Copyright by Morgan McFinn
he itch for authorship," wrote Edwin Arlington Robinson, "is worse than the devil, and spoils a man for anything else."
Now, after years and years of thinking about it, dreaming about it, and working haphazardly at it, I too am an author. A published author. A paid, published author. Hell, I'm a professional writer! A Chicago boy who traveled clear around to the other side of this here bauble earth so that I could live a life on the lam and write.
My fortune is meager. I can't afford to do much else but write. I live in a small, wooden bungalow with a palm-thatched roof on a beautiful tropical island in the Gulf of Siam. It's peaceful. In good times, it's as peaceful as a womb; in other times, as a tomb. In either case, an ambience of peace and quiet is pretty gosh darn crucial for those of us who want to scratch that itch for authorship.
I started out twenty years ago just writing for myself. Didn't give a damn if what I wrote was ever published, if I ever made any money at it, or if anybody ever read the stuff.
Obviously, twenty years ago, I used to lie to myself a lot.
I fancied myself a sultry adventurer possessed of a scintillating madcap suavity and a nurtured eloquence. There would be corner tables at intelligent Latin-Quarter cafes; Gauloises and cafe au lait; Sartre, Camus, and Hemingway. All inspirations for my blazing conceit. I read their books and fed them to the fire.
I stayed at bed and breakfast lodging houses in London, and meandered like a knight-errant from Bayswater, along the Serpentine, across St. James Park, around Piccadilly Circus, and through Soho. Every night I was at the theater. Shakespeare, Maugham, Coward. More kindling.
Later, there was Spain, Greece, and Morocco. Months of idle wandering and wondering. I was the lead character in my own play. It was a play without a plot; an improvised script; marvelous scenery; disposable props; and a cast of thousands. I was a footloose maverick costumed in the guise of a pensive romantic in pursuit of wisdom and adventure. Don Quixote with a pen instead of a lance. An author at large. A role played so convincingly that it was reviewed with greater and bolder acclaim. Self acclaim.
The one fly in the ointment of these masturbated reveries was the fact that I wasn't doing much writing. I could look the part and feel the part. Aside from not writing, of course, I could even act the part. I read literature and poetry. I was thought provoking in conversation, witty with repartee, and I drank excessively.
Then a small problem developed. I ran out of money.
After eight years of Jesuit education, university degrees in history and philosophy, two years of foreign travel, and an assortment of party jobs working in bars and casinos, the gig was up. I had to find a real job. And of course, a real job involves working at something you don't really like, because what you do really like requires something you don't really have . . . namely money.
First real job I had was working in a bank. I was a teller.
There's a big difference between a storyteller and a bank teller.
Had to wear a navy blue leash around my neck, staple a smile on my face, and give money away all day.
In party jobs working bars and casinos I was used to getting tips. You'd think that people who only had to walk up and hand you a slip of paper indicating how much money they wanted would give you a tip when you gave them the money. Nobody ever tipped me at the bank. But, I figured, T. S. Eliot worked at a bank, so maybe the experience would foster some literary acumen.
Unfortunately, I often had trouble balancing my cash drawer at the end of the day. When I expressed the opinion that, "With all the goddamn millions you've got around here, what's the big deal about a dollar and twenty-seven cents?" the head teller suggested I had a head problem. He insisted I be psychologically evaluated if I wished to remain a bank employee.
So, I went home that night, re-read a lot of T. S. Elliot, considered his impervious diagnosis of the world as "shape without form, gesture without emotion," and decided I didn't much care for his stuff, and didn't much fancy ending up one of the "hollow men.”
The following day I walked into the bank, about an hour late, looking overdrawn and definitely out of balance. I wrapped my company tie around the head teller's black enamel pen and pencil set, and tendered my resignation. He thereupon, none too tenderly, handed me a check for one dollar twenty-seven cents—which in those days was good for three beers plus tip—and I left with a real smile on my face for a change.
Next thing I remember was reading a novel by Upton Sinclair while riding in a Greyhound bus from Washington DC to Chicago.
The book was The Jungle; the bus was a zoo….
Screaming children, ill tempered parents, drunken sailors, and a musty-smelling rag doll of a hippie who said her name was Happy. From Philadelphia to Cleveland she bitched about the evils of capitalism, and from there to Gary, Indiana she laid her head on my shoulder crying because her boyfriend had just been busted for selling synthetic hallucinogens to high-school kids.
The book was full of a similar cast of characters, except that none of them drooled on me.
I got a job on the graveyard shift stoking furnaces in a steel mill just outside of Chicago. It was a hot, dirty, sweaty job. The pay was great, but after reading Upton Sinclair I decided to feel exploited anyway.
Being twenty-five years old, with my ivory tower degrees, coupled with my aspirations of being a writer, this macho job suited me just fine. Only trouble was, I was too damn tired after work to write. Usually ended up at Blacky's playing pool and drinking two-bit beers until round the time bank tellers went back to their cages. That's when I returned to the Ron Rico flophouse, ate some slop, and flopped down on a mattress that was at least as fertile a breeding ground for primitive insects as the Brazilian rainforests. I'd resurface in time to de-louse, eat some more of Rico's spicy slop, and punch the clock just as Mephistopheles was saying, "Ah Faustus, now hast thou but one bare hour to live. And then thou must be damned perpetually."
Four months of this Sinclair Jungle routine was quite enough. The first-hand experience of being a blue-collar worker was well worthwhile. They make good money. I filed it away in the "been there, done that" portfolio, cashed in my chips, and went back to wandering around Morocco for half a year….
Mostly I drank a lot of mint tea, smoked ganja, and swatted flies. Once the herb kicked in, I just lolled about watching the flies fornicate on my forearm. They seemed to prefer that to being swatted, and I enjoyed the show.
Flies don't waste a lot of time on courtship and romance. I don't even think they bother to introduce themselves prior to becoming intimate. It may be that they all wear tiny little name tags, but before I could get around to verifying this, I once again ran out of money and had to return to the real world for another bout of real work.
This merry-go-round rigmarole went on for fifteen years until I’d saved enough money to retire and do nothing but write. Actually, I'd saved enough money to retire and do nothing but write five years earlier, but I figured besides writing, it would be nice to eat once in a while. So I kept working and saved a little more money.
Now here I am, years later, as I've mentioned, a published and paid professional writer. Other people, strangers—perhaps strange people—are reading my work. What a glorious ego bubble bath Jacuzzi. I feel tingly all over. These people are reading me as I have read others.
What are they thinking?
Am I touching their lives in any sort of way that my life was touched by the works of authors I've read and admired?
My work is meant to be amusing, well written, and to display a high regard for the sound of words on paper. Blah, blah, blah….
If the reader finds something worth musing about while being amused, that's fine too.
Believe me, this writing business isn't easy. Still, I'm sure nobody is interested in hearing about the grievances of my profession. Nevertheless, I would like to take a moment to address a few heartfelt words to my "most esteemed readership.”
May the day dawn when the aggregate of fleeting amusement you all hopefully glean from gliding through my prose begins to compensate for the bar bills that went into writing it.
All you have to do is spend ten or fifteen minutes every so often reading my pieces while anchored to a bottle of beer. I, on the other hand, have had to waste hours of valuable hammock time scratching this damn itch for authorship while juggling cigarettes and whiskey and a leaky ballpoint quill.
Midway through the third draft, I was reminded of Lenny Bruce saying that, "Comedy equals pain plus time."
I'm also reminded of the fact that my mother still says I should have been a lawyer.
You work at a bar; you can drink for free. You work in the travel industry; you get nice discounts at restaurants, hotels, and on airlines.
Me? What are my perks?
I get hangovers and hemorrhoids.
You think it's fun trying to make you laugh . . . you . . . you…. Honestly, I love you….
Maybe this writing business is some sort of catharsis, some sort of purgative cleansing of calcified deposits that have been accumulating in the bowels of my subliminal consciousness ever since my mother offered me a dime to say, "I love you, Mommy," when I was only four years old.
It wasn't that I minded selling my affections. What really rankles is that I always insisted on being paid a nickel because it was bigger than a dime, and ergo, I thought, more valuable.
Mother must have known then that I wasn’t a particularly bright child. But I was cute and she saved money on me.
Meanwhile, my fellow siblings were either collecting twice the revenue or dispensing half the number of "I love you’s.”
This exploitation went on for several years. When my father found out what was happening, he was so impressed that my mother was capable of saving money on anything, that they both conspired to hold me in kindergarten for two extra years.
Finally, one day I found myself arguing with a panhandler regarding his plea of a dime for a cup of coffee. I gave him a nickel and said, "Buy yourself two cups of coffee, mister beggar man," and he poked me in the eye with a pencil—which is another reason why this writing business is such a strain.
Well, there's no point in complaining. People just ignore me . . . I say people just ignore me.
I talked to God about this last night. I said, “God, what the hell’s going on down here? How come people aren’t interested in my life and times.”
God said, “Don’t worry, I’m interested.”
And I said, “Yeah, I know you’re interested, but for all the wrong reasons. You’re keeping track of my transgressions.”
He said, “Vanity is one of them.”
Itch for authorship, my foot. Tomorrow morning I'm heading straight for the hammock. I'll read somebody else's stuff and chuckle smugly, knowing how painstaking it was for the author to write it.
Ha ha! The only itch I'll concern myself with is the one I'm lying on.