It is April and spring is definitely upon us. As the snow melts and the crocuses poke through the hard dirt, as the outdoor cafés open and you bring your tupperware lunch outside to a bench, as you – daringly – take those warmer-weather clothes out of the top closet and shove your heavy overcoat into a street-salt-crusted corner, as the parks of New York, Stockholm, and Paris fill with yous in your flouncy skirts and bare shoulders, it is time for new beginnings. Anything can happen in the brief crack between seasons. And in those seasonal cracks of life. This is the time for high risk, high reward. As spring floods sun into your days, allow yourself to shed new light on where you are going and who you want to be.
To celebrate spring, I have put together some favorite snippets documenting new beginnings from the DoY archives. Enjoy!
I ended up with a job on Wall Street, on the floor of the American Stock Exchange. (…) I did very well and I loved every minute of it. This was 1967 to 1971. So, I was a trader during the best years on Wall Street. Enormous camaraderie, collegiality, it was a wonderful experience.
In the middle of my time on Wall Street, I got involved in an automobile accident and sustained a brain injury. (…) The recuperation process meant sitting, bolt upright. I did it next to a window. I couldn’t watch television because it would give me headaches and I couldn’t read because my concentration wasn’t good enough. So I would look out the window. One day, my older brother visited me and he brought a camera. A strange camera, an East German model, I don’t even know how it made it into the country. He sold me that camera for 35 dollars. I was mostly photographing the life of the squirrels that lived on my block, morning, evening and night.
That was the beginning. I found it extremely satisfying to look at the world and have it become this other thing, this photograph, that was related to the thing I saw but was also something else that didn’t exist before I made it. That was really fascinating to me because on Wall Street I was well compensated and really creative, but at the end of the day, a bell rings and then there is nothing. Whatever beautiful thing you did, whatever the performance was, whatever connection you made, it was gone forever. (…) With photography, I could actually make something. The performance led to something. I was actually changing the world in a substantial way. It was real.
You worked in publishing for a long time. When did you move from your role as editor to being a writer full-time?
When I was writing The Book of Daniel. I was the Editor-in-Chief of the Dial Press at the time. It was an exciting job – I was editing James Baldwin, Norman Mailer. Putting out books against the Vietnam War. But I had gone about halfway through The Book of Daniel and I realized I had reached the point where it needed my total attention. I couldn’t expect to write this book as it demanded to be written while keeping my job.
Around this time I received a letter from the University of California-Irvine: Would I be interested in coming to California and being a visiting writer for a year? That seemed like a good omen. But we had three children by then and I was making the best wage of my life.
So we consulted the I Ching. Do you know what the I Ching is? It’s an ancient Chinese book of divination. It supposedly can read your future. You have to understand, this was the 1960’s. You threw some sticks down and they arranged themselves so as to direct you to a passage [in the book] that would pertain. We didn’t bother with all that, we were only half serious, and it was just as good to open the book randomly to any page. And the I Ching said, “You will cross a great water.” And my wife said, “That’s the Mississippi, let’s go.”
[Laughs.] And so you did!
We put the three children and our bags and baggage in our car and drove across the country. To my first teaching job.
And what I discovered was that you could teach in the afternoon and the evening and for the first time in your life, you could get up in the morning and do your own work. That’s any writer’s idea of success.
You graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a B.S. in geophysical engineering. What kind of jobs were you working in the seven years between graduating from Colorado SofM and getting your MFA in fiction from Syracuse?
I worked as a geophysicist in Sumatra, then came home and roamed around for a few years. I worked in a slaughterhouse, as a doorman in Beverly Hills (very uplifting), as a roofer. I played in bands, worked in a convenience store, was a barback at a dance club, worked as a groundsman – a little bit of everything, really. While I was farting around in this Kerouac phase, the oil business went bust, and my credentials, such as they were, got a little dusty. So by the end of this period I had more or less dissipated my college degree.
Was there a specific inspiration for deciding to get an MFA? How did you come to make that decision?
Actually, I was at this wild(ish) party in Amarillo, Texas, and staggered away from the main festivities, and found a People magazine on a table. In there was an article about Jay McInerney and Ray Carver. It was the first time I’d ever heard of an MFA program, and at that point, starved as I was for positive attention, it looked pretty good to me. I was getting kind of scared, actually: I could see myself sinking down into a life where no money meant no writing. And I had also just started to get a inkling that my “native talent” wasn’t all that impressive, and that a lot of real work would be involved in ever writing something decent. So the panic was comprised of that realization, plus the realization that, as I got older, time would become harder and harder to come by, especially if (as I was beginning to) I ever wanted to have a family.
I always felt like my artistic development was slow, you know? I felt like all these other people had great taste, and knew what they liked. Other actors, other artists.
I remember when I was at UCLA, I was like, “Why do these other people get to be the art students?” ‘Cause I had wanted to go to art school too, but my parents didn’t want me to go. And the directing students too. Those were the people I was really resentful of. I was like, “Why do they get to direct the movies?”
After the first time I made a NYU film [later in film grad school], we had to show them to the faculty and get reviewed, and it was like…really such an amazing moment, because it was just like— [Tears up.] I get emotional about this because people were looking at me like, “You’re a director now.” You know what I mean? It’s a great moment of taking on a new identity. Because you know that you’ve put in a certain amount of work and it’s not just dreamland anymore.
I grew up in Los Angeles, which came to seem like a toxic place, a place that required escaping. So my friends and I mythologized the Road, and we all lit out early. I had hitchhiked through fifteen or twenty countries before I turned eighteen. I seemed to be always going coast to coast for some urgent reason, always on no money at all. And it continued after college. I probably spent most of my twenties overseas. When I was twenty-five, I took my railroad savings and left for the South Pacific. I was gone nearly four years.
That trip was a last blast, the apotheosis of my restlessness. My other obsession, besides literature, was—and still is—surfing. So I set off with a friend, also a writer and surfer, and we bummed around the South Seas, on yachts and freighters and local fishing boats, camping on uninhabited islands, looking for waves. This was in the late 70s. Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the New Hebrides. There weren’t many other surfers in those places in those days. We found some great empty waves. When we weren’t surfing or bushwhacking, I was working on my railroad novel. We ran out of money at some point and made our way to Australia, where we got jobs on the Queensland coast. My buddy cooked in a Mexican restaurant. I bartended, washed dishes, dug ditches. We were working illegally, but the pay was good. The surf was good. I got a lot of writing done.
From there we pushed on to Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka. First we were living on our savings from Australia, and then by various scams. My friend finally called it an era, as he put it, and went back to the U.S. I kept going, with a girlfriend, living very cheaply. In Sri Lanka we rented a house, near a good wave, for twenty-nine dollars a month. No electricity or running water. I wrote and surfed. I don’t suppose I could do it now—I have a family, a kid, a very full life here in New York—but I think it’s still true that, if you need time and cheap digs to get your writing done, there are plenty of bolt-holes in poor countries where you can live for a long time on very little money.
From Sri Lanka I went to South Africa, where I got a job teaching high school in Cape Town. I wasn’t able to write while teaching. The job was too demanding. I didn’t know what I was doing as a teacher, and my students deserved my best effort. I planned to finish my railroad novel that year but just couldn’t do it. When the school year ended, I stayed on in Cape Town, living on savings from teaching, and finally finished the novel.
That was when I decided it was time to start making a living from writing. No more job jobs. I traveled north through Africa, made my way to Europe. By the time I got to the U.S., I was broke again. Also really sick of being a foreigner. So I went back to live with my parents in L.A. I was twenty-nine. I turned thirty there. That was some pretty humble pie. But I stuck to my little private vow. I started making money from writing, got out of L.A., and, except for a little college teaching and public speaking, have been writing for a living since.
I had a lot of ideas and judgments about what the art world was. Some of them were true and some of them weren’t. It was not helpful. It made me opt out for a little while. I was confused. On one hand, I felt like this was a higher calling—I’m saying all this stuff in quotes, of course—and yet, what if it only gives you pleasure, personally? What’s the point? What is it going to do for the world?
What do you mean when you say that you “opted out”?
I thought I needed to learn how to do something useful. And I didn’t think I had the personality to promote myself, even though I didn’t know what that meant. Also, I was incredibly impatient. I decided to go back to school and learn computer animation, because that was a new field then. I was working at—it wasn’t an ad agency, but it was like that.
Painting felt irrelevant at the time. The people painting were all neo-Expressionists like Julian Schnabel. Why would you want to be that? I was very involved with identity politics and feminism, and the people expressing those ideas in art were not doing it through painting. It was Barbara Kruger or Silence Equals Death, the people who designed the ACT UP logo, and a lot of street-based interventions. Painting felt even more like a bourgeois pursuit, like I was disconnected from my time.
Timothy Donnelly, writer
How did you end up being the Poetry Editor at the Boston Review?
The Boston Review was always a great magazine, but it was much more local in its scope back in the 90’s, at least in terms of its poetry. All the editors lived in the Boston area. The Boston scene was really strongly represented in terms of the books that were reviewed and in terms of the reviewers. The Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Cohen, wanted to shake things up a little, get national with it. He contacted a number of his contributing editors and asked if they knew anyone who was really hungry and wanted to take this on. Lucie Brock-Broido suggested that he interview the poet Mary Jo Bang and myself. We were in the same year at Columbia. Josh met with us and he liked the idea of going with us as a team. We ended up working together for about eight years, before Mary Jo decided she had been doing enough.
The funny thing is that one night, maybe in my second year of classes, Mary Jo and the poet and currently an editor at BOMB, Mónica de la Torre, and I were down in the West village and we went to a psychic, on a goof. The psychic said to me, “You know someone else who was just here.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” She said, “You and the older one, you have a business venture that is going to be coming your way.” And this is even before we had talked to Lucie about this. She said, “It is going to be very lucrative for you both and you both have to work at this together. A lot of success will come from this. I see you traveling somewhere that begins, C-A…” And I said, “California?” And she said, “No, no. Not California. I see you looking at large pieces of paper. And you are talking about the paper…” Then maybe two weeks after that Lucie called and said she had recommended Mary Jo and me as a team for the Boston Review and that we had to come up to Cambridge and interview.
It was the mid 90’s. My wife at the time and I were living in a loft space and we realized that we had to meet people. We realized the art world thing is about knowing people. I thought: “There is no way this is going to happen unless I meet the New York art world.” We made a very conscious effort to do that in two ways. One was just going to all the openings. That’s not the easiest way to meet people, but at least it inserts you into the scene and lets you know what art is happening out there. That is huge.
The second thing we did is we started to have loft parties. If you have a loft party in the art world and there is alcohol and you invite 50 people, by the end of the night there are 300 people in your loft. The upside is that you meet a lot of people. And that is actually how I met most of the people I know, still to this day. That’s also how I got hooked up with Mary Boone [his dealer in New York]. At one of those parties, someone brought Damian Loeb [the artist], and he saw my work, and he introduced me to Mary Boone, who he had just started working with.
So, being social, deliberately, definitely did a lot for me.
I never would have dreamed of trying to write, because I knew I wasn’t going to be good at it, and it was just too mortifying. (…) I had not really understood that everybody learns to write, nobody is born to write. I think everybody who writes learns how to do it. You can’t learn to be a great writer, but you can’t write without learning how to do it. But I thought either you could do it or you couldn’t do it and I knew I couldn’t do it. And it was true. I couldn’t write because I had never done it.
Anyhow, at a certain point in all this chaos of me being in total pieces, Wally [her partner] sort of said, “Well, you don’t have anything to lose at this point, so here’s a notebook, here’s a pen…”
Well, I’m trying to make these sentences, I couldn’t make these sentences, I couldn’t do anything. (…) The one thing I could do was I had a friend who would haul me to the neighborhood Y, you know, once every few weeks when I could manage to get out of bed, and I would sort of run around a little track. I thought I was keeping a diary of going to the Y. I would become frustrated by this very easily. I would burn what I had written, tear it up. I would cry and scream because it was so terrible. But then, after many months of it, I decided I would show it to Wally. I thought I was writing a factual piece about the Y, and he read it and he said, “Well, you know, this is not a factual piece, this is fiction, so turn it into fiction.” [Pause.]
Many, many more months passed with me trying to turn this into a piece of fiction, having a very, very hard time. I gave it to him to read again and he said, “Well, you’ve turned it into fiction but it’s lost its life, so do it again.”
Anyhow I wrote it again over many months and he said, “Great, you’ve done it, you’ve written a story.”
After a few years at Middlebury [College] I was coming up for tenure. My chair met with me and said that I had great student evaluations and I was liked by the department, but I needed a book. I had had a poetry book when I was thirty-four, Grove Press. I think they did like 700 copies, it never went anywhere. And now I needed another book. I was panicked.
So here I was, forty years old, I didn’t have much to show for myself, but I had at least gotten this tenure track job at Middlebury College. Suddenly, I had to just go out there and find a publisher. I had some stories that I was putting together.
Years before, one of my stories had won a prize called the General Electric Young Writers Award. The winners were flown into New York City to do a group reading at the New York Public Library. The audience was studded with agents and editors. One of the agents came up to me and gave me her card. I put it away. But thank goodness, I’m a pack rat, so I found it all these years later. I contacted her and sent her my manuscript. Later she told me she sent it to about thirteen publishers, all rejected. But Algonquin finally accepted it.
When I came up for tenure, I didn’t even have the book yet, but I had the contract. So I got tenure. I thought: “Phew! My tenure book. I made it.” And then the book [How the García Girls Lost Their Accents] did so well!
In ’71 there was a very important visit of Richard Demarco. He was the guy who was doing the Edinburgh Festival. He went to all the Eastern European countries to look for interesting artists for his festival. He went to Bulgaria, to Romania, to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and he came to Yugoslavia. When he came, he was an official guest, so they took him to all the official studios.
And not to yours.
Definitely the official never even mentioned that there was such a thing as the Student Cultural Center. He [Demarco] was there for three days and he looked at everything. He was bored and he wasn’t interested in any of this stuff, you know, social realist stuff. So, he was leaving and that afternoon someone told him, “Oh, but you know, there is this interesting group of artists in the Student Cultural Center.” And he said he wanted to meet us. It was already like ten or eleven in the evening and he was leaving the next morning. I remember at like midnight, we arrived with our little photographs to his hotel room to show to him what we were doing. And he said, “Oh God, this is what I want.”
After he went back to Edinburgh, he sent an official letter saying that these are the artists that he has chosen. And the government said, “Sorry, but we are not sponsoring any of this. We don’t consider this art.” And they refused. Then he wrote us personally and he said, “The government won’t sponsor you, you have to find money for tickets. If you come we will take care of you so you can do the work.”
We just worked like hell and found the money and went there. It was our first visit abroad. At that time, he [Demarco] also invited Joseph Beuys, it was the first time Joseph Beuys came out of Germany. Then all the Viennese “Aktionists” – Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus – I mean it was an amazing collection of people.
It was the first time that we saw that we are not alone, there is a family out there that is also doing crazy stuff. It was an incredible experience.
I didn’t really see it coming, but all of a sudden I started to feel like, Wow, I missed it; I missed the boat. I thought I was going to be a writer whom people would remember. That at least was the promise I made to myself. Because I did feel— even when I was nineteen and first started writing that story I told you about— that I had something special on the sentence level. That I had a gift and that it was my obligation and privilege to use it. And then I was getting into my late fifties, getting close to sixty, and I thought, Wow, I have to face it: Maybe it’s not going to happen. In fact, it’s more likely that it’s not going to happen than that it does if it hasn’t happened yet.
And then you had the question: Well, what has it all been for? I had six file cabinets full of letters and papers and drafts and work by other people that interested me…all the kinds of paper that a writer accumulates. What would happen to all that? Who would be interested? Would I leave it to my family to go through all that? I could feel privately that I had written some good things, but it was getting harder to make that argument. I realized I had to start facing the F, as in failure.
I became a finalist for the National Book Award, all that had changed overnight. Someone would want my papers, someone would be interested in the rather raggedy shape of my life, the interesting story of a genuine writer who amounted to something.