I took a creative-writing class from Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless me, Ultima. He was a writing god at the university. It was like meeting Jim Ryun or someone I’d read about, and then there he was in front of me in 3-D skin.
I needed to get over this hero-worship thing; it wasn’t very grounded and seemed a bit borderline and histrionic. Poor boundaries. The thing was, I liked getting close to musicians as they played, athletes as they performed, and published writers as they spoke. I didn’t mean it in a stalking way, like Kathy Bates in Misery, but they modeled the possibility to me; I observed them and then did my best to imitate them, the whole social-learning-theory construct.
Professor Anaya wouldn’t remember the graduate student who wore camouflage pants to class. It was a long time ago, plus he’s now eighty years old. I just wanted credit for having done the hard time in the infantry and milk it some, perhaps get a bit of recognition for those hellish two years when I wasn’t allowed to be myself. A thin tail of hair, a “rattail” that I grew to a braided six inches, was stylish during my first round of grad school, at least on the liberal university campus. My look was also my nod to the war-protesting Vietnam vets who had preceded me. It was a stark contrast to the dress blues and high-and-tight I’d worn just months earlier. I wasn’t a hypocrite just because I didn’t walk around stiffly with a flat affect and bristly hair. Why wouldn’t I change? But, yeah, it was an act and inauthentic. Still, maybe my malleability was actually strength. We know that rigid thinkers have more problems in life than flexible thinkers, especially when stressors occur. They are like a tree that breaks in a strong wind or a runner who should drop out of a footrace but won’t. We also know that flexible thinkers can be too flexible—spineless—and lack moral and ethical bedrock, which also causes problems, such as allowing others to determine what you write, the way your creativity is expressed, what your voice sounds like, what your opinion is, what you share of yourself, and even what you think. Again, it looks as if it comes back to the normal curve, and the key is to stay in the fat part of it—to remain balanced.
On the first day of class, I suggested that each student share his or her personal backstory. It was cheeky of me, of course. Who was I to suggest a class modification at all, let alone to a professor who was also a highly respected author? Was I a presumptuous dickweed? Remember that I played the future-author role; I acted as-if. Even Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I pretended to be an undiscovered Kurt Vonnegut or Rudolfo Anaya.
And so it goes, Ultima.
Although I saw Professor Anaya as way above me, I envisioned that one day, we’d be peers. Naturally, I didn’t say this aloud; I was OK with being a presumptuous dickweed, but I did not wish to be a pompous blowhard. No, people just saw me buying another ream of paper to hold the words that everybody except me recognized as scat. I was tenacious even when everyone else saw some guy covered in grout, who, for some inexplicable reason, requested intimacy in the classroom.
But Professor Anaya said OK. I gave him full credit for that. He could’ve said, “I think not” and then ignored me. Maybe he should’ve. Then I could’ve been all narcissistically wounded and thought mean things about him forever. But no, he agreed, which made him even more of a stud in my eyes—if you should even characterize a writer as a stud, which I do. At the beginning of each class, the person whose turn it was to read his or her short story aloud first gave a brief autobiography. We became a family of writers all pulling together, not a room full of critics and competitors (which, now that I think about it, was probably more about how I approached class than how my classmates approached it). After all, we all wrote naked, streaking through the reams of paper, and it felt safer to me rather than smirking at each other’s puny efforts, safer because we’d have a relationship.
See, when I got interested in a piece of writing, I also became interested in the author. I liked knowing the precedent that produced the writing. Yet again, it was the latent psychologist in me, I surmise. Today, I prefer to learn my clients’ histories, too. I like to place their current struggles in context. Neither people nor writing spring into the present out of a vacuum, so it’s my preference to know the history of psychotherapy clients and works of art. I can do psychotherapy just dealing with the here-and-now, and I can experience art and let it rise or fall on its own merits. I’m not arguing against that point of view—in fact, I like it, in theory—I’m only stating that my preference is to know the pathology and the history, the art and the artist’s backstory. People can try to talk me out of it, and I’ll listen—I’ll even nod, apparently appreciative of the unsolicited advice—but it’s still my preference.
I’m not unaware that J. D. Salinger refused to do book tours and other publicity events. He thought an author should only be known through his or her work. The thing was, I loved The Catcher in the Rye, but I loved it even more knowing Salinger’s personal history. Oh, and he and I were both infantry veterans who hated phoniness, which made me enjoy his prose even more.
Which segues me back to John Lennon, who is forever connected in the most heinous way to Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. Lennon’s assassin had a copy of the novel on him when he was arrested. He accused Lennon of being a phony similar to the ones against whom protagonist Holden Caulfield railed, and if you’re crazy enough, you might even murder someone over it. In some ways, Lennon was indeed a phony. I read an excellent biography about his violence, philandering, and addictions that are in stark contrast to his art. Some of his music could be viewed as phony compared with how he ran his private life. Do you suppose he was a chameleon, too, or merely a hypocrite? Sometimes it’s better not to know someone’s personal story if it detracts from his or her art. In that respect, maybe the private people and rigid chameleons got it right. Bill Cosby used to be funnier.
When it finally came my turn to read in Professor Anaya’s class, I was the only one not asked to give my personal history. Was that a class-wide, passive-aggressive message for me to keep my curiosity to myself or a final lesson from my esteemed professor? Did I just slip through the cracks? Did I have to write this book to make up for that slight? Sometimes I worried that I was so nondescript, so fat-part-of-the-normal-curve average, landing in neither tail, that I was overlooked for both the good things and the bad things I did, which meant getting neither credit nor punishment. Society was indifferent to me. I got lost in the crowd. I didn’t recognize at the time that I really was like everyone else; the difference was that I was just more offended. I had unreasonable expectations of what others’ level of interest in me should be, or how far into the right tail of the curve I was capable of going.
At the time, I just sat stunned. I didn’t remind Professor Anaya that I hadn’t yet told my story, even though it was my idea. Why did my life have to be ironic so often? How much of this dynamic did I create versus how much was just the way the world was? Perhaps I just needed to understand, accept, and be less offended by it. Was synchronicity, society, or just life in general teaching me hard lessons?
I was still too naïve to realize that that was my life’s core issue: I was the one who feels overlooked and then gets pissy about it. I remained quiet because it’d sound too much like whining if I spoke up—too narcissistic—a couple of things that I really wanted to work on. Where should ego end and acceptance begin?