I parked outside Shakespeare’s, where I was supposed to repair the electric fryer, but there was a wake happening in the bar, a lot of people dressed in black eating chicken wings and chocolate cake, and the tiny kitchen was jamming, so I needed to kill a half hour to let things slow down. I flipped open the new Iowa NWP anthology, I’ll Tell You Mine, to an essay written by John D’Agata. It was very well written. John’s character was on a tour bus en route to the Hoover Dam. He was sitting next to some kid who was interested in the Hoover Dam not at all, and the kid’s obnoxious mother and father kept on interjecting educational tidbits from the seats directly behind them. I found the essay engaging. More engaging than the essay I’d written for the collection. But then I reminded myself that I didn’t care. That it didn’t matter. I recalled that I had decided to outgrow the habit of worrying about whether anyone liked what I wrote. I’d decided, in fact, to put worrying about my writing behind me along with the act of writing itself. Both together like a set of pilgrim salt-and-pepper shakers at Christmas time. What I had become, what I was now, was a repairman. I no longer wrote. Who cared about writing anyway?
Sitting in my work truck outside the bar, reading John D’Agata’s essay, I started getting the old, “fuck all of you” attitude again, like the old days, and it sort of warmed me. I flipped over an invoice from Electric Motors of Iowa City and started jotting down a few notes that I considered rebellious, things I imagined I might say at the reading. Maybe I’d say something like, “Talking about writing is like humming about singing.” Which I thought would be a good line, but then I recalled that I no longer wrote and that I didn’t care anymore.
Then I dashed out a few notes about what a farce it is to divide up writing and writers into genres. Especially the way they do it at the University of Iowa, where fiction writers and poets mince around like Houyhnhnms in their exclusive club while we nonfiction Yahoos dig for pretty stones in the mud. But this kind of thinking is grade school stuff. Kids in grade school worry about this type of shit. Not fifty-three year old guys who don’t care.
So, I pushed all that behind me and commenced jotting down notes about how you don’t need to be some super well-read person to write essays. I can perceive, from my present perspective, a day later, that I must have felt that I needed to make these arguments because I haven’t read a book in quite some time, being so tired from fixing air conditioners and refrigeration equipment all day, my business having taken off lately, thanks to Bruce Griffin, who had retired and diverted his customers my way.
I thought it might be important to say something about “The Wolves,” a song by Bon Iver. Then I googled how to pronounce Bon Iver just in case I actually did say something about them. I’d say that my essay started with wolves. The thought of them. Being so lacking in bullshit, as they are. Being so absolutely and unequivocally wolves and nothing other than wolves. The absolute wolves standing in for the infinite. Or the finite. The truth.
I was going to say how I remembered some writer, back when I was a student at the University, talking about choosing metaphors. I thought it might have been Lucy Grealy but I wasn’t sure so I figured I better not mention it. Anyway, some writer or other was saying we had to be very careful to choose the proper metaphors in order to convey what it was we wanted to convey. And I was going to say what horse shit that is. We don’t choose our metaphors. Our metaphors choose us. They swarm us. They are everything.
I stood in front of the crowd at Prairie Lights, a packed house, after the introduction by both Carl Klaus, a large figure on the literary landscape and a large figure on my personal landscape as well, a man, much like my father, whom I’ve always had a strong desire to rebel against and please, and then another introduction by Hope Edelman, the best-selling memoirist, and I said, glancing around earnestly, how humbled I was to be included in this anthology. All the other stuff went out the window probably because it was all bullshit while my feelings of humility if not downright inadequacy were not. Then I read some of my essay. And then, having been told I was supposed to say a few words about the “craft challenges” of writing the essay, I said, “I’m supposed to talk about the challenges I had writing this essay, but to be honest I didn’t have any problem at all writing it. I just wrote it. It wasn’t hard in the least. It only got hard after I read John D’Agata’s essay. And Hope’s. And Will’s. That’s when I started having…challenges.”
After the reading was over, my friend Ethan told me I did a good job. “You were even good at pretending to be humble,” he said. Another friend, Bernard, pointed at Will Jennings, who had read lastly, and said, “Wwwhheeeewww. Now THAT guy can write. Veeerrry impressive.”
“He can,” I said. “He can.”
“Your essay wasn’t so bad,” said Bernard, comfortingly.
A woman sat down next to me and handed me a copy of the anthology. She wanted me to sign it. While I was signing, she told me she remembered me from a reading, one time, in an attic. “I remember that,” I said. “That was like twenty years ago. In Mary Beth’s attic? With the Christmas lights? Wasn’t that cool?” “What you read back then,” she said, “blew my mind.”
This was nice to hear. That I had affected someone…if not tonight, at least twenty years ago. When I was young. When I used to do something other than repair equipment. When I had some kind of passion for…something. When words were important to me. Before the wolves. Who never bullshit anyone or worry about what the other wolves might think of them. Who do, however, follow along, one behind the other in a very metaphorical way, through those deep pine forests of Northern Minnesota. Those vast, impassive winter nights. The wolves. Infinite. Barren of art.