Only Assholes Write Memoirs

by John Oliver Hodges

 

 

Ohio said, if not for the time involved, he, as an instrument of the University, would charge me with sexual harassment over the stick-figure-guy-with-his-dick-cut-off that I drew, blood spurting out everywhere, in the margin of a fellow apprentice’s short story. Below the drawing I wrote, “Daddy always wanted me to be a fireman.” I was making a suggestion. Also, the class had sort of ganged up on me. I was at odds. One guy even dropped my story into the wastebasket while my writing was being discussed, and left the classroom. That’s what he thought of my hero who, driven to crazy desperation by his screaming wife, sticks his tongue into a country bumpkin’s head.

It was fiction, gee wiz! These guys and gals, or fiction people, were cuckoo over whether your characters were all about the author, weren’t they? This one curly-headed woman, a pseudo-feminist I’d say, had harassed me about my dad and his many books—a commie, my daddy, wrote twenty-five fat ones—so I wasn’t thrilled by her fake concern for all the messed up little girls of the world, and how it was because of guys like me that they were messed up. That, by itself, had raised my hackles. My dad lived in this woman’s “intentional community” and had, on occasion, as he did with most women, tried to charm her. The curly headed writer lady asked me, “Well, when was the last time you saw your father?”

I said, “Two years ago.”

She looked me all searchingly up and down, all scanning-like, with fake concern on her creep mug, and said, “Why, what’s wrong?”

Before my acceptance into “the program,” I took a course in Imaginative Writing from a well-known hotshot teacher in New York City. This man, whom I’ll call The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, talked of sex things, comparing meaningful writing to spreading your legs as far apart as you could possibly spread them. I may have been trying to be like him. He had it together. He’d speak for hours at a time on the smallest writerly matter that, despite its apparent insignificance, was of the utmost importance when it came to producing a work of art. Another of The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius’s features was that he spoke of other well-known and respected writers as if they were frauds, calling one a “piss poor poet” and describing another writer’s work as “absolute shit.”

Three classes in, The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius entered the room pissed off over a letter received from one of our number. In the letter, the fellow from Massachusetts had asked, “When are we going to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing?” The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said that after reading Massachusetts’s letter he’d considered refunding us and calling it quits after thirty-six years of teaching. It was, you know, mandatory that as his student you not speak and ask stupid questions, and you were supposed to exit quietly after the show, without speaking, please.

The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius was lovely, I loved him, he was just fucking great, and had white hair, and reminded me, in ways, of my father.

But Ohio, who was the new director of the program, called me. I thought it was to say something nice, like he had the first time he’d called and welcomed me warmly, via recommendation of The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, into the program. Instead Ohio said complaints were made about me by students. My body went cold. I thought of the freshman boys and girls I taught; it was my first time ever teaching, and I wanted to be great for them. When Ohio said the complaints were from Cuba’s fiction workshop class members, I felt relief, but then he says my comments were some of the most “egregious” he’d seen after sixteen years of teaching creative writing.

The new director was cool. I liked Ohio. I liked Ohio’s extraordinarily long, fat, clean-looking fingers, his bullet-head, and how his buttons looked easy to push; but, oh, maybe he was a tiny bit selfish and mean? Could it be? People sometimes are. Maybe his bearing was not, as people had said, of an unbridgeable superiority, but done to maintain a student/teacher dynamic—call it professional. Ohio’s demeanor may have left some folks hurting. Others may have felt sorry for Ohio. Regardless, the new director inspired awe from all.

The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius also inspired awe from all, but was kind-hearted and friendly to the extreme. Despite his criticism of American literature, and reputation for crushing out young writers, he preached the good news that art is available to everybody, and it didn’t much matter how stupid you were, you could still, through pure desire, come to produce and perceive art. He, The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, had accepted a story of mine called, “Dandruff, and The Start of How I Got Kicked Out of Lois’s” for publication in his awesome journal, and he shook my hand, not once, but three separate times after he came into the room that first day of class. He did not shake anybody else’s hand three separate times, did he? Just maybe I’d become full of myself over this hand-shaking thing.

Now the Chair of the department, as he and Ohio reviewed the Xeroxed copies of my comments on the work of five of my classmates, shook his head as if I were crazed. People have tried convincing me, throughout my life–especially my wife during that time—that I’m mental, and I told The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius about it in the letter I wrote in response to Ohio’s treatment of the guy whose hand he shook three times. Ohio’s accusation that I was homophobic due to the fact that, I guess, the dude whose story I’d drawn a chopped-off-dick-guy on happened to be gay. I also told The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius that one thing the Chair said made me happy, and that was that my comments had looked like the scrawls of some twelve-year-old child. “That means I beat you in age by five years,” I wrote, a reference to the Times article where The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius’s comments on a famous dead writer’s pages are said to have looked like the scrawls of a seven-year-old. My punishment for trying to hold fast with whatever I’d picked up from The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius was, by decree of the New Director, and Chair of the English Department, suspension from the writing program.

Now Papa, my daddy, author of hundreds of academic articles and twenty-five fat-assed Marxist books, hearing from my mother that I taught writing at the University, stopped by the English Department, wanting to see me. My daddy charmed the secretaries, who told them where my cubicle was. My daddy left a note on my desk, saying I should meet him at the Hare Krishna place on campus for lunch. He was vegan, had been a vegan for ten years running, but I didn’t show. I was afraid. Whenever I saw my Pops on campus, so damned important looking with his awesome hat to protect his cheeks and nose from the sun, I hid behind trees. I finished my degree without ever talking to him, even though his office was in the Philosophy building, which was right next to the English building where I could be found in my cubicle.

After I graduated, Papa broke his hip while marching to the university library to check out a book on the Lincoln Brigade. It was 2002, and finally I visited him at his house in the “intentional community” on the east side of town. Papa said his wife, who was employed as a nurse and loved horses more than humans, hated hearing him talk about himself. Plus Papa hated the idea of people thinking he was full of himself, that he thought so much of himself that he would write a whole book about himself. What a stupid thing to do. “Only assholes write their memoirs,” he said. He also said that if a book was to be written about you, it had to be done by a disinterested party. “Why don’t you write it?” he asked.

Thus began the interviews. I learned of Papa’s adventures through South America, getting jailed in Uruguay for the literature in his suitcase, talking to Che Guevara’s brother, and searching out revolutionary characters such as Abraham Guillén, who wrote terrorist handbooks. Papa had translated Guillén’s Strategy of the Urban Guerilla into English, bringing it to the Western World. In writing Papa’s “biography,” I took his last class out of some fifty years of teaching communism, otherwise known as “a disgust for those who have; a compassion for those who don’t.”

That first day of class, Papa gave a macro-view of the politics of the modern world. Papa spoke of the major revolutions, of Stalin, Marx, Mao, Churchill, and spoke of Hitler’s greatness, objectively of Hitler’s importance in history, pointing out Hitler’s talent as a statesman. Papa knew the facts.

A fact: The U.S. is the supreme parasite of the planet, oppressing other countries, sacking them, raping them. Within the parasite of the U.S. are individual parasites, most notably: PROFESSIONALS.

Despite his lifelong fight against the oppressors of the world, it became clear as I interviewed Papa that what he loved was great men. What they’d done to become great seemed secondary to the greatness itself. Papa said stuff like, “Churchill was the great evil genius of World War Two, I’ve always said so,” and “Abraham Lincoln is the biggest tyrant in world history,” as if being evil was the thing to be, if it made you great, and wasn’t Hitler’s memoir hanging out on the bookshelf in Papa’s private study? As a child growing up in Argentina, during the time he’d wanted to join the Hitler Youth that marched through the streets of Buenos Aires, he’d been given a twenty volume encyclopedic set on great men. He’d started early with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Socrates. This all led to his Jesus phase, a phase to linger along with him well after he’d passed through it, even to the very end, Jesus being not just a commie but a kind of pinnacle of greatness. “Imitate Jesus and Socrates,” Papa liked to say. Didn’t Socrates refuse to give in? Same with Jesus. Being great was the object.

The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius talked of objects. A writer’s gotta have an object when he writes a story. The object could be a house, shoe, slug or bowl. The object mutates into other objects as the story progresses. Within each object, or series of objects, is the writer’s object, an object whose worth resides in difference, in its ability to sustain the writer’s life with integrity beyond the grave. The premise that through art you found immortality was, in my piddly undeveloped thirty-one-year-old mind, identical to the effect of a life lived for killing people in ways that garnered attention. How else but creatively? That’s how I saw it. By that time in my life I’d often wished I’d not been born. The stuff was entrenched a little in me. I was an embarrassment unto myself. The last thing I’d want was to live in the minds of people after I was dead. What sense in it? If you were dead, you’d be dead, so why care? What was I even doing with this writer stuff?

Hey, if you wanna live, if you wanna be known, kill some folks interestingly. Instead of Creative Writing, call it Creative Killing. Didn’t Ted Bundy rip off bed posts in sorority houses? If fame’s the object, kill away creatively until, as happened with the Ted, the lights at Starke dim when the switch is flipped, and folks beyond the fences cheer your death, perpetuating your name, and purchase potato wedges smothered in ketchup named after you—Bundy Fingers—yum! Is Ted the Bund so different from Padget Powell? The Padge and the Bund both did art in Florida. Or was the part I missed the “with integrity” part? How could I miss it? Will I pretend to carry a dialogue on with a genius? I just kept hearing FAME is all, and EGO. These things were important.

Papa’s object, he said, was to change the world, bring in the communist revolution that never happened. In this he was gravely disappointed in “Marx, that prick,” for Papa had wanted the Red Army to invade us, the USA, as historical materialism promised. Come in ye Russians, please, to kill a gazillion Americans, clean out the rich assholes, the oligarchy who ran shit, and crown me founding member of the residing intellectual elite.

Shit never happened.

Communism, Papa said, was a failed experiment.

And Hitler loved chocolate cake.

I love chocolate cake.

And The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, even though he’d dedicated some books to Mildred Icknish (yes, names are changed in this remembrance, a few here and there), dislikes writing that privileges communication over the sentence. In language arts it’s the language, not communication, that matters. The second sentence has got to be better than the first and the third better than the second, all the way to the end.

A case: Icknish wrote an article for The New Yorker that The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius thought was not up to snuff. We’d heard of her before, of Icknish, through the lips of The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius. He’d spoken, that cute little man with such pure white hair, like my father’s—you just wanted to hug him upon seeing him—of how she capitalized or did not capitalize—I don’t remember which—the H in Holocaust, or holocaust. The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius shared this with us, Icknish’s heroism in decision-making. Said heroism, one might say, was established to tear it down in the analysis that followed.

“Oh Icknish,” The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius lamented in grave, harrowing tones. This Icknish poem, what she’d “allowed” to be published in the The New Yorker, was shameful. “Ohhh Icknish,” The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said, his voice rich with opprobrium over his friend’s lapse in judgment. Just how could Icknish undermine herself so, kill herself so, allow such an ungainly stain to mar her great body?

I’m a shitty student, no doubt about it, I promise you, I’m a shitty student. I don’t even barely try to be good. In high school I left my books in the locker, Christmas-treed the exams, and since then have never much applied my mind for anything school related. The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said that he’d had students come in and take tons of notes, page after page of notes, but I was too embarrassed to note-take. To be seen holding a pen? To be seen writing something down? It was out of the question for me, but I did manage to jot down two things.

  1. What the self must become equal to is the unequal itself.
  2. Gotta get your buttons pushed by yourself.

These notes I took with embarrassment, secretly while nobody looked, my hand in my lap barely moving.

Good advice to writers. That first one about becoming equal to the unequal is wonderful, I like it. If memory serves, The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius quoted it from a book by a guy who went crazy over his investigations into the nature of repetition and difference, and as a result committed suicide. Whoever that person was, his work was a real “ball breaker,” so said The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, with the book opened at the spine, held in one hand, like a Bible.

I’ve always loved hellfire preachers.

In the naaaaaame of Jesus-uh-hah!

I love to scream it.

And was intrigued by Icknish.

And by the brilliant new director who’d replaced our old director, dead of throat cancer. I liked that he told us not to let school get in the way of our writing. We were there to write, not study pedagogy. Let’s not forget that. He was fond of the words “fuck” and “fucking” and used them in everyday speech, even in the presence of genteel old ladies. He suspended me from the writing program before I’d had him as a professor.

Everybody had loved the old director.

As far as I knew, the new director did not get that kind of love.

It was hard to see, from the standpoint of the idiot that was me, how he could’ve got that kind of love.

But maybe he did get that kind of love.

Take Italy, the student who either got pissed or pretended to get pissed over the drawing of the stick-figure-guy-with-his-dick-cut-off-spurting-blood-everywhere that I drew, and that my wife advised me against letting stand, in the margin of his short story—actually, more like a novella, or novel to be. When I found out he’d complained about me, I e-mailed the apology, and Italy wrote back saying thank you, that everything was “really” okay. Of course, the stick-figure-dick-guy was not my only comment. I had also written, in the margin, “Aren’t they ever going to kiss?” about the two guys in the story, one whose name was Beauty Boy. Beauty Boy and the hero needed to get kissing for stuff to begin to happen. The unrelenting evasion of their contact held things up, I thought, so the whole thing was a drawn out flirt. I was not trying to be ugly. Though I may have been astoundingly ignorant, I was still trying to be helpful. While grilled by the Department Chair and new director, I asked, “Did you read my end comments?” of which there had been quite a lot. They had not. The detailed stuff I’d shared with Italy had not been Xeroxed. Italy had been finagled into joining the crew of students who’d disliked my manner, they of course headed up by the ring-leader, the curly-headed literary lady that my daddy, a joy to everybody, had flirted with.

Now Poor Italy. The following semester, once my suspension from the writing program was over, he and I took a class together under Ohio’s professorship. It was a nonfiction narrative course, and Italy wrote of drinking absinthe in England, of the “green faerie” that dances out of that drink when you set it on fire. Me, I wrote of my redneck woman friend who would die a few years later, possibly of a morphine overdose.

Italy was a PhD student.

After class once, I went up to Ohio’s office and it turned out Italy was in there meeting with him. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or anything even remotely like that, but sometimes there’s no helping it.

Italy: I have something here for you that I’ve worked real hard on.

Ohio:  What is it?

Italy:  I thought you might like to read it, it’s something I wrote.

Ohio: Tell me, what is it?

Italy: A story.

Ohio:  What is it? Is it for the class? Is it nonfiction?

Italy: It’s fiction, a story I wrote.

Ohio: Oh, you’d best hang onto it. If I take it it’ll just hang around in the kitchen and I’ll never read it. I don’t want you to think I’m an asshole or anything.

Italy: Oh no, I don’t think you’re an asshole.

The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius was nice. The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius ate street meat. The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius liked Brooklyn whose seat I took, Brooklyn the guy who, The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said, was gonna “beat my ass” because I sat in the spot he’d sat the previous season, the rug patch closest to the bathroom and front doors. The bathroom wasn’t much used. As The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius had stated in his letter to us, the chosen ones, we were to take care of “bodily functions” before submitting ourselves to his genius. One did not up and go to the bathroom while The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius spoke of recursion. The only time I did, I did not close the door, nor piss. I left the door wide open. I held my face above the sink and splashed it while The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius spoke on, and I noticed him noticing me as he spoke on. I had not, as of yet, let go of my listening, even if I barely understood half of what he said. I was merely barely splashing, washing myself, baptizing myself to the echoes and song of his beautiful, interminable sermon.

That was not the night The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said Hemingway’s “In the late summer of that year” was better without the “late,” and explained why. Nor was it the night The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” undermined Moby Dick, that one of our number should write a doctoral dissertation on why the book was a better book without this “Call me Ishmael” thing in it. To this, one off our number said, “You ruined it,” as if The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, having said it, had deleted “Call me Ishmael” from every Moby Dick in print. It was not the night The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said Harvey Gloom, the well-known critic, paid an “exorbitant” sum to recall a novel he wrote, some shit involving Lucifer, once he realized the magnitude of its crap factor. It may have been the night The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said Marigold Cromley, whom like Icknish and Gloom were his friends, had had it all, it’d been in Cromley’s grasp—meaning fame, perpetuity, recognition as an artist of the highest order—but he, Cromley, lost it over bad decisions in publishing and editorship. It was not the night The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius said I had a good memory. It was the night Brooklyn said, “Maybe he likes you?”

Brooklyn said it after The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius wondered aloud, “How does he know these things?” about the pat answer The Well-Dressed Gentleman made, a strong supporter of The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, a man who’d been coming for years.

Maybe he likes you?

It floored The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, who said that in all his thirty-six years of teaching writing he had never heard anything quite so remarkable. Maybe he likes you? It was absolutely astonishing, and The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius kept coming back to Brooklyn’s comment throughout the rest of his nine-hour lecture. Out of nowhere he’d shake his head and go, “Maybe he likes you?”

There were times during the times I sat there that I considered hopping over to the opened window of this seventeenth floor Manhattan apartment, and diving through it. There was no screen. Once I was geared up. I was gonna do it, my heart beating fast. The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius was emphasizing the importance of one’s work carrying on one’s name after death. I was on an edge, balancing one-footed, mid-air, on a taut hair, and cannot say why I did not carry through. Something held me back, I don’t know what, but I was close. I was this close.

After class—my last as student to The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius—I left with Sacramento, the cool-ass long-haired dude who, like me, came from beyond the Island of the Manhattoes, and had no steady place to stay. The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius thought we two should team up and work together on things, but I commuted each Wednesday from an upstate New York herb farm in Galway. At the time, I was the only one living on the farm. I’d get up at four in my tiny cabin by the creek, no electricity, and dress and catch a ride with Lou, a fellow who lived in a nearby trailer. He would ride me to a Dunkin Donuts at a crossroads in the dark in the boonies. From there I’d hitchhike to the Schenectady station, from where I’d ride the Peter Pan to Manhattan, watching Operation Dumbo Drop along the way. Each trip, it was always Operation Dumbo Drop. They never changed the movie. After class let out in the wee morning hours of Thursday, I’d while away the time until my bus was ready. Again I’d watch Operation Dumbo Drop, and when the bus dropped me off, I’d hitchhike the twenty something miles back to my cabin. I did this once during a snow blizzard.

One night, because I had no place to stay, The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius asked Swertz, who lived in the same apartment building as him, if I could spend the night at his place. Swertz agreed, and we took a cab to the Upper East Side. In the elevator The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius told a joke. Then Swertz and I rode up higher to the Swertz place. Swertz had a sister, and Swertz made me promise that I wouldn’t steal anything. All was good, but I went into the bathroom and this happened: I took a shit. When I flushed the shit rose up and spilled out onto the floor. I had to go tell Swertz about it. There was nothing I could do. Swertz was not pleased. Swertz said don’t worry about it, but he had to go in there and clean it up. It needed to be cleaned.

Now Sacramento, of late, had apartment-sat for a hip blond writer woman, one of our number, who’d flown to the Virgin Islands on a paid writing job. Sacramento’s duties, as house sitter, was to release the dog from his cage now and then. I was gonna stay the night over there, so after class, at about 2 a.m., we hit the subway together. At the turnstile I scooted up close to Sacramento, who was a true disciple of The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius, and we passed through on the same fare. Walking down the ramp Sacramento said, “You’re a survivor, I can tell,” and three seconds later, two men approached.

These cops arrested us, drove us to a nearby holding pen, where we were locked up with transvestites, prostitutes, druggies and scary people. It was like a TV show. Sacramento was losing it. He was totally freaked out, but I kept up a steady dialogue with the folks jailed with us. It was exciting. When we were again questioned by the cops, I begged them to let Sacramento go, saying Sacramento had nothing to do with it, that I had stupidly, due to an impulse more to do with writing than reality, jumped forward to scarf the double on his fare.

Good Sacramento they let go.

Me they locked in the freezing paddy wagon, drove me to what they called “the dungeon,” but did not remove me from the wagon. For three hours I laid on my side shivering, hands cuffed behind my back. Alas I was taken in and booked, and I stood against a wall with other guilty men. The black guy beside me was over eighty, picked off a bench while sleeping in Central Park. Since the Giuliani takeover, my fellow prisoners said, an effort had been made to clean up the city. If not for Giuliani I would be a free man.

In cages we were put, cages packed with guys, dudes, men. The cop to strut between our cages wore a black mustache, and pulled his club along the bars while smoking, so damn glamorous. Inmates addressed him as CEO. He did not care that cigarettes had been smuggled in. We prisoners were allowed to smoke.

I spent the next twenty-four hours with Latino gang members, and burglars in black turtleneck shirts, and a German tourist, busted for cocaine, who had a panic attack, said he needed medication. The CEO didn’t believe, so the German begged, nothing doing. The German tourist went into convulsions, and finally they took him away. We were fed baloney sandwiches. Each Latino gang member tossed his sandwich into the garbage bin in the middle of the room. A druggy vomited for his fix.

“CEO! The toilet is overflowing!” somebody in a nearby cage cried out.

And somebody in my cage cried, “Stop taking a shit!”

On occasion, in years to follow, I would try to stop writing, or stop “taking a shit,” as The Great Literary Character of Unending Genius might have it, but these efforts, sometimes lasting more than a year, always ended with heaps of words piled up on top of each other. Then I would go about the business of examining my steaming piles, picking at them and spit-shining them, cleaning them up. What an awful way to live! I don’t envy any writer, but my Pops appeared to love what he did, and when he grew old and could no longer maintain his shit-flow, he died. I had spent over a year writing his biography under the pretext of saving him from being an “asshole,” when what I was really doing was using the whole “writing” thing as an excuse to be in his presence. When he died, a millionaire, he left me nothing but the steaming pile of shit that is the manuscript containing the stories of his life.

 

[Check out John’s back porch wisdom here]