Chapter 1. The Author Tries to Learn to Write

A damnable night: rainy, cold; a sky filled, but as gas fills one's diaphragm, filled without visibility, a sensation of fillingness. I could not quite tell what color the night was. I thought at the time of "marbling"; but, again, not as something one sees, only as a sensing of factors together forming the effect. Cattle are fattened for just such an effect: tallow is marbled with sinew; you buy the meat but cannot determine its ingredients. It was such a night. True, I got splashed: that I could determine. A car hit a puddle camouflaged as asphalt; there I was, walking the curb. My suit got soaked.

"Damnable! damnable night!" I cried. The car stopped.

"Who you calling damnable?" a voice cried back.

"Nature: I'm calling Mother Nature damnable!" I replied.

My statement was pondered, then the car drove on. I assume my statement was pondered.

I was nearing the apartment building I lived in. Normally I could say so much of it, but tonight it too became nondescript. Where was its marble - genuine marble! - facade? Italian marble. Its curving portico? Its balustrade? Oh, they were there; but not to best advantage. Why describe a thing thrown even a little off its essence?

When I reached the door, I dropped my key. It landed in a puddle on the front step just beneath the portico, whose Corinthian beauty was gotten at ever so slight disconsonance with the stairs leading to the entrance, the former recessed just enough from the latter to attain the proper aesthetic delicacy. The effect, in proper atmosphere, is stunning. As I stooped to retrieve my key, a malignant thing tumbled onto my shoulder. It seems one of our nesting turns had chosen this most unfortuitous moment to relieve itself.

"Damnable creature!" I muttered. Then, on deeper reflection, broadened my curse to "Damnable world!"

I thought to myself "Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where such things do not - and cannot - happen! Oh for such a world; even just a glimpse of it. But where might it be? And how would one get to it?"

I had spoken my thoughts aloud evidently, for the next thing I knew there was - of all people! - the maintenance man responding!

"Create it," he said.

All I could do was shake my head. How could a janitor understand what it was like for a man of sensitivity to make his way in this most damnable of all worlds? to be put upon by all manner of imposition? to struggle through one after another tribulation? Preposterous! And, yet, in his simple presumption I found a very great principle (which of course goes to show you that the true artist can find meaning almost anywhere - even in the words of a janitor!).

"He's right!" I said, in the elevator riding to the second floor. "He's absolutely right. If I'm to ever attain such a world - my Utopia - then I must create it. Yes, of course, that and that alone is how the world as we know it becomes liveable and nears perfection: we create it as we go."

Then and there I decided to become a Great Author. Literature - specifically fiction - would be the mechanism through which I would create my perfect world. Oh joy of joys! I had found my life's work. I was through wandering a somnambulist's way through life, as though half dazed to a blank perception of reality. Everything would henceforth become clear - crystal clear; my steps, no longer silent, or muffled, would start to clickety-click across time and space both. They would be heard (not that that's the primary consideration: simply a metaphor). My world would be known. And, best of all, my personal Utopia would become at long last a reality, for the whole world to see and appreciate. I had found my place.

I was anxious to begin. I could scarcely get my door open; and, as I fumbled with my key, I beheld the door as if for the first time. "It's beautiful!" I declared. "A great door, a fabulous door!" I was seeing it through the eyes of an Artist. Its plain tan expanse sprang suddenly to life, becoming before my very eyes a metaphor for all doors in this most wondrous universe; its brassy bold knob was all at once a tiny star ever so concave, and felt warm to the touch; its peephole a window looking both in and out upon infinity, a finite little Cyclops oozing eternity; its salient numerals - 123: my apartment number - profound digits expelling ignorance from my path; its scuff guard a sentinel barring heaven's own parlor from lesser beings. For, be ye as gods who enter here.

The tumbler released what held the door fast: a property of matter transformed by a flick of the wrist into an aperture. I went in. The door closed behind me, it being weighted toward the outside. My apartment struck me as the archetypal dwelling place of humanity. Looking around, I beheld furnishings both exquisite (done by Monsieur Zed, the best in the business!) and metaphorical. "A chair is in bloom," I said. "See how the olefin opens petal-like to a sitting. And there - against that far wall: is it not an aerie equipped for sound? And lo - behold! - a great crystal from whose depths comes all manner of marvel, its antenna a line to the great beyond." And on around the room, until my eyes lighted on that grandest of all mysteries, natural and unnatural. To my immediate right was my bookcase; in it, all my books. I knelt before it, running finger after finger across the stored wisdom of the ages; here a novel, there a book of poems, or an essay, or a science-fiction, or a drama, and, in the midst of it all, like some great blue sun in revolution, my dictionary. Webster thy name be revered from this day forth!

When I arose from homage, in my hand was a big red bibliography, its pages filled with the names of the mighty and the immortal. I perused it. I would gather about me only the very greatest works, of the very greatest authors of all time; following their lead I would learn to write, and the sooner the better. But how, I wondered: how get them to teach me? (I had no time for a course of study - my muse was poised for flight!) Then it came to me: copy their hand, absorb their styles, discover the way, unlock the secrets. And thereby become one with them.

I immediately set about gathering up the works I would need. I elicited pen and paper from my linen closet, where I had carefully stored it. I seated myself at my desk, spread out the books, took up the tools of my new trade, and began. I chose, in these early stages of my career, to print, so as to better align my hand with those of my teachers. Every book mimicked every other in lettering: could I do less than extend mimicry to my own? I could not!

My eyes did truly see some glory there as I copied hard won words onto my sheaf of paper. "Who was this Shakespeare?" I wondered; "what for his fardols and old bodkins and the like? And this Doc Savage, replete with sinew and sneer? Or this Tolstoy, with page after page of noble family? And what of this Mrs. Radcliffe? This Colley Ciber? or this Charles Dickens? Where didst thou come, oh great and wondrous works?"

I had to rest my hand awhile; I noticed a callous starting on my middle finger. It is not easy learning to write, even with such teachers as these. The toughness of one's purpose often perplexes the delicacy of one's skin. It requires great discipline to create a masterpiece.

A thought came to me. I went and got a band-aid to enwrap my sensitive middle finger. From then on, writing came easier to me; though still my skin bore the marks of genius. To the truly dedicated, however, no obstacle is insurmountable.

In no time at all I depleted my store of masters, and yet my genius hungered on; it had fed and fed, until there was no more feed, yet voracity kept pushing me on to ever greater heights. "I must have more!" I resolved. My hands (for I am, mercifully, ambidextrous), covered with sores and hangnails, and cracked and bleeding, and stained with ink, felt as if they could go no farther; but my hunger silenced their protest and drove them to relentless agonies.

"I must write!" I cried. "And, by God, write I will!"

Neither aching hands nor a dearth of books could stop me. Purpose is an awesome thing - the very soul of the universe. A thought came to me, an inspiration. Trembling and numbed, I dialed the public library.

"Do you have books I can borrow?" I asked. Awed by my request, the librarian was momentarily speechless.

"I'll check," she said finally.

I waited - an eternity it seemed! - till she returned. "I see one or two," she informed me.

"Ha!" I said. "Surely you jest with me! How could one or two serve my needs?"

"You have to start somewhere," she replied. And the wisdom of her words sank in.

Of course! I thought. Two here, two more from the next library, two again from another - and, in time, a million - no: a billion - volumes! And then - then - I will be a writer! A Great Author! My destiny, full upon me.

I put on my woolen outer coat, though warmed as I was by zeal I doubted I would feel the sudden cold snap come upon our fair city. My hat too I decided to wear: a quaint brown bowler with fuzz like that of a peach and a brim of contrasting tan. "Ah," I wondered, "will it snow? Perhaps my galoshes. Yes, I think so." I put them over my shoes and was on my way.

"Driver!" I called. I had to take a taxi: if it snowed I would not wish my automobile exposed to the perils of a blizzard. "Take me to the nearest library!" I ordered.

Once we were on our way my driver commenced a conversation. "You a scholar, Mac?" he inquired. The question threw me - on two levels. (But of course I would perceive more than one level in what otherwise appeared a simple question: I am an artist.) First was its literal level: was I a scholar? Is an artist scholarly? Can one be both? Or are they mutually exclusive? I had never occasioned to consider the matter till then. Frankly I did not know what to reply so I kept still. Besides, his question had opened up another vista entirely.

When he mistook me for evidently an acquaintance of his - and someone presumably on a personal name basis - he prompted what must surely be the most challenging consideration any great writer faces: what name to use. I was certainly no "Mack"; but neither was I who my given name declared me to be. Not as a great author I wasn't. I was no more a Roland A. Domby than I was a Mack. So the question arose: who was I? Or, rather, who would I henceforth be? I resolved to work on the problem immediately.

"Here you are, Mack," the driver informed me. Again he called me falsely.

"How much?" I asked.

"Two-fifty."

"Here," I handed him three dollars, "keep the change."

"Thanks Bud."

"Hmm," I pondered watching him drive away. One of his taillights was out - and I had had no idea I was riding in an unsafe vehicle. I shuddered and walked inside the library. "He called me yet another name," I thought to myself. "Could it be a sign? First Mack, then Bud. It makes a poor name. Unless...yes, perhaps so. Perhaps reverse the two. Hmm. Bud Mack. No, no ring to it. Perhaps something a little snappier. Something like..."

I decided to try it out. "Excuse me," I approached the librarian, "my name is Buddy Mack and I believe I spoke to you over the telephone earlier." I endeavored to catch her reaction.

"Oh yes," she replied, "you were wondering if we loaned books." She looked over her shoulder as she spoke, nodding her head ever so slightly to her fellow librarian at the other end of the counter. They both looked as if they were suppressing laughter. No doubt a private joke I had interrupted.

I was shown to the book section. "My God you have a lot!" I exclaimed.

"Yes, well," she explained, "as it turned out I had a few in my desk. Just help yourself. You may borrow up to seven at a time.

I thanked her and immediately began browsing. In no time at all I had selected my seven. "I'll take these," I said. "Do I sign for them?"

"You have to get a library card," she explained.

"Where can I get one?"

"My colleague over there," she said.

I was asked for my name and address. This prompted a round robin of sorts which proved extremely fruitful. Both ladies remembered me giving out my name as Buddy Mack. I had to explain that I was merely testing the name; that, having embarked on a career as a great writer, I naturally needed a good sounding pseudonym, one the public would take to heart; otherwise my genius would go begging. They saw at once the wisdom of my assumption; indeed, they attempted to help me all they could. Both agreed that Buddy Mack, while an excellent name for an entertainer, was quite unsuited to an author. So, in turn, they gave out the names they, as librarians, deemed suitable.

"Torratio Plume," said one.

"Sargent Helmet," said the other.

"Parapus Reem."

"Czarrel Fomish."

In this vein, they offered to fill my "by-line" for nearly fifteen minutes, then either their energies or their imaginations - or both - gave out; and that ended their names calling. I thanked them, but declined with a nod of my head each name as it was offered.

"Do not despair though," I consoled them, "I will find just the perfect name. My muse will swoop down from the sky to inspire me. All in good time."

My seven books in tow, I left. This scene, with slight variations, was repeated every evening for the next week and a half, until I had, in my possession, over sixty books. On my way home from my final trip to the library, my driver picked up another passenger, a rather pompous gentleman who took exception to my proposal. He had asked what the books were for and I told him.

"Copy them? You say you'll copy them?" he asked, a bit incredulously.

"In my own hand," I pointed out.

"In your own hand? The works of others? Indeed! Sir!" he called to the driver.

"Yeah Mack, what is it?"

"Stop this car at once sir!" my fellow passenger demanded. "I will ride not one block farther in the company of a known plaigerist!" With this, he paid the fare and got out. A most uncongenial traveling companion. If the truth be known, the way he was eying my books I half feared he would steal them, so I held them fast until he was gone.

"A most peculiar gentleman," I remarked.

"Yeah, I get a lot of weirdos, alright," the driver replied.

At home, my library books laid out in very neat piles, like with like, I began again the arduous task of learning my trade. I took turns at the spectrum, beginning with the blues which, perhaps owing to the vastness of sky and sea, I regard as the source of all color; then worked my way through the greens and on down to the stack of red books. Some were black, and these I set aside (for I know black to be the absence of color).

I was forced at many points to stop and tend my hands, once even taking time to consult my physician. He winced at the deplorable condition of knuckles and skin.

"You must learn to relax," he warned. "I recommend hot sitz baths. And here's a prescription. Apply this ointment three times daily."

After taking my blood pressure, he inquired how my prostate was, which I surmised to be working satisfactorily.

"What of the spleen? he then inquired.

"Couldn't be better," I assured him.

"And the pituitary?"

"Sluggish at times," I admitted.

"It's the cold weather," he explained. "Remember: you must learn to relax."

But how was that to be, when I had so much work to do? I could only dream of relaxation, but never taste of it. Genius drives men to impossible heights. I looked around my apartment. It too seemed agitated, inexhaustible. The sofa had gathered dust (from where I cannot say, though of course dust is freely dispensed within the universe); its matching chair, brown with contrasting tan stripes, was dustless, however. There is neither order nor harmony in the universe; or, if there is, it defies detection. My tan open weave draperies had frayed some at the bottom where they touched the carpet, perhaps from opening them each day, closing them back at night. At the far end, my dinette was visibly sticky: what had gotten spilled, and when? These were mysteries; and as I looked about my apartment I encountered one after another such. There is no dearth of material in this world for the artist to consider.

"Perhaps," I thought," my novel could revolve around these fabulous enigmas, show a world filled with awe, a world slowly revealing one after another mystery, a world you could never fully comprehend. Have a different chapter concerning each separate furnishing."

"But no," I finally had to admit, "this will not fill a whole volume. For that I need more than great technical skill, more than a unique style, more than simply the raw stuff of nature. But what?" I wondered.