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Why My Students Don’t Call Themselves ‘Southern’ Writers

At the end of a lackluster discussion of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a college English class last fall, one of my students raised her hand. “I know that Welty is supposed to be really good,” she said, “but I don’t get it.” She objected to the clichés, the cartoonishness.

But does Eudora feel cliché because she invented certain Southern clichés? She read the extremes of Southerners, of human behavior, and immortalized our foibles in words that would influence the next few generations of writers. As Tony Earley observed, “I have a theory—perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated—that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’”

I defended Welty’s greatness during that class—I even played them an excerpt of the author reading the story aloud, her mouth rolling fast around the syllables like gumballs—but over the course of the semester I couldn’t help marking a shift in how young Southerners, black and white, read the Southern giants: not in awe, but with a sense of exhaustion.

We moved through Mark Twain—hokey—and Flannery O’Connor—melodramatic—and William Faulkner—impenetrable. Southern whiteness doesn’t age well. But even Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, however electric their language, felt familiar to these students; yes, those old burdens again. What my students saw was a reflection not of the world they lived in, but the world they inherited. And though we Southerners are unendingly proud of our literary heritage, it bears the marks of a brutality we’re struggling to move past.

The Welty that felt most real to them was “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” In this 1963 story published less than a month after the assassination of Medgar Evers, Welty wormed her way into the addled brain of the white man who murdered him—a man who turned out in actuality to be Byron de la Beckwith, as supernaturally close as a man can get to an invented character. This wasn’t using racism as a setting, but as a problem. It was asking why in the same way my students were.

To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain.

As the narrator waits for the civil rights leader to appear, he thinks, “Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his pictures, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will.” This is not a passage that provides answers; my students know better than to expect answers. Welty instead reckons with the tragic unknowability of the South while showing us exactly how recognizable the ugliness is: it’s the man next door, the man within us.

For one class, my students read excerpts from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (often, reductively, called the black answer to Mitchell’s epic), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which quite intentionally set fire to the myth of Tara; Randall even faced a lawsuit from the Mitchell heirs. As we moved through these pieces in discussion, the students became increasingly animated. Yes, Mitchell was breezy and readable, but ugh, the whiteness. They pointed out how often she referenced the color in the first chapter alone: “magnolia-white skin,” “small white hands,” “solid masses of white blossoms,” “dogwood dappling with white stars,” “the whitewashed brick plantation house,” “a pleasant land of white houses”; what are we to think when Mammy appears, “shining black, pure African”? The disgust of my students wasn’t appeased much by Jubilee, which, though free from the egregious racism of Gone with the Wind, is still stuck in the antebellum South, complete with dialect and black women under the thumb of white women. It was Alice Randall who lit them up, the tongue-in-cheekness of the plantation “Tata” and the character of Scarlett being renamed “Other,” she in all her shining whiteness finally being reduced to the nameless otherness that Mammy and her kin know all too well. Revenge is what they wanted, not realism.

Pulling my students through the 20th-century canon took some effort, but they came alive when handed Mary Miller’s “Big Bad Love,” Kiese Laymon’s “Hey Mama,” excerpts from Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. The rhythms of this language matched their own: personal, progressive, fluid, literate. These were Mississippians writing about a state not dripping with Spanish moss and punctuated by mockingbird song, but of surprising intersections, where violence within the self had become as important as violence across racial lines, where poverty was nuanced rather than made perverse, where families were built from intentional love rather than tied to tortured bloodlines. As Kiese wrote, and all my students still wonder, “How am I supposed to hug myself?”

I asked my students to create a piece of Southern art for their final project: a story or poem or painting or song that expressed their own Southern story, whatever that had come to mean for them. Even with this open-ended assignment, I initially faced resistance. A handful of students, born and raised in Mississippi, refused to identify as Southern. And why should they, when the “South” that had been painted by so many Pulitzer winners and Nobel laureates was mired in bigotry, religiosity, and perversity? A Bible salesman steals a spinster’s prosthetic leg. A half-black man nearly marries his slaveowning sister. A man and a boy raft down the Mississippi on the exaggerated current of dialect. (“I knowed jis’ ‘s well ‘at I ‘uz gwineter be rich ag’in as I’s a-stannin’ heah dis minute!”)

But as we laid bare all the disparate elements that make up Southern writing today, my students began to resituate themselves, to hesitantly accept the label. As one of them realized, “I didn’t need to write about tractors or sweet tea to meet the criteria.” Another student wrote a surreal and philosophical story with a narrator who, in one scene, sits in a tree and says to God, “I’m so tired of this particular self.” In an accompanying statement, she explained that the narrator “believes in transformation and overcoming certain aspects of defining character—a very Southern idea. . . . I fit into [a “southern identity”] because I try to ignore it. I fit into it because like many people, it’s only another thing that, for my own peace of mind, I have to manipulate into fantasy so I can tolerate it.”

To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain. Reading Eudora Welty and other Southern classics can strike a nerve for students who want that pain to be buried, who read those depictions of race and violence, of magnolias and uncles in kimonos, as stereotypes that non-Southerners use to keep us in boxes. But out of this early and artful recording of Southern messiness came the writers who spin us further still, who reckon with the realness of the 21st century. So should we still teach our giants, cliché as they may now seem? Of course: to love the buds, we must know the roots. But to honor the roots, teach also the buds.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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The Impossibility of Finding a Place to Write in New York

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Like many young people who believe themselves unfit for the demands of real life, I moved to New York after college to become a writer. A guy I sort of knew had a room opening up in his Ridgewood, Queens apartment for $700 per month. I didn’t know where Ridgewood was, and the rent seemed steep—I was coming from St. Louis, where I paid $550 to share, with friends, a two-story suburban house—but I was assured that $700 was a steal. I was also assured that Ridgewood was, if not exactly desirable, then certainly pre-desirable. The place to be, give or take five years. There were rumors that a sitcom set in Ridgewood was in the works at Fox.

The guy and I had met one summer in high school at what can only be described as “poetry camp,” a week of reading and writing verse with other allergy-prone introverts at a Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. I almost didn’t recognize him when he met my bus at Hudson Yards. He was no longer the scrawny, beak-nosed poet I remembered. His shoulders were twice as broad and his biceps were testing the sleeves of his t-shirt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation. Had he been lifting Norton anthologies?

“Are you still writing poetry?” I asked, dragging one of my duffel bags down the street.

He shouldered my second duffel easily. “Hell no,” he said. “I sell ads for Yelp.”

I was in no position to judge. I had taken my $200,000 undergraduate degree and moved to one of the world’s most expensive cities on the basis of an internship that paid less than the minimum wage—a humiliating if commonplace rite of passage for artsy millennials of privilege.

Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism.

The room was much smaller than I’d anticipated. I could extend my arms and touch the walls on either side. The window, which was jammed in place and wouldn’t shut, overlooked a construction site. The tiny men below appeared to be digging a giant hole. Needless to say, there was no room for a writing desk. A squat wicker end table sat by the apartment door, but my roommate was using it to display a glass skull and a tub of creatine.

With no space to write in the apartment, I began the arduous process of finding a suitable café. The kind of place I had in mind would ideally meet three requirements:

1) Walking distance. The goal is to put physical (and mental) distance between you and your apartment while remaining close enough to walk home for lunch.

2) Low rent. By “rent” I mean the drinks and pastries you are obliged to purchase in exchange for taking up space. Some establishments demand, reasonably, that you spend some money if you’re going to hang around, but some will let you live there for the cost of a drip coffee.

3) Ample space. Nothing makes pursuing your unique artistic vision more difficult than being squeezed between a bunch of people all pursuing their unique artistic visions.

There are other factors, to be sure, like the quality of the baked goods or, if you’re finnicky like me, the height of the chairs in relation to the height of the tables. (I like to tower over my laptop, as though my work is subservient to me, and not the other way around.) I auditioned a number of cafés near my apartment, but none satisfied my key requirements. Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism—but the hours of operation were wildly inconsistent, requiring me to add a fourth requirement:

4) Consistent hours of operation.

When I did manage to time out my visits with the bookstore owner’s unpredictable sleep schedule, I worked on a novel. The protagonist was an old woman in a small Massachusetts town beset by coyotes. After six months of writing I showed the manuscript-in-progress to a friend. She winced and said, “A short story, maybe. But a novel?”

It wasn’t a novel. I could see that now. On the plus side, a few weeks after the internship ended I landed myself an office job making $33,500, which was more money than I could conceive of spending. But after taxes, rent, utilities, my MetroCard, and the coffees I was obliged to buy at the used bookstore, I was coming to see how it was possible.

My girlfriend, who was back in St. Louis finishing her degree, visited Ridgewood one weekend in December. She had the flu and soon I did, too, and for some reason we decided to watch The Pianist on my laptop. We huddled together on my twin bed, noses running as a cold wind blew through the crack in the window, watching as Poland was slowly overtaken by the Nazis.

“How do you get any work done here?” she asked.

The Polish army was moving in on Adrien Brody, who, in an effort to keep warm, had donned the heavy green coat of a German soldier.

“I don’t,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if by here she meant the apartment or New York in general. Even in Ridgewood, where the telltale signs of gentrification—small dogs, coworking spaces, people like me—were only just beginning to crop up, the economic and social pressures of the city made luxuries of time and space.

Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters.

My novel wasn’t turning out to be a short story, either. I scrapped it and started work on a new project. The protagonist was a cash-strapped young woman who lived in Ridgewood in an apartment overlooking a giant hole. Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters. My life seemed funnier, and somehow less pathetic, when refracted through a fictional entity. Still, I was losing valuable writing hours standing in the cold like Adrien Brody, waiting for the bookstore owner to wake up and open the shop. And I didn’t even have a heavy coat! The hole outside my bedroom window was growing larger by the day and had begun to take on metaphorical significance.

I dreamed of a quiet, private room to write in. After weeks of searching, I found one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The landlord had chopped up a townhouse, slapping padlocks on the doors and renting out the rooms as individual “studio apartments.” The rent was $850, but I would have my privacy. When I showed up with the rent and the realtor’s fee—a realtor had posted the room on Craigslist, and for this, I owed her $425—I was informed that there was nothing to sign.

“I don’t do leases,” the landlord said.

“He doesn’t,” the realtor assured me.

My new apartment resembled a boarding house. It was like something out of Balzac. The other tenants were aspiring artists of one kind or another. There was a set designer, a photographer, and a musician. A line cook lived out of a closet downstairs. The shared bathroom and kitchen were ruthlessly policed by our live-in super. He was a paranoiac, and believed one of the tenants was trying to poison his food. He put padlocks on the cabinets and refrigerator.

The house was continually under construction. Ceiling plaster often fell on my head, and the entryway was regularly blocked by wood beams or spare appliances. There was a leak in my bedroom ceiling and a colony of flying ants lived in the walls. In place of air conditioning I placed my desk fan atop a stack of hardcover books. A friend suggested I sell the books and use the proceeds to buy a window unit, but this seemed like a betrayal—of what, I’m not sure.

But the space! The ceilings were high and there was plenty of room to pace back and forth. I bought a sturdy wooden desk and set it by the bay window, which faced the street and drew in plenty of light. I was still writing about the young woman in Ridgewood, but she was no longer my sole focus. I gave her a brother, a father, and a deceased mother. Each character had his or her own discrete but intersecting storyline. Alongside scenes set in New York, I was writing chapters set in St. Louis, Boston, Paris, and Zimbabwe. The plot now spanned sixty years. The struggle to find work and make rent in Ridgewood was still a part of the manuscript, but it was no longer the whole story. The novel grew in scope and dimension.

I’m not sure where this influx of ambition came from, but it might have had something to do with the high ceilings, the sturdy desk, the windows, and the privacy. The apartment was not luxurious by any stretch—each morning I dusted the dead ants off my laptop—but in my room, at least, there was space for my ideas to stretch out.

At some point I mistakenly ordered a package to my old address in Ridgewood. When I went to pick it up, I was shocked to see just how small my room had been. It had the same dimensions as a coffin. The hole outside my window was no longer a hole, but the parking lot for an AutoZone. I wondered what had happened to that sitcom.

Charles Bukowski has a poem where he roundly dismisses the idea that good writing can only occur under ideal conditions. “Baby,” the final stanza reads, “air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for.” Well, sure. Air and light and time and space are useless on their own. But they don’t hurt—and since when was I taking life advice from Bukowski? I didn’t even like Bukowski.

After eighteen months in the boarding house, I had written a novel. I would not have started it without Ridgewood, but I would not have finished it, and it would not have become The Altruists, without the room in Brooklyn.

I told the paranoid super I was leaving. My girlfriend had moved to New York and we were going to move in together.

“You know, Drew,” he said, “sometimes in life you just got to move on. Is this a special lady?”

“She is,” I said.

“She doesn’t mess around on you?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“You sure?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m happy for you, Drew,” he said. “You’re going to be alright. And if she ever does you wrong, you can always come back here. We’ll have a room waiting for you.”

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Writing My Novel Turned into Cooking Boot Camp

For fifteen years, my step-grandfather Mr. Bill warned me that if I wanted a husband, I had to learn to cook.

“Learn to cook yet?” he’d goad, jabbing me in the arm and chuckling at every family get-together from my teens through my early 30s. I laughed him off as an old-school southern grandpa and, after college, moved to New York, where no guy I met expected a woman to know her way around a kitchen, if her apartment even had one. As for me, I was entirely comfortable with a rusty half-stove because I never used it. I was raised on Lean Cuisines, WOW chips before we all learned Olestra was killing us, and microwave pancakes. The theme of Adkins family cuisine was expediency with a low-fat subtext, an attitude I happily retained into adulthood. My idea of a homecooked meal was slapping a salmon filet on a skillet and leaving it there until it turned a lighter shade of pink. Seasoning meant salt and pepper. Oil was so things didn’t burn. Until 33, I didn’t know there was difference between “bake” and “broil” on the oven. I once caught fire to my hand trying to use a paper towel as an oven mitt. My dermatologist told me to stop making toast because I kept showing up with burns.

When I did eventually marry, it was a seamless (literally!) transition: We ordered takeout almost every night from the Seamless food delivery app. When we started to feel gross, my husband was the one step up and pull out a pan.

Then I decided to write a novel about a chef because creative impulses don’t always make sense.

While I’d gone through an MFK Fisher obsession in my 20s, it had been years since I’d really read much food writing. I rifled through stacks of $1 books at my local Salvation Army until I came upon a collection of stained, warped copies of The Best Food Writing from the ‘10s, then made my way through them. I pored over forums and discussion board and personal essays online, studying how people in the industry conversed about food. I didn’t learn to cook, but I learned to talk like I did.

I educated myself in how coconut flour differs from regular flour at high temperatures, how certain oils and butters can be swapped out to varying effect, and how nut flours behave in the oven.

Five years after I’d begun drafting the novel, my agent called to tell me that a publisher had made an offer. I was standing under an awning on Astoria Boulevard in Queens, soaked, caught in the rain without an umbrella. With my phone pressed to my ear I shivered ferociously, unsure if it was from relief, joy, or cold.

“Can you add some recipes?” my editor’s email read several weeks later. I exhaled. I’d created a fictional chef—not just a chef, but Jade Massey, a chef at an award-winning New York restaurant. How was I going to create recipes that Jade would make?

I knew what mattered to Jade, in terms of cooking principles. In the wake of her sister’s early death, she was in an anti-sugar phase, determined to marry delicious cuisine with nutrition. I came up with a couple of theoretical concoctions that might interest her, and then the work began. I educated myself in how coconut flour differs from regular flour at high temperatures, how certain oils and butters can be swapped out to varying effect, and how nut flours behave in the oven. I learned about the astonishing power of egg whites. I read up on the disparate effects of muffin tins, popover pans, and mini-popover pans. Armed with my tentative recipes, I collected my supplies one Thursday afternoon and donned, for the first time ever, the apron I’d been given at my bachelorette party on which my sister had written, “I wear this when I apply heat to food.” I was ready to face that heat.

A PSA: tapioca flour only appears to be a normal, cohesive kind of powder that can be scooped and dumped like other flours. No—the moment it makes contact with any matter, it poofs into a cloud and settles on every surface within a five-foot radius. By my third hour in the kitchen, the walls, floor, and countertop were coated white. I’d also by that point learned that one’s oven is a unique, special snowflake; it doesn’t dare conform to generalizations about oven behavior on the Internet. By the ninth hour, I’d figured out that I did not need to make an entire batch of Brazilian cheese popovers to test a single recipe change; rather, I could make only a couple. That was an eighty-dollar lesson.

For three days, I worked. On the seventeenth round of popovers, I opened my maverick of an oven to find that I—or the culinary gods—had successfully popped over a popover. It was breathtaking. It was gorgeous. I took a picture to send to my husband, then changed the angle and lighting and took a few more, like it was a child, not a ball of cheese and egg. Moments later he wrote back, “How does it taste?”

I didn’t respond.

The next batch was always going to be the last. If I added one more egg white, or took away ¼ a cup of flour, success was imminent.

I went back to work. I was obsessive. Hours passed. I stopped thinking about meals, and stopped having them—I’d tasted so many thick, glue-like lumps of cheesy dough that I couldn’t stomach the idea of eating. I also felt like I’d lose momentum. I was so close. The next batch was always going to be the last. If I added one more egg white, or took away ¼ a cup of flour, success was imminent.

When I answered my husband’s phone call, “What?!” I was, without realizing it, embodying some aspect of Jade—the part of her that stood in contrast to Iris, her sister in the novel.

In my novel Jade’s sister Iris bakes because she loves it; there is no urgency, no frantic drive toward an elusive ideal. Iris bakes the way my own sister bakes—there might be humming involved. Iris would not answer the phone “What?!” while filling a water bath for a cheesecake. But Iris was not an haute-cuisine chef. Or writing one.

Because that’s what my three days of recipe invention really led me to discover: not just what Jade might have created, but who Jade was.

In fiction-writing, we draw from what we know, and then we write past it. We invent. Inevitably, there are moments in which I think, “I don’t understand this character’s experience enough. There is more to discover here.” The farther the characters’ experience from my own, the more often this moment occurs.

Before venturing into popover creation, I knew how it felt to be Jade who experienced loss. I knew how it felt to be Jade who missed her sister; Jade who loved a man who was bad for her; Jade who tried to be a good daughter. But I didn’t know how it felt to be Jade who spent hours in the kitchen.

Through round after round of sticky, pasty experimentation, through disappointment and renewed determination, I found that Jade became more real to me, the author, and thus Jade became more real.

It took a couple more weeks of experimentation before I was satisfied with the results. When I sent off the revised draft several months later, I knew that my time in the kitchen had accomplished more than just one recipe.

Mr. Bill hadn’t been right about cooking to land a spouse, but he’d not been wrong about cooking uniquely leading to somewhere important: For Jade, I’d had to learn.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Luke Perry, Dylan McKay, and the Myth of the ‘Bad Boy’

I have always loved bad television. I have always loved stories that looked directly at my most basic expectations of what it is to be a human and just did the thing. I know life is more complicated and that’s exactly why I love these stories. I love their straightforward shapeliness, the space they give for you to sit inside of them and feel. I like the way people dress in ways that people don’t dress in real life, how much more attractive they are, how in love everyone falls, the way all the love turns into sex and all the sex turns into almost pregnancy.

Beverly Hills, 90210 might be the origin of this love I have for shows like this. It is the most perfect version of it. I have watched every episode at least ten times. When I turned 26, nine years after the show was off the air, my husband got me the 90210 DVD box set off eBay for my birthday. I’d never felt so seen.

I was seven when 90210 started. The night of the last show, I was 17. I was in high school and my family was out to dinner—as they often were then without me, I was a Depressed Person—but that night, that last show, I ate my favorite meal, a chicken parmesan sub from the local pizza place followed by ice cream, and I sat in this chair I sat in every night while everyone else was out to dinner somewhere or sleeping. I sobbed and cheered and FELT. When I went to college, my little sister made me one of those make-your-own to-go coffee mugs with pictures of the cast.

In one of my favorite ever scenes of Beverly Hills, 90210 Brenda’s been forbidden from seeing Dylan. She lies to her parents and says she’s going shopping with Donna and Kelly. There’s a great beat of a moment when Brenda’s dad offers his credit card for “the shopping” that Brenda has no plans of doing. The girls all meet Dylan not far from Brenda’s house and she and Dylan take off on his motorcycle on their own. In that same episode, Brenda’s parents catch them making out in the shower at the beach. In another, they run away to Baja together, dance, and go surfing. Dylan doesn’t wholly understand what aberrance this is because he has no consistent caretakers in his life and this has disastrous results.

Brenda is oddly riveting, even as she is so much less traditionally high school pretty than Kelly. Even as her earnestness grates at times. She’s from Minnesota and she has brown hair. That Dylan sees and understands and WANTS her in the face of this, perhaps because of it, is one of those magic facts of trope-ish TV drama, one of those narrative leaps that gives so much. That he is too cool even to want to date Kelly (at first), that he is too cool even to spend much time at school. That he likes books, and film, and art, but also drives a small black Porsche. He is the perfect bad boy because he is also secretly the best boy, the most loving, the most earnest. His damage has softened something in him in the middle. He is what so many not traditionally attractive quiet girls assume the bad boys would be, except they’re not.

When I watched 90210, I knew the basic structure of the story and all the space that it would offer me to feel without any real danger or investment.

I watched 90210 throughout high school; not just the shows that were coming out, but all the years I’d been too young to see until then. I watched each day after cross country or track practice, the morning after I got alcohol poisoning, the morning after I had sex for the first time. I watched it when I stopped agreeing to leave the house after dark, the day I stopped showing up to track practice, the day I began refusing to go to school.

I wasn’t having fun the night that I had alcohol poisoning. I didn’t particularly like the person I had sex with at 16. I felt all sorts of complicated things in high school, want, fear, need, all the feelings that they felt on 90210, but the shape those feelings took for me were mostly boring, life-like: I sat on the same chair and ate and watched TV. I drove my car around and cried. I did a lot of lying in my bed not talking. I did a lot of watching other kids do things but not knowing how to join.

Sometimes, characters are worth more to generations worth of lonely teenage girls than most actual human beings could ever be.

I felt confused most of the time then, and scared, but when I watched 90210, I knew the basic structure of the story and all the space that it would offer me to feel without any real danger or investment; I felt safe; I invested myself fully; I laughed and cried.

Now, I teach at a graduate art school. I think a lot, and I talk a lot in the classes that I teach, about how to tell stories that make people feel and think things. There is perhaps nothing more insulting than being told in graduate art school, that you are dealing in a trope. It’s just… people will start in workshop, it’s such a trope, they’ll say. This one of those words I’ve heard so much the past decade I have a meaning for it, but could not define it, so I looked it up for you. It’s this:

A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

It’s the second one that people are talking about in workshop: recurring themes, cliches. These are inevitable perhaps in teenage stories, in any “bad” TV show. People fall in love, are misunderstood (but secretly beautiful, a princess, rich), have sex. But then, consider the word’s origin, the first definition: tropes are the use of language for effect, an attempt to contain an idea in a smaller space, to have language stand in for something bigger than itself. Tropes are spaces that have very little to do with life and yet hold so much of it within them. They’re spaces where the basest, most simplistic versions of ourselves are brought to fruition and examined, spaces where we can recognize our lives from the outside.

Dylan McKays do not exist in real life. No one has that much money in addition to good taste in literature in addition to a tragic family story in addition to the ability to love so many different women while still hanging on to his basic good and earnestness. Dylan McKays don’t exist because damage up close doesn’t look that good for over a decade, because the actual effects of what his life was run deeper than a couple of years of alcohol addiction and a thirst for vengeance that only ends when one’s father turns out not to be dead. Dylan McKays, as real people, are both more and less beautiful than this one. They don’t have to face their wife’s death after years of trauma because new shows are taking over. They don’t have to briefly lose their girlfriend to a cult. Dylan McKay is, in other words, a character, and proof that sometimes, characters are worth more to generations of lonely teenage girls than most actual human beings could ever be.

For years, I didn’t know how to feel, so I turned to tropes to do my feeling; I went to Beverly Hills, 90210 almost everyday. The real life complexity of life was too much so when I was in the world, I stayed numb, mostly. I knew how easy feeling was but also how uncontained it could be up close in person; this is both what makes tropes safer and where they fall short. Dylan McKay was my first love because when it was time for first loves I didn’t have the bandwidth, when it was time for first kisses and first sex, I just got blackout drunk. I did these things in life that hurt and were too messy and mixed up and felt as little as I could because I wasn’t up for facing in real life; I put all my feeling into Brenda and Dylan and Kelly instead.

That Luke Perry, the man, the father, died is the saddest thing about this; at 52, no less, which feels old for Dylan McKay, but for a grown up person, a real live person, it feels far too young. That whatever small pithy things Luke Perry said to his kids on the phone he can’t say to them any longer. That whatever subtle hurt may have lived between him and his loved ones, can’t now be undone.

Luke Perry had two kids, a mom, and a stepfather, a brother, an ex-wife, and a fiancee. I imagine his personhood was messy in the way that everybody’s personhood is messy. I imagine it was also a little bit more boring than all the people he played on TV. I imagine that he loved his kids. There are probably all sorts of facts about his life that might be transformed into stories, but then they would be stories, then he’d be a character, they’d already be once removed from who he was.

One of the most useful teachings I was given in graduate art school was that characters are not people. This is both one of the limits of storytelling, but also its gift. Stories contain bits of life in ways that feel more accessible and engage us, that feel truer sometimes, more alive than life; they teach us to feel and give shape to what we’re feeling long before we have the tools to muddle through them in our own lives. They give us space to make sense of all the feelings that we weren’t equipped to feel or name all on our own.

Tropes succeed because they get so close to life. They fail because they never touch it at full force. Dylan McKay, who was magic, unreal, still lives on streaming services and DVD box sets. Our grief for him—drawn from his status as a bad boy and what it meant to us—is a kind of practice for the up close version, just like loving him was all those years ago.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Frederic Tuten: On My Youthful Dreams of the Parisian Writer’s Life

Paris+Cafes

Manhattan and the Bronx, circa 1946

When I was ten my grandmother and I went to the city—that’s what we called Manhattan—to pick up a cake from De Robertis Pasticceria, between Tenth and Eleventh on First Avenue. My mother had ordered the cake for my aunt Sadie’s birthday. There were many Italian pastry shops on Arthur Avenue, a swift 20-minute bus ride from where we lived, but none, in my family’s judgment, was as good as DeRobertis, where they would stop for baba au rhum or a cannoli when they lived on East Twelfth.

We got off at Union Square, as usual, but instead of walking across Fourteenth Street as always, we took a turn and found ourselves on Fourth Avenue, where we had never been. It took us along Book Row, the area between Eighth and Fourteenth Streets, packed with used-book stores with their outdoor stalls. I knew right away that I would go back when I was old enough to travel alone.

I seldom left my neighborhood or traveled to Manhattan, but after I turned thirteen I started taking the subway down to Book Row. The ride from Pelham Parkway to Union Square Fourteenth Street was direct, no changes or transfers, so I was not too afraid of getting lost. On early Saturday afternoons it was easy to find an empty seat and be left quietly to read a book during the hour-long ride. The subway cost a dime each way, and for another dollar or even less I could find wonderful books to haul back to the Bronx. My mother complained, “Where are we going to keep all these books?” My one bookcase made of boards held up on bricks was already overpacked and verging on collapse.

“Under my cot, Mom.” Where I had stashed the books my shelves could not hold.

One afternoon, drawn by the title, I bought George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man from a bookstall for a dime. It had a worn, leathery green cover and distinguished gold title impressed on the spine. I read the opening pages out there in the street, and in moments I knew the book was addressed to me. It was about a young man (like me) who wanted to be an artist (like me) and yearned (like me) to find his way to become one.

I promised myself that one day I would follow him to Paris, where art and beauty counted for everything.

On the subway back to the Bronx, I continued reading, and as we ascended from the underground to the elevated tracks after 149th Street, passing the littered streets below and the brown rows of sullen apartment buildings, I felt I had met myself in a past life. Not only because young Moore had wanted to be an artist, but because he wanted to live the life of one. His Confessions teemed with names of famous Impressionist painters, of mysterious narrow streets and smoke-filled cafés, under a Paris sky thick with artistic aspiration.

I promised myself that one day I would follow him to Paris, where art and beauty counted for everything, and where extraordinary women—as I found in a book of artists photographed in their studios and on their picnics and in sexy cafés—also came with the freedom of bohemian life.

My friend Arthur, the expert who had explained to me the mysteries of sex, came over to me in the school cafeteria and said, “This is the book for you.” Arthur was the one who had passed around his copy of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, dog-eared to the famous scene of a woman walking into the hero’s room and slowly unbuttoning her blouse—the scene that had inflamed a generation of Bronx youth. Arthur’s parents drove around in a Cadillac and parked it in a garage at night and they never seemed to have to go to work. They had recently returned from Paris and had sneaked through customs Henry Miller’s banned book Tropic of Cancer. Arthur filched it from their bedroom bureau and turned it over to me. “This will make you cream all night,” he said. “But you got to give it back before they find it missing.” I was thrilled to have this mysterious, forbidden book.

The edges of the pages were folded at the supposedly hot passages. The rest of the book seemed untouched. I read the whole book from first sentence to last, and a day after I finished I started over again. It was a key to the cell I lived in and offered a view of the exciting world outside the prison of ordinary life. The book sang the joy of living unshackled by social norms, conventions, the everyday lies; it was a manifesto for my liberty. Nowhere did I find the supposed sexy filth for which it was banned. There was plenty of sex, but none of it pornographic, and even if it had been, so what? What was all the fuss about? Wasn’t sex the stuff of life we lived in and lived for?

I thought it was wonderful to be spiritually lost, especially in Bowles’s world, so far away.

Tropic of Cancer tells the story of Henry, the author himself, who, at 35 and with just a few dollars to his name, sailed from New York to Paris, knowing no one there, speaking not a phrase of French. In Paris he scrounged money from fellow Americans, went hungry, and yet none of that mattered, because he walked the city like a man crazy in love. A single day wandering in Paris was a day richer, deeper, than his whole previous life in New York working at shitty jobs and starved for a woman’s caress that did not require a marriage license. Could I not one day soon do the same as Henry—and young George Moore—and live in Paris a free man?

But first I had to escape from prison. I was bored with my high school classes, with the well-meaning teachers, the students with passion for nothing—except for sex, the only passion we shared. There was nothing in school that opened me to greater poetry or fiction than I had already been reading. I was then in the world of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, with its spiritually lost expatriates wandering through Morocco and its desert outposts.

I thought it was wonderful to be spiritually lost, especially in Bowles’s world, so far away from school, from the butcher shop and even Louie’s Luncheonette, from my crumbling apartment and my sad mother. But better than Bowles’s soulless desert was the glamorous writer’s life in Paris that I had discovered in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Like its protagonist, Jake Barnes, I, too, would sit with other artists and writer friends—and worldly women—in a café where I could linger for hours drawing and reading at a table sur la terrasse, which sounded more heroic than just a table on the sidewalk.

I reread Moore’s Confessions, searching this time for practical information on how young George was able to pay his way to the city of art and light. I soon discovered the answer. He wrote: “Then my father died, and I suddenly found myself heir to considerable property . . . I was free to enjoy life as I pleased. Eighteen, with life and France before me.”

Expecting no estates to be left to me, I was bitter at my bad luck and chastised myself for being such a dreamy fool. I would have to discover my own way to Paris.

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From My Young LifeUsed with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Frederic Tuten.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub