Southern Exposure

Ruminations of a Native Son


Greater Washington. DC., United States
February 06
Compulsive writer (mostly memoirs and sociopolitical rants), musicologist, hermeticst, fiscal conservative, radical centrist, agrarian socialist; Charter member, Factualist Party; born and raised in DC, healthcare professional, retired businessman, civic and political activist on two coasts, civil rights movement veteran. An empiricist's worst nightmare, I believe in everything but I don't believe everything, including many things I believe in. Turned down by US Army in 1966 for medical reasons, thrown out of Col. Hasan's Black Man's Army in 1967 for being "too militant." Scion of a family only Tennessee Williams could have dreamed up. There's more. There's always more.


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AUGUST 18, 2011 2:09AM

My "Monster in a Box"

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This is the story of a story. The story was lived, repressed, remembered, then written, then novelized, and during that time a number of bizarre things happened to it and to the process. The story has been in the process of being rewritten off and on for twenty years. I think it may almost be finished.

People had to die for the story to be finished. I was not and will not be one of them. I don't intend to collapse under the weight of the box as Spauling Gray did. Then again I haven't yet been creamed in an automobile wreck, so I can't say I might not reconsider if I wind up in the shape Gray did. But I digress...

Since the last time I posted something here on Open Salon I realized I was drained, then blocked, by having divested myself of something via automatic writing, which is more or less how I craft memoirs. Well, I guess I "craft" only those that require novelization. Still, the initial process is the same: I leave the body and revisit the time and place and events in the story. I live it all over again. I did that with "Climate of Hunter," and it left me exhausted. It's been over a month since then and this is the first writing I've done here. That this is nothing more than writing about writing is hopefully a way to get the wheels turning again.

It is also a story about my story, even though I can't tell you the actual story.

Not here.

Not now.

But I can tell you the story about the story, and I will. For therapeutic value.

Here we go:

In the summer of 1959 something bizarre and traumatic happened to me. It was repressed for more than 30 years. When it was finally recovered (through no help from psychoanalysis - and I consider that important) I found myself drunkenly writing, by hand, as rapidly as I could, every single detail of that event and all the events leading up to it, everything I had remembered that had been blocked for all those years, that missing summer.

I have a morbidly accurate memory, so when I realized an entire summer was missing I knew something had to be wrong. I had been haunted by hints for decades prior, but never could figure out what was beckoning to me out there in the dark summer nights. When I finally remembered it was committed first to paper, then to computer.

The computer was my first PC, a 286 Unisys wood burning device that ran WordPefect 5.1 via DOS. That was what we had then. Modern times. I should note that Unisys was formed by the acquisition of Sperry by Burroughs Office Machines, and that Burroughs was founded by the grandfather of William S. Burroughs, my most significant literary influence.


Unisys 286 doorstop

First thing that went wrong was when I fired up the machine for the first time and found a file in the thing. It was titled "Doctor" and was a plain text message that warned about "knocking on doors one does not intend to enter" and containing vague references to the fate of Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon. Legend has it Alhazred was eaten alive by an invisible monster in the market in Damascus. It was supposedly because of the book. These things happen.

Prior to the revelation that had led to the hand-written narrative of the summer of 1959 I'd been working on a highly personal memoir involving the mind-body connection. I'd been encouraged and even goaded by Norman Cousins to write this, and Cousins had even gone to the trouble to sic literary agent Scot Meredith on me. Cousins died in 1990, just prior to the recovery of the repressed memory. The mind-body book was shelved. It is still shelved. It no longer seems important.

a_norman cousins 

Norman Cousins

When the agony (and eventual ecstasy) of writing down in the course of about a week the entire narrative of the recovered memory, I was exhausted. I was also relieved. I returned to it after about a week and began reading the voluminous notes. I realized it read rather like a horror story. It reminded me, in style, of Richard Adams' "The Girl in a Swing," a story that still fills me with dread not only for the insidious horror it contains but for the nightmare of seemingly pointless details that all come together toward the end to turn into a palpable mass of human despair. It is not an easy read, "Girl in a Swing." Neither would my eventual manuscript be, but I realized I was going to write it, that I had no choice. It had to be shared with the world. It was not only a personal horror but a politically charged historical document seen through the eyes of a 14 year-old boy.

I informed Meredith of the change in genre. He seemed pleased.

The writing of the manuscript was painstaking and painful, as I tried to retain all the details that had come to me as through a breach in a huge dam. I was once again living the experience, and, fueled by Jack Daniels and Xanax I pounded it out, working til daybreak then passing out next to my poor, longsuffering wife.

And I had blamed our breakup on my recovery from a heart attack. It may have been something earlier than that, now that I think about it.

When I was satisfied with the epigrams, name changes and other fine tunings of the story, I prepared to send it off to Meredith.

By the time I did, he was dead. The manuscript languished for a year in the hands of various people, then finally was returned to me by some asshat editor from the reconstituted agency, telling me why it wouldn't sell.

I put it away then, not because of the editor's criticism, but because I'd become concerned about the potential harm it could cause to certain people still living, particularly family members.

The heart attack intervened and distracted me for almost a year. Old friend John Fahey released a boxed CD retrospective of his work and titled it "Return of the Repressed." Another year passed while I worried about how the book might affect my mother. Then my mother died.

There was still my father.

Fahey's advice to me about the ramifications of the book: "Fuck it. Use names, use places, tell the stories, lie, do anything. Just get it done."

Then came the breakup. That distracted me greatly. The novel was shelved alongside the Cousins-inspired manuscript.

In 1998 I had started a rewrite. Several people had read the first draft and given it very positive reviews. I was encouraged. Then I met someone who was qualifed to function as an editor and could help me tighten up the now 666 printed pages (and yes, thoughts of Alhazred did recur from time to time). The editor's first reaction upon initial read-through was to send me a two word email: "Damn you!" This was not going well. I called her and she excoriated me, told me "I might as well break my pencil and never write again!" She was furious because initially I had written the thing in one fell swoop, or at least that was her impression, that it had been quick and effortless. She was actually quite taken by it and wanted to work on it, but said it had affected her deeply and her work would be strictly cosmetic.

We wound up having an on-and-off affair about the time I was divorced. It lasted a while. The book was moved to a back burner. In time I realized I had a Fatal Attraction situation on my hands. That would make a horror story of its own, but someone already wrote that one and even made a movie about it. I made sure not to keep a rabbit during that period.

During that same period John Fahey published "How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life." When my book is completed the two volumes, Fahey's and mine, will serve as companion pieces to one another. I had no idea this would happen. 

Eventually I fell in love and in time ran away to California to be with the more sane woman. I took the Monster with me. Before I went, though, John Fahey Died. While out there I met a once-prominent Hollywood editor and screenplay writer who offered to do an impartial and impersonal job of editing.

Somehow at that point I lost interest in the book. My life was so changed by then I wasn't sure I had once been the person in the book. Then I became a denizon of and a chronic commenter. That was my writing for a long time. Some of it was pretty good, too, it turns out. I collected a number of those little red stars.

Then suddenly that seven year interlude ended and I was bought out of my interest in the house in Laguna and was distracted by feelings of loss and depression and money and moving back across the country. Those kinds of things. When I came back the Monster was packed up and sent with me.


Necronomicon. My book will probably look like this

Living in a basement apartment just outside D.C. in 2007 and with time on my hands and boxes stacked up around me, I came upon the ever-present Monster. I revisited it and was strangely moved by my own words. I knew it was too long, though, and I contacted the Hollywood editor (who will remain nameless here at his request). He had retired and cursed me at first, then asked me to send him a couple pages. I attached them to an email as we talked on the phone. He opened them and read while I sat at my desk. Finally he said "I remember this." I was amazed. "You are a writer," he pronounced. I was apalled. "I want to do this," he said. I was nearly beside myself. He asked me not to tell anyone he was doing this, as he didn't want to deal with the requests, that he had finally eased himself out of the rat race, but he wanted to do this one job.

I sent him a galley copy of the manuscript, first one half, then the other. We talked and argued about fine points, and discussed his having been introduced to Jackie Wilson in his early teens and having had a crush on Wilson's wife. It was that kind of editor-writer relationship.

The usual.

When the second half was completed and sent to me it was 2008 and I was a) fully into political activist mode, and b) starting to meet friends I had made here at Open Salon after being lured here by someone we all know and love.

This place here has been my outlet for the past four years. It has also been my distraction.

"Climate of Hunter" reawakened my urge to finish the god damned  memoir/novel.  And that's when shit started to happen again. Nobody died, at least so far (though a nest of yellowjackets almost took me out), but computer gremlins started their work again. I think I have them stymied for now, and the rewrite is back in full-swing, just as I have embarked on a search for a new day job.

The timing doesn't seem ideal, but after 20 years I realize there is no such thing as timing.

This thing is going to happen. Open Salon is as culpable as any of the parties to this ongoing fiasco. That means everyone here who has become a dear friend has had something to do with this atrocity.

Soon, now. Soon. Meanwhile, I am still here, and I wanted you all to know that.

As Bill Burroughs explained it, one must "write your way out."

There is a ton of stuff backed up behind this logjam. At least four more books worth.

It's a long way to the frontier.

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Truly fascinating, AJ. I am already in awe of all your stories I haven't yet read.
We do indeed, "write our way out." ~r
I have a monster, too, but she is still in utero. The one person I had to worry about, though, committed suicide last year so I feel better about using his story even though I write fiction and changed his name.
AJCalhoun: Wow, imagine the weight that will be lifted off of your shoulders when it is finished. Throughout all of this there is the story waiting to be told ... waiting to be read. Publish, AJ, publish.

I can relate though, sitting as I am here, on unfinished projects, songs and stories not written rationalized by every reason under the sun. Stir in procrastination and eureka decades have passed.

Great video of W.S. Burroughs.
Kafka comes to mind while reading your post this morning.
He died.
Joan H: Thank you. It is, indeed, whether we know it or not, what we do. Thanks for understanding that.

Miguela Holt y Royal: Mine is pretty much overdue and the pitocin drip has been started. I relate very strongly, as you might imagine, to your feelings about the departed person. I suppose if I were to wait long enough there would be no one left to offend.

Scarlett Sumac: The weight has at times been almost unbearable. If that sounds dramatic, is. Giving birth to this thing will be like freeing a tidal wave stopped in mid-air. Won't be long now, knock on presswood.

Decades pass so easily when we have something like this in the oven.

Glad you enjoyed the Burroughs clip. He's kept me going.

alsoknownas: Yeah, that's another one. Before I turn into a bug I'll get this done, I swear.
Look forward to seeing this done and published. So many of us stall and then find the light. You will see this through and it will be wonderful!
Lea, your encouragement means a great deal to me. Thank you! I think the thing may see the light of day before much longer. It's all grown up now.
We all have our monsters, keep writing. Rated.
I guess we do, Erika K, and I will. Thanks!
I am fairly new to OS, and so haven't had the pleasure of reading your posts over the years as others have. But I read every word above. Also your comment: "I suppose if we waited long enough there would be no one left to offend." Hmmm… I am glad your literary tumor (I don't mean that to be unkind; it sounds a bit like a tumor or an urn with ashes in it, albeit a beautiful work of art, odd and severe)… anyway, I am glad it is going to be something more than it has been, soon soon… I am glad you didn't throw it out, burn it, or hide it. That's what we're tempted to do with our monsters. Much better to woo them, fight them, subdue them, document them, then share them with others so they can do the same.
janicephelpswilliams: A pleasure to meet you here, and thanks for reading and for your very encouraging comments. I too am glad I didn't use the thing to warm the old house one winter or toss it into Dana Harbor when I had the chance. It has become a sort of tumor, or maybe yes, an urn is a better metaphor. There's something still alive in there, though, and it needs to be extricated. Soon, yes. Thanks so much!
great piece--as i've tried to recently transition from performing to writing as a career (or at least taking writing more seriously), I have begun to write a book, and it can be as daunting as facing Spalding Grey's 'monster'--best of luck battling yours, and i look forward to reading your efforts...
mistercomedy: Hopefully you could do both, though writing is a different animal for sure, and not that easy to wrestle sometimes. I wish you all the luck in the world, and thanks for your kind comments.
This was a trip to read, and an interesting and deep insight to the internal workings of the writing animal. I have a couple of long term relationships with certain pieces that are still developing, too.

I met Spaulding Gray once in a reception after a performance. He had been reading from a spiral notebook that night (a wonderful mid-career show), and was complaining about how ragged it was becoming, and how much he was dreading typing it up. I offered to type it up for him. He said, but I need this copy. Somehow, I knew photocopying was not on the table. I said, you could give me a recording of a performance, and I'll transcribe it for you. He looked like he had never thought of that, working from a recording, instead of the words on a page, and said, you'd do that? I said sure, I'd be happy to, I've done it for other artists before, and I gave him a card...but he never called me. (Like he really would. I was just some gaga young fan who worked for the road house.) I was so sad to hear about his end...but I too understand why he wanted to end his suffering, and it was not an unfitting or undignified end to a funny and unusual yet very humane person.
Forgot to mention that I got to call William S. Burroughs once for a visiting artist. I called the long distance number, and let the phone ring 3-4 times. No one picked up. The artist said, "Call again. He doesn't have a machine, and he never picks up. Just let it ring. When he answers, come get me." And so, I did. I musta let that phone ring 20 or 30 times. Then, that unmistakable voice answered the phone, "Hello?" I studded, "Mr. Burroughs?" He said "Yes." "I have a call for you. Will you please hold on?" And he did.

Sorry to insert my silly brushes with fame here, but it's kind of a strange coincidence in the same post.

And the bottom line, is, we should all go keep birthing those babies, although, it's nice to come here sometimes to take a little smoke break (although I gave up smoking 20 years ago). So, please, do keep on writing.
Helvetica Stone: My gosh, those were hardly silly brushes with fame! The are wonderful stories and thank you so much for sharing them here. The Gray one is classic, and he very likely intended to call but either lost the number or, well, something like that. He was a very affable, approachable person. I'm glad you had the exchange at least. And to hear the voice of old Bill in real time! Good lord! That alone is like having God pick up. (Yes Bill, it is deeply sarcastic).

Thank you so much for reading, sharing and commenting. I will keep writing for sure. It's the only way into the light.