I’m in the middle of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands; it was an impulse buy from my last visit to the Regulator before leaving Durham. I thought it was a memoir, or something, then I quickly realized it was literary criticism—but not before Chabon’s engaging prose swept me along. He relives moments from his favorite books with the passion of a great reader and the dynamo of a great writer; you get a sense of both experiences at once.
The book explores the idea of physical and metaphysical interstices, holes and overlap in the laws of literature that manifest themselves in temporal surroundings of the reader: take, for example, Cormac McCarthy’s success breeding Gothic horror and the epic, in a corral in a dry ranch town out West. This is also an opportunity for Chabon to geek out about his favorite niche fiction. So far I’ve enjoyed dips into Neil Gaiman, Sherlock Holmes, American Flagg! and the comic industry of the ‘60s, His Dark Materials, Nabokov’s Ada, Cormac McCarthy (especially The Road), and Norse mythology. The brilliant, inspiring angle he throws on it unfolds in a sort of call-to-arms prologue about the nature of entertainment. He claims that the Entertainment Industry (my caps) has reduced the notion to a unidirectional show of lights intended to induce pleasure; but etymology and history indicate that entertainment is an action requiring two active parties. Remember your English school teacher telling you over and over to be an active reader? Chabon says it should happen naturally with a good book; or, hypothetically, a good movie, a good play, or a good song should do it too. In order to raise the bar for entertainment in general, Chabon suggests that artists reclaim the right to entertain. And how should they do that? He drags you straight to the Borderlands.
I’d love to talk about the book itself forever, but all this lively analysis has got me eager to push some literary boundaries. I just started a chapter about the ghost story, which played a big part in my early love for literature. We had a book of North Carolina ghost stories in 4th grade, right about the time I first discovered Corel Word, and those coinciding landmarks birthed a habit that grew into passionate, fulfilling, though sometimes melancholy lifelong affair. So I figured, for old times sake, why not write about another dark and stormy night?
The night air slapped back as Emerson pushed free of the metro. Sparse, fat drops of rain splashed in her face; she shivered and pulled her scarf tight. The sky was black-purple, with a bright halo beckoning the heavens from the Monument, blinking red. No one seemed to be on the streets. It was Sunday morning, 2:45 am. It was the Sabbath day, as her mother would say. She thought this compulsively, walking back in the cold rain in her high heels drunk late at night in the city in the winter. She couldn’t shake the habit of remembering, as little as she honored it, as far from the Church as she’d gone.
Her apartment was six blocks away. She should have sprung for the studio close to the Museum. It was just too pricey, but it would have been worth avoiding all the drama at the House. Something was happening to Liz, she was sure; none of the roommates had spoken with her in weeks. Em thought it might be the boyfriend, the shaggy blond hard-eyed boy who came around the House frequently but hardly spoke unless he was asking if Liz was home. It made Em jealous… and uneasy. He had all these tattoos of poisonous animals. There was even one of girl who, well, who looks like she’s swallowing a snake. The extravagant curves of both the devilish creatures wound around each other, provocative, implicative, pulling each other deeper into sin; and the girl was even worse than the snake because she was looking at you, smiling! Emerson toddled on a sidewalk crack. Was this boy dragging Liz into sins of a similar nature? Did she know it, and relish it? She felt an emptiness within her bones, hollowed by the cold and several vodka tonics, thinking of what happened when those two closed the door at the top of the stairs; hugging herself, she pretended to dread it.
“Here; you look cold,” Emerson jumped and nearly toppled all over in those damn heels. She held a thin arm up to protect herself from this strange offender, those icy eyes forcing a bundle of cloth at her chest. It was that boy. She accepted the bundle and did nothing.
“If you don’t want to wear it, I will,” he murmured. He tossed a paw through the air. “Let’s go together, it’s late and it’s dark and it’s cold.”
As he turned away, Emerson saw the ripples of sinister ink. A flash of evil, sparkling on the protuberant lips of the girl with the snake. Compulsively she held a hand at her neck; it was confusing how vulnerable she felt, from a mere glance of stick figure innuendo. Only a tattoo. Emerson swallowed her fears. He was right, she would be safer walking with him.
They didn’t speak as they walked. Emerson kept her head down and her hands in her pockets, resuming a juvenile suggestion of obedience and shame, a mode of her childhood sustained through her family years, a default position she fell into when she drank too much. Her mother’s voice was strongest which she wished the least to hear it. The woman who shared so little with her had imparted the harsh pattern of self-flagellation instead. Em had spent most of her twenties breaking these bonds, but she was no hedonist and felt these auto-destructive impulses were the cross she bore for moments like these. This angle empowered her a little, she thought, against the stagnant legacy of that domesticated, Bible-throwing, self-important, crook-toothed hypocrite, who loved Jesus so much she couldn’t find room in her heart for anyone else. These are the things that make us, she thought, feeling relief spread down her neck, and standing a little straighter, these are the remnants of our past who remind us from whence we came. And I have come far, she smiled to herself. I have come far to realize there is some fulfillment in pain.
She stepped on all of the sidewalk cracks. Her spindly heels ground the concrete in protest. Liz’s boy looked at her, looked away before she noticed. Emerson contemplated asking him his name, but decided to keep watching the ground pass beneath her instead.
…. to be continued…
Reading up on tips, tricks, and tidbits from the heretofore unchartered waters of writing and publishing, the best advice I gleaned from a number of very emphatic sources is to write rather than to aspire to write. After all, how silly does it sound to be an aspiring accountant, or televangelist, or marketing consultant? Granted, I think there are reasons people like me might want to add the aspirational forethought—I like to think of it as a sort of warning, like the all-caps alert atop STUDENT DRIVER!! cars—but I respect the principle behind the counsel: to be rather than to seem. To fulfill the title rather than shirk its implications. To welcome the scoffs, character judgments, and to answer unabashedly: I am a writer. No aspiring about it.
As part of my whole-hearted acceptance of my new identity, I have assembled the basics of my creative goals in the form of a manifesto.
A writer’s manifesto
(in fiction and in life)
I want to create everyday.
I want to write [about + throughout] my entire life.
All of my ideas are worth trying once.
I want to cut through the bullshit.
I want to focus on character development and relationships above all else.
I want to capture the surrealism—horror, beauty, extremes—that illuminates the ordinary as I see it.
“Write drunk, edit sober.” You can’t argue with success like Hemingway’s.
I want the ending to fit the plot and not the other way around. (And this is where I struggle most.)
Happy New Year, everyone! Feel free to share your latest manifesto, too.