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Friday, April 11, 2014

MISPLACED PERSISTENCE?

If art was what I so diligently pursued all those years, was that pursuit subverted by the strangely selective way I went about it?  For the truth is, in the act of becoming the writer I wished to be, I insisted on setting my own terms for publication rather than acceding to the realities of the market. Strange, is it not, that an aspiring author should pick and choose his own notion of what to write and where to seek publication, rather than try to conform to the dictates of reality?  I knew what I wished to write, and knew furthermore that what I wished to write was not the sort of material most publishers sought.  Yet I not only flew in the face of economic reality, I did it knowingly and even defiantly. Why?  Ordinarily the fledgling writer trims his/her work to fit what he/she knows the reading public, and hence the publishing world, desires.  Not I.  Perhaps this approach was a variant of the motive I have previously mentioned, that I only wished to have fun--the fun of indulging my own tastes, my own preferences, above those of the industry I hoped to penetrate.

I must have told myself I refused to compromise my own vision of my destiny as a writer--a laudable thought perhaps, and one no doubt commensurate with my immature dreams of becoming known for the daring and dedication of my artistic goals, much as were Faulkner and Joyce and certain other literary giants of the 20th century.  I suppose I didn't wish to serve a long and dreary, if salutary and instructional, apprenticeship of submission and rejection.  It didn't matter to me that the historical fiction I longed to write no longer held the high place it had maintained in the 1940's and 1950's when my literary ambitions were formed.  I wished to imitate the successes of the historical novelists of my youth--Thomas B. Costain, Mika Waltari and the like--writers, incidentally, known not for the high literary quality of their books but for their popularity with middlebrow readers, and hardly comparable to my idols Joyce and Faulkner.  Furthermore, by the time I began to submit my work, the historical fiction genre had fallen quite out of favor.  Speak of a confusion of motives!

Yet I did, to a small degree, succeed.  I was published, against all the odds.  Was published five times in fiction and once in nonfiction.  This is a fact which still astonishes me and for which I remain deeply grateful.  When I think how many persons have nourished the burning ambition to write and be published, only to have those hopes dashed, I know how fortunate I have been.  But then, perhaps inevitably now that I am in the twilight of my writing career, I also begin to wonder how much my stubborn insistence on writing only what I wished to write rather than what the market desired may have limited my prospects.  Had I paid more heed to reality than to my own preoccupations, would I have been more successful?  And what, after all, is success?  How should it be measured?  By my own satisfaction at having maintained my selfish preferences?  For in having done so, have I not in a sense limited my own success and prospects for recognition?  And how important, in the last analysis, are success and recognition?  Large questions.  Questions without answers.  One thing I do know.  There are readers in the world who have told me my books have mattered to them.  And is that not reward enough?


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

ART FOR ART'S SAKE?

Shame runs in my blood.  Maybe this comes from having been a Methodist preacher's son and growing up with a deep-seated suspicion that, despite his example of rectitude, I somehow harbored an ineradicable strain of original sin.  Whatever the reason, I have always been--and remain today--ready to blame myself for any and all calamities that may beset me or, most especially, my loved ones.  It follows that my lifelong pursuit of what I will dare to call my art has been as much a cause of self-loathing as it has been a source of satisfaction.

I have come to see that in my quest to become a writer I essentially defrauded a succession of employers.  This was true of my very first job in 1961 all the way through to my last, which ended in 1991.  In each position I held something back.  I was incapable of full engagement because I was reserving for myself some substantial portion of my attention and dedication.  Why?  Because I believed my true destiny was to become a writer, not a 1) newspaper reporter; 2) urban planner; 3) management consultant; 4) environmental impact analyst; or 5) lobbyist.  For me, those were just jobs that put bread on the table.  Yes, I did well in all of them and was regarded by my employers as a productive staff member.  But I knew the truth--that in me they were not getting what they paid for.

More importantly, while I can readily acknowledge having defrauded those who employed me in my different professional incarnations, I have not always been as willing to admit having defrauded those who depended on me as a provider.  I realize the notion of the male as the exclusive provider is now somewhat antiquated, but after all I qualify as an antique myself and inevitably hold some of the societal beliefs of my generation even if I have also sabotaged them.  My preoccupation with becoming a writer imposed costs on the two women who chose to share their lives with me. Both had professional aspirations of their own yet were forced to deal with many of the practical problems I preferred to ignore in favor of pursuing my supposed artistic destiny.

Perhaps I could have been excused my fixation on what I believed was that destiny were I as spectacularly gifted, and as justly acknowledged, as such self-obsessed artists as Mozart, Picasso and Mailer, whose behaviors we tend to forgive because of the largeness of their accomplishments.  But my own accomplishments as a writer may have been far too modest to justify the costs I imposed on others in my single-minded pursuit.  This reality is, I think, the source of my shame.  Was my so-called art worth its cost?  I don't know.

                                                        TO BE CONTINUED  









Sunday, April 6, 2014

PICKING UP WHERE I LEFT OFF (ALMOST)

Checking into my own blog for the first time in a long while today, I made an alarming discovery:  It's been almost a year since my last post, and the content of that particular message may have led anyone reading it to think I have long since lapsed into the enforced silence either of senility or of death.  I feel obliged to clarify the record.

You may be cheered (or not) to learn that I am still alive and functional--at least in part.  I suppose one who has attained his seventy-fifth year and is afflicted with vertigo, partial blindness in one eye, occasional confusion, and a persistent, unidentifiable pain the the lower right lumbar region can be expected to have lost a step or two.  While I can agree with that proposition when applied to anyone else, I find it startling and disquieting to associate it with myself.  How can I, whose withered skin contains a soul that seems (to me, at least) to belong to a young, vibrant person with decades of experience and accomplishment still awaiting him, possibly have become an old man whose future is frighteningly limited?  It's not that I feel young--in fact, I feel quite the antique--it's that my mind seems to have fooled itself into thinking that I will always be young, at least in spirit.  But that's not quite right either.  I suppose it's more accurate to say that I'm surprised to find I've attained this age and state of being without having accumulated a corresponding fund of mature understanding.

I used to think growing old made a person wiser.  But I'm more clueless now than I was when I was twenty-five.  This world makes less sense to me the longer I live.  I feel like a neophyte at an age when I thought I would be as sage as Socrates.  I wonder if I have lived in vain.  Have I learned nothing? Understood nothing?  Has it all been for naught?  Perhaps it has.  When I try to sum up the purpose of my existence, I can name no exalted goal.  Last night in a conversation with Ruth I made an attempt to describe the real purpose of my life, I came up with an astoundingly puerile formulation:  I just wanted to have fun.  Of course the meaning of that statement depends on what is meant by the word fun.  I certainly didn't mean I wished to be a lifelong playboy or partygoer or any sort of similarly frivolous, trivial person.  I meant that I had always wished to avoid the conventional, ordered, success-oriented life that the typical male American is supposed to seek.  I wanted to be a writer, not because I thought such a course would make me rich and famous, because I knew it probably wouldn't.  But I seemed to have an innate love of, and aptitude for, storytelling.  For me storytelling was, and remains, fun, although the form of storytelling in which I now engage entails the hardest work I've ever done.

I had enjoyed constructing stories, an impulse that was first expressed in the rather crude form of drawing, or more accurately, cartooning, or at least cartooning as expressed in the comic books of that faraway time.  I invented a Western character called Buck Duck and drew rudimentary comic books featuring Buck as a sort of Matt Dillon-type lawman.  In appearance Buck was more akin to Donald Duck than to Marshal Dillon, with spurs on his webbed feet, a ten-gallon hat on his head and two pistols buckled around him.  He was, also, far more homicidal than the Arness character who, be it remembered, killed fairly freely himself.  I sometimes sold my fiendish Buck Duck comics to my grade-school chums for a dime apiece. Ruth, I've learned, would like me to think of that childish pursuit as an early expression of an artistic temperament that his since grown to encompass my current career as a novelist and historian, though I hesitate to apply the term art to myself or to my childhood drawings or even my most recent published works.  But let the term suffice for now, so long as we can agree that by using it I do not mean to equate myself with the actual Van Goghs and Faulkners of the world.

What is true is that I have perversely insisted, all my life from that early day to this, on giving priority to my desire to write.  That insistence has brought its price, and I have willingly, perhaps selfishly and unforgivably, paid that price, even when doing so cost not only myself but dear Ruth also.   If, as I paid it, I was continually tormented by a secret guilt for having placed that largely unremunerative goal higher than success, recognition, material gain or any other symbol of American accomplishment, still I was, and remain, proud of myself for having done it. But should I be ashamed instead?

                                                       TO BE CONTINED

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

PULLING THROUGH

Well, I made it.  Anybody who may have been following this blog in recent weeks will know that I have been struggling with aging issues, most especially during the period leading up to a tour earlier this month through central Colorado with my new nonfiction book Season of Terror.  Much to my surprise, the tour seems to have been a success; and so has the book, which this week ranked number three on the Denver Post's bestselling nonfiction list.  I seem to have carried off my part of the tour somewhat creditably, no doubt in large part because of the kind folks who turned out to hear me read, ask me questions, and give me helpful feedback.  Among these I must single out for grateful mention a number of descendants of the very Espinosas who figure prominently in Season of Terror as among the West's most deadly serial killers.  These descendants appeared at my readings at the San Luis Valley Museum in Alamosa and The Tattered Cover/Colfax Avenue in Denver and were uniformly courteous and generous.

It was no easy matter for me, a somewhat retiring soul and a born Southeasterner with no blood ties to the West (apart from the fact that my wife Ruth as a native of Colorado) to present myself as a supposed authority on a facet of Western history to an audience consisting not only of Westerners but also of Hispanics actually related to the murderers who were the subjects of my book.   It is a testament to the graciousness of my audiences that the experience was a notably agreeable one.  I shall long cherish my memories of this tour:  Reading from Season of Terror in the parlor of the 1874 Hutchinson Ranch and Homestead at Poncha Springs, CO, built and still owned by a family of Colorado settlers one of whom had a direct connection with Henry Harkens, the third of the Espinosas' victims; appearing in the San Luis Valley Museum in the same room with an exhibit containing the fringed and beaded buckskin outfit once worn by Army scout Thomas Tate Tobin, killer of two of the three Espinosas; and, most of all, meeting and shaking hands with an Espinosa descendant who told me she looked forward to reading my book and comparing my account with the stories of the Espinosas that her grandfather used to tell her when she was a child.

In my last blog I made mention of a possibly demented bird that seemed to be demanding access to my house by repeatedly pecking at my door and windows.  Well, he's still here.  Now, for reasons best known to himself, he seems focused wholly on the porch door.  Several times a day I see him perched on the brass handle of the storm door fluttering in vain against the glass.  But no longer does he seem the harbinger of ill fate that I supposed him to be in my last posting.  He only seems to be a sadly misguided creature blindly contending against a fate he does not understand.  Perhaps he is not the metaphor for dementia that I once supposed him to be.  Perhaps he is only a metaphor for life itself, which after all so often seems pointless in the moment but tends to gain meaning with the distance of time and perspective.

When I first saw him, before the tour, I suspected him of being a predictor of my ruin.  Now he is only a confused bird probably contending with nothing more than his own reflection in the glass--much as I myself do, much as all of us do, struggling to reconcile our own self-images with the images others hold of us.

How did my audiences on the tour view me?  I cannot know.  I only know that they were kind, and that their kindness sent me home restored.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

MY NEW BOOK - AND MY DEMENTED BIRD

It's always a thrill to hold one of my new books in my own hands after the necessarily long gestation period of the publishing process, made even more difficult nowadays by my inevitable aging with its concomitant realization that time is at last running out on me.  Yesterday a thump on the porch awakened me from my old man's afternoon slumber and I tottered down the hall to the front door to find a cardboard box awaiting me, left by the Postal Service.  It contained my author's copies of my long-awaited debut nonfiction book Season of Terror

Yes, it's odd but also exciting to be 74 years of age and still be able to regard oneself as capable of producing not only a new work but a work in a form heretofore wholly foreign to one. Of course I've previously published nonfiction pieces in magazines and have contributed, along with others, short articles in a couple of nonfiction books; but I've never before attempted a sustained written account that was not borne up almost wholly by my novelist's imagination.  Nor have I previously had to weather the scrutiny of fact-checkers and peer reviewers which is inevitably part of one's experience with an academic press.  But here it is at last:  Proof that I have, against the odds, done it again; written  a book that has found favor with a publisher of distinction, the University Press of Colorado.  Bless them for casting a bit of valedictory sunlight into the evening of my writing life!

But, as always, reality has its way of balancing every new good thing with something that may seem not so heartening.  Nearly simultaneously with the arrival of my books, there has come into my life what I can't help regarding as something like a harbinger of ill fortune.  Unlikely as it may sound, my messenger of doom is a pretty little slate-colored junco--yes, a tiny gray bird--which for the last week or so has been flying from one window to another of my house, pecking madly at the panes as if desperate to gain admittance.  I think it is male (my Roger Tory Peterson bird book suggests it isn't that easy to distinguish male juncos from their mates) and it may think it is waging some sort of protective war against my house, which does loom above the bushes where its nest may lie.  Poor thing, if this is so, of course it's engaged in a hopeless struggle.  Judging from the amount of droppings it's depositing on my porch, it may already know this, and be confounded by the knowledge.

But in my present state of mind, under assault as it already is by encroaching cognitive impairments, I can't help but regard my besieging bird as some sort of messenger of ill portent.  Perhaps, I think, this insistent bird is a living metaphor for my nearing fadeout.  Perhaps it is the shape of my death or my senility steadily pecking away, not at my windows but at me.  Only a self-obsessed writer could conceive of such an eventuality, you say.  And you would be right.  But still, how else to regard this resolute little courier who seems so anxious to deliver its message?

I must confess, though, that one feature of his behavior does not seem to smack of doom.  After a period of insane pecking, his custom is to retire to the porch railing, lift his head to the sky and unleash a beautiful stream of joyous song.  Could this mean that he is offering me not death or senility but a promise of something better?  Does he mean that if I admit him, the same giddy pleasure that is in his song will be mine as well?  Now, you say, this fellow Price is finally ready for the funny farm.  But think of it, the bird is here night and day; in the darkest dark I can hear that song of joy pouring forth between his pecks at the window-glass.  Yes, he may be demented.  Or he may only be persistent; he may only be determined to give me the message that there is joy to be had--joy unheard of in this world with all its troubles.

In an effort to fend off my junco, Ruth has festooned the porch with plastic bags which the wind inflates and blows about.  I wonder what the postman thought of them when he delivered my box of books.  But my bird is undeterred; he perches on the bags to peck, then flutters to the porch rail to sing, then flutters back to one of the bags where he defiantly remains, pecking away, now and then turning his head to fasten a beady eye on me as if to judge whether I am paying proper attention.  The sill of the window and the floor of the porch are spattered with his leavings, but somehow he seems proud of the mess he makes, of this evidence of his undying resolution.  At first I churlishly thought of dispatching him with my air rifle.  But now I'm growing fond of him, and of his persistence which I can't help thinking may be a kind of mad dedication.  Perhaps he believes he has a mission to perform; or perhaps he is performing it and is waiting for a signal that I know and understand his purpose. Are these competing signs, this bird and my new book?  Am I to believe by the evidence of the book that there is more remaining to me and to my life than I think?  Or am I to believe that the bird represents all that I am soon to lose?  And if that's the case, does his song mean that, after that loss, there's a joy to be known that I cannot now imagine?

What do you mean, little bird?  Why so anxious?  Why so determined?  Am I that important?  Or am I only a reflection of yourself in the window-glass?  Do I not exist at all?  Is your song a promise?  I wish I knew.

Friday, June 7, 2013

SEABROOK: AN IMPROBABLE YET IMPERISHABLE FRIENDSHIP


It is far past time when I should have acknowledged what is the most significant friendship of my life other than that which I enjoy with my dear wife Ruth.  Not only is the friendship remarkable for its candor, mutual respect and longevity between two tumultuous artistic spirits, it would appear on its surface to be wildly improbable given the vast differences between us in terms of backgrounds, learning and experiences of the world.  People who know me best will understand that I speak of Charles Pinckney Seabrook Wilkinson.

Seabrook, as he's familiarly known, is a scion of an ancient South Carolina Lowcountry family and is a thirteenth-generation Charlestonian; his very name gives forth echoes of some of Carolina's most distinguished founders, patriots, politicians, soldiers and writers.  He took an undergraduate degree in art history from Harvard and advanced degrees in theology from Oxford; he taught at one of Great Britain's most prestigious preparatory schools; and he now lives in Key West while maintaining an intimate connection to his native Carolina Lowcountry by writing historical articles and reviews for the Charleston Mercury, of which he is literary editor.  A poet of genius who frames his verse in often archaic forms yet infuses every line with a wisdom not just grounded in the cherished past but also acutely viewing the present in its full panoply of beauties and terrors, he has published two collections, A Local Habitation, drawing upon his deep love for his Carolina homeland; and A Resident Alien: Key West Poems.

Consider that sterling c.v.  Then think of plain old Charles Price, born in the foothills of Western North Carolina of hardworking lower middle class forebears; imperfectly educated at whatever public schools happened to lie at hand as my Methodist preacher father was shipped hither and yon by the powers that were; graduating from undistinguished High Point College (now known--unconvincingly to me--as High Point University); and earning a graduate degree in Public Administration (!) from UNC-CH.  Hardly a resume promising brilliance.  I too became a writer, though I could never essay any type of poetry, much less verse as robust and ravishingly beautiful as Seabrook's.  No, I tackled the far less demanding genre of historical fiction.

How could two spirits so unlike have met?  And having met, how could we have found common ground?  Or established a friendship so profound and enduring?  Seabrook and I became acquainted by chance ten years ago when, upon publication of my novel Where the Water-Dogs Laughed, I was invited to do a reading at what was then a literary component of the famed Spoleto Festival in Charleston.  Seabrook was the master of ceremonies of the event, and it was clear to me as we exchanged e-mails in advance of my appearance that I was dealing with no ordinary person.

Nor was the difference restricted to our approaches to writing.  When we met in Charleston for the festival, Seabrook's physical presence caught me by surprise.  I had expected a shrunken, bent-backed academic; Seabrook towers well over six feet, is sturdy of frame still reminiscent of his early days as a rugby player, wears an abundant cloud of silver hair above a rosy and cherubic face that might belong to an 18th-century English squire--or to one of his own Lowcountry ancestors; and his smile is blinding.  Not for nothing was he besought as a cast member for the Mel Gibson film The Patriot; had he agreed to take the part he would've been utterly convincing; indeed, he may have had the gravitas to save the movie (which badly needed saving). In contrast I need not limn here my own unprepossessing physical appearance at the time of our meeting, much less now.  Naturally I felt overmatched, intellectually and in every other way.

Fortunately on this occasion I was not without my sense of humor.  Seabrook, bless him, is not withdrawn; and at dinner after my reading he entertained Ruth and me with certain anecdotes about his august past and lineage, prominently mentioning that he was a member of the Charles King and Martyr Society, dedicated to the memory of King Charles I, the English monarch beheaded by Cromwell during the English Civil War.  Thinking to prick what seemed to me a bit of bombast, I inquired whether the Society he spoke of was dedicated to King Charles the monarch or King Charles the spaniel.  The question delighted Seabrook; he unleashed a thunder of laughter and replied, in his plummiest British accent, "Oh, if it were the spaniel, there would be a lot more slobbering!"  His response cemented a friendship which endures to this day.

Ever since, we have been in almost daily contact by e-mail.  We trade our written works for each to critique; Seabrook has diligently read and commented on nearly every line I've ever written, impartially treating as worthy even the unlikeliest of my output, including (unbelievably) my crass soft-porn novels about Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin and a sex-crazed knight named William Pom hewing and screwing his way through medieval Southern France.  Never has Seabrook failed to treat my work with anything but the most sincere respect.  Of course I have tried to return the favor, but always knowing that due to my imperfect education and limited background I could never summon the intellectual mastery to be as helpful a critic to him as he is to me.

Seabrook has been to Burnsville to read his poems at our Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and has delighted our audiences with his wit and art.  He and I have both been speakers and presenters at conferences of Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, a Camden, SC-based organization of professional and amateur historians dedicated to acknowledging the importance of the Southern theater of war in our foundational experience as a nation.  In that connection I should mention that Seabrook is actually a collateral descendant of Major General Nathanael Greene, the Rhode Island-born, Quaker-raised Continental Army commander who won the Southern war and a man whom I made a central character of my 2008 novel Nor the Battle to the Strong.  In that connection I should mention that Seabrook wrote a most glowing review of that now-forgotten novel for The Mercury--a review I still cherish and reread whenever my faith in my writing begins to flag.

So here's to you, Seabrook!  Bless you.  You are a true original and a companion of the mind and heart never to be equaled.  May our friendship endure always.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A PEACEFUL VALLEY

An inescapable feature of the act of blogging is the tendency to engage in a kind of confessional writing which, if carried too far, can become so embarrassingly and tiresomely personal as to disgust the reader.  I've already committed this sin more than once in these postings, and I guess I'm about to do it again.  So be warned.

Most folks who know me would probably say I'm a pretty private sort of person.  I live on a remote mountainside; I tend to shy away from contact with others; and most important of all, my mother always taught me that it was bad manners to air my personal preoccupations in public.  But lately when I sit down to write a blog posting I find that I can't help looking inward and exposing what I see there.  Partly this is, I'm sure, a function of aging (yes, I know, I've already written about that) and of having been lately diagnosed by a battery of psychologists and psychiatrists as someone in eminent danger of succumbing to dementia (OK, sorry, I've written about that too).

Anyway, the point is that I've gotten into the habit of thinking of myself in the past tense.  And while that's of course somewhat alarming, it's also, I've discovered, oddly exhilarating.  I look back over my life and, while I see all the great things I wanted to do but didn't, I also see the things I did do that I can still be proud of.  Of course the biggest of these is that I actually became the writer I had always wished to be.

Naturally the negative counterpart of this realization, given my aging and mental impairments, is that I fear I may have lost the ability to continue the writing which has been my most satisfying accomplishment.  It's ironic--within a month I'm going to be touring Colorado with my new nonfiction book Season of Terror, yet I'm plagued by suspicions that this may be my last book, and that because of my limitations I may not even be equal to the strain of the tour.  For someone who has come to identify himself as a writer and speaker after many years of wrong turns in life, these are terrible thoughts.

So imagine how uplifting it was when, last night, I had a dream so transporting and so beautiful that, at least for now, it has swept away the darkest of my fears.  I don't know why I had it; nothing in my recent experience could have formed it; yet it seemed to be exactly the dream I needed to have.  There were no people in it; no events transpired; it was simply a single stunning vision--a vast alpine landscape, a valley immensely but gradually, serenely sloping down from left to right, steeped in brilliant sunshine with a clear periwinkle blue sky arching over it, no mountains in the distance because the valley itself seemed to have been implausibly lifted higher than the mountains surrounding it.  In it I sensed a deep and comforting stillness, a peace beyond description.  And strangely it did not banish my valedictory sense of being near my end; instead it reinforced it, but in a deeply comforting way.  Perhaps it was a vision of the peace that comes with the end of things.  I don't know.  I'm only grateful that it came to me.  It felt like a gift--a gift of immeasurable value.

While no photograph can capture what I saw in my dream, the image in the dream reminds me as I write of a picture I took sometime ago in Colorado which will be one of the illustrations in Season of Terror.  It is of Wilkerson Pass looking toward the vast bowl of South Park.  It has at least some of the power that my dream had.