sessions at the High School with creative writing classes, as well as lunch and dinner with members of the community.
In the Spring of 2016, Page Turners recommended that everyone in Austin read Allen Eskens’ crime novel, The Life we Bury. I delivered one of the two lectures about the book, footnoting some legal concepts in the novel. As a result, I was invited to attend lunch with Mr. Eskens, a gathering that took place in the Arts Center on Main Street.
At the appointed time, I ascended the steps to the conference facility and art gallery on the second floor of the old commercial building. Mr. Eskens, a swarthy good-looking fellow, was seated alone at a long table facing his audience. When I slipped into the room, he was answering questions. Mr. Eskens has large expressive eyes and wears a stud earring in his left ear lobe. He has a velvety-looking black beard and is a tidy, small, and well-built man; casually dressed, he seems to have the physique of a young Oliver Sacks, that is, the body of a weightlifter.
Eskens has now published two more novels and seems to be very successful. The Life we Bury has been translated into twelve languages, including Vietnamese. Movie rights to the picture have been sold and Eskens hopes that a film version of the novel will be soon produced. He has a contract for several additional books and, in fact, is working on two novels now simultaneously. Eskens still practices criminal law, although he hopes that he will soon be sufficiently compensated from his writing to give up his practice. He is soft-spoken, articulate, and generous – he provided much helpful technical information as to plotting, character development, and dialogue to the other budding writers in the room. He also spoke candidly about the business of writing, his agent, and his optimism that his forthcoming books will sell well. As the time of this conference, Mr. Eskens first novel, The Life we Bury, had charted at number seven on the New York Times audio-book bestseller list and the author enthusiastically praised the actor who had read the volume for the audio-publication – apparently, that actor had been awarded a prize for the excellence of his recitation.
Because I am a lawyer and known to be a weekend, hobby-writer, I was introduced to Mr. Eskens with the anticipation that he and I would have much to say to one another. In my experience, however, people with much in common generally have little to say to one another – indeed, competitive impulses often impede communication. The mere fact that I am a lawyer and that Eskens practices criminal law, in fact, doesn’t provide us with much common ground. My practice is very different from his and lawyers are adversarial by nature – I was afraid to venture much into Mr. Eskens’ territory for fear that he would reprimand my ignorance or correct my misunderstandings of the criminal law; this would shame me publicly. When I announce my specialty, personal injury law, of course, I am always a little embarrassed by the likelihood that my counterpart will perceive my work as squalid and venal. That was how I felt when Mr. Eskens asked me about the nature of my practice.
Someone mentioned that I was a writer of sorts myself. A friend noted that I had written so much that my texts stacked on the floor come to a height of about four feet. "I have written as many words as Marcel Proust," I said, " but most of them are unread." Eskens looked at me with indifference. "Have you published?" He asked. "Not since I was at the university," I replied. He looked at me sadly. I said: "It’s a hobby. I write for about a dozen people. That’s my audience."
Mr. Eskens, perhaps, detected the admixture of pride and self-pity in my words. These are not flattering sentiments to show to the world. Fortunately, he changed the subject to himself. He said: "Even if I didn’t publish anything, I would still keep writing." I nodded. He said: "I write for myself also. But it’s good to have readers. But I would still keep writing even if no one ever read a word I wrote." I agreed with him that his words were very wise and he encouraged me to continue with my work.
"I found a report card," Mr. Eskens later told the group. "It was from when I was in first-grade. The teacher wrote that I spent too much time day-dreaming." We were eating roast beef or ham or turkey sandwiches, each packed in a plastic tray with a doughy chocolate-chip cookie and a little cup of vinegar-flavored cole-slaw. Mr. Eskens said that he often sat downtown or at the mall and looked at people walking by, trying to imagine the words that would best convey the essence of those people, their appearance and gait and the expressions on their faces. "Writing for me," Mr. Eskens said, "is a kind of daydreaming."
The town’s former mayor took Mr. Eskens by the arm and led him down the steps from the gallery. They were in a hurry to get to his next appointment.
Rain has now sluiced out of a cold, white sky for three or four days in a row. It is not a gentle or warm rain – not the mellifluous April showers that bring May flowers. Rather, this rain is cold and destructive, winter’s residual fury.
I went grocery shopping alone. Normally, I shop with my daughter, Angelica, but she has been performing nightly in a production of Young Frankenstein at the Community College and so sleeps late in the day, sometimes until mid-afternoon. (After each show, she goes out with friends and doesn’t return until the middle of the night – such is the life of a thespian.) Most weekends, Angelica goes with me to Walmart where I begin my shopping and, then, across the boulevard to HY-VEE to buy speciality items only available at that grocery store.
For some reason, I felt disoriented and it took me almost two hours to finish purchase of the week’s groceries. I was disheartened. Is this my best and highest use, pushing a heavily laden grocery cart, between displays of food in a Walmart? I have known several famous lawyers and I doubt that they spend two hours each week acquiring groceries. And what about the great writers in the world? Are they seen pushing grocery carts in a Walmart? I can imagine Allen Eskens at a Whole Foods purchasing a scone or croissant, but I have trouble envisioning him plowing a grocery cart through the aisles.
I stood in line behind a woman whose debit card was repeatedly rejected. A mentally retarded man sat impassively at the Subway across from the checkout cash registers. He had a cup of soda pop in front of him and was middle-aged and, perhaps, was waiting for his old mother to complete her shopping in the grocery. An immensely obese lady sat on a stool at the entry to the store cheerfully greeting people but, also, of course, assessing whether they were attempting shoplift merchandise. The parking lot was partially flooded with cold, grey puddles agitated by the falling rain.
At HY-VEE, I bought hamburgers and prepared salads and wraps. Everything around me moved in slow-motion. HY-VEE is where people of my class are supposed to shop, not Walmart, and so, I often encounter acquaintances in the store. But I didn’t want to see anyone that I knew and so when I saw a familiar face at the end of an aisle, I pretended to look somewhere else, studied the food displayed on the shelf and, then, went into an adjacent aisle to hide myself.
My wife called me: "Where in the world are you?"
In HY-VEE, my tennis shoes became untied and I wandered around with long white and frayed laces dangling from my ankles. I was, I suppose, a trip hazard to myself and others.
A bench sits against a bulletin board where children’s thank you letters to HY-VEE are displayed. (Apparently, groups of elementary school kids sometimes are brought on tours of the store.) I sat down on the bench to tie my wet, dangling shoe laces.
Someone had left a postcard on the bench. The postcard was a reproduction of Renoir’s "The Boating Party", a painting showing merry young people eating outdoors under a tent with red and white stripes. The men wear white boating costumes and straw hats and the women are round and vivacious with faces like cream cupcakes. I was puzzled by the postcard and, so, turned it over. On the back side, the card was addressed but not stamped. Curiously, there were handwritten messages by two people – in the message, each writer said that he (or she) loved the person to whom the postcard was addressed. I didn’t think that the names were any of my business and so I didn’t look at them. The post card was written in ink and there was no stamp on it.
I carried the postcard over to the service counter and said that I had found it on the floor – not exactly true, the card was left abandoned on the bench where I had tied my tennis shoes. I told the young woman behind the counter that I was going to buy a stamp for the postcard so that it could be mailed. "Someone is saying that they love someone else," I told her. "I don’t think a message of that sort should go awry."
The girl said that I was very nice. She sold me a stamp and put the postcard in the mail.
Someone receives a postcard showing a group of people casually dressed on the edge of a sunny river on which two toy-sized sailboats are visible in the distance The people are plump and happy. The men are handsome and the women very beautiful. The paint in the picture is luscious, applied like the icing on a cake.
The person receiving the postcard recalls a terrible fight with the two people who have sent the card to her and wonders why it was mailed. Are those two people, who have vowed to never communicate with her again, trying to heap coals of guilt and fury on her head? What can this possibly mean? She pitches the postcard in the garbage among banana peels and coffee grounds. Then, she tosses and turns all night long wondering about the messages.
Or, the person receiving the postcard feels that he has been forgotten. He is very lonely and the perpetual cold rain fills him with despair. Then, the postcard comes and he reads the messages behind the colorful picture of boaters and an unanticipated happiness suffuses him and brings new strength.
Or, the person receiving the postcard feels a mild, and familiar pleasure. Her friends have not forgotten her. She remains in their thoughts although she is no longer living among them. She uses a magnet purchased at Elvis’ house in Memphis to affix the postcard to her refrigerator. The cheerful image of the boating party conceals the kind messages on the inverse of the card. The postcard remains on her refrigerator until her lease ends and she has to move. In the move, the card is lost.
I walked my dog along the wet street and the icy rain fell on my neck and shoulders. Under a flowering tree, the dog hunched her back and deposited a heavy, coiled heap of shit in the high grass next to the curb. Wet dandelions lined the boulevard. I squatted to pick up the dog shit, using a plastic sack that had previously contained groceries bought at Walmart.
When I stood, with the dog shit wrapped in the bag, I brushed against the white blossoms of the tree and they gushed water on me. I looked at the bulbs of white, silky petals and saw that each of them was bearded with a long, translucent drop of water.