What interesting parallels I’m having this week with the stories I wrote ten years ago as the Slate Diarist not long after 9/11. There was a lot of talk in the media then about how 9-11 had changed everything, but I suspect that less changed than we predicted. Ten years ago I was trying to shape my thoughts about writing simply, about telling stories that move me, and about my recently published Christmas book, When Angels Sing that has this past year been made into a feature film.
I was even more focused on my script, Waiting for Gordo, a South Texas adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s classic that I had set on the border, not far from where I am writing this week on the Rio Grande River in and around Laredo. Gordo was a small effort to personalize a story that is too often dehumanized and always politicized.
A decade later, the eight candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination – arguing like an octopus turned on itself – are arguing about border immigration and freeloading illegals in the same tone I was hearing then. I’m not going to hold my breath for a solution, but I have learned this week that border intervention is a huge business and not likely to ever become a smaller one. It’s been an honor to look for a little understanding of border issues in the company of Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and one of the greatest and bravest photographers of our time, Lynsey Addario. Watch for Joe’s stories and Lynsey’s photos on Joe’s Swampland Blog and in Time Magazine for the next month.
But first, here’s my Slate Diary Blog from soon after 9-11 – a time capsule to a me that I hope I can hold onto.
The beauty of being a free-lance writer is you get to pick your subjects, themes, and characters. Unless they pick you. The age-old dictum, of course, is to “write what you know,” a philosophy that works for a time, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a tattoo. Much better to write what you learn.
Foremost, I learned that my daughter is not the only one plagued by dreams hanging on our fears of a darkness that threatens to envelop the earth. This morning, one person after another related their sleepless experiences until it seemed like half of America must have awakened at 4 a.m. from what I can only describe as a collective nightmare. Oh, if this war were only a dream, how sweet would be our waking tomorrow.
One thing I learned in that quest today, learned and relearned as I have to learn nearly every day, is the aspiration to write simply. Misquoting Faulkner—but raising a glass to his spirit—my goal is to write from the heart, not from the balls or brains (though those can be handy in a pinch).
A few years ago, while a guest on Sky TV’s literary talk show from London, I was talking with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series and other timeless tomes. Pullman is a former schoolteacher who started quite a row in the literary world by saying the art of storytelling had been foolishly devalued by hip literary stylists. I believe Martin Amis was one name that he singled out, though I don’t intend to reduce one great writer to hoist up another. But I do think Pullman was right to wonder if the literary hipsters weren’t forgetting to give something back to their readers.
I later shared a few ales and words on this subject with Richard Cohen, the British publisher of my novel, Fast Greens, which I was promoting at the time. Richard fell more into the Pullman camp than the Amis, saying that he had once worked for a marvelous publisher who only asked one question when Richard found a novel that he wanted to publish. “Did itmove you?”
Cohen also gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried ever since. One of the advantages of being a Southern writer (or a Texas writer), he said, is that the innate style and language of our region enables us to write close against the line of sentimentality. (He neglected, however, to mention the Sisyphean nature of defining the line that separates sentiment in its true light from blatant sentimentality.)
A couple of years ago, I wrote one of those little Christmas novels that a cynic might think the product of monetary desperation. But this was a story that chose me. I’d been thinking of writing something for my family’s Christmas but had no solid ideas. Then one morning I awoke from a late night’s reverie and began to write. Twenty days later, I stopped writing and sent the book to my friends and family as a Christmas present. One week more, and the editor of Algonquin Books called to say she’d like to publish When Angels Sing, which most critics lauded as a heartfelt story simply told. But two critics (fans of Martin Amis, I imagined) absolutely loathed my story of a man who had to shed his hatred of Christmas in order to hold the love of his son.
I dashed off irate letters to these reviewers—letters I later regretted, learning the hard way that it’s better to offer thanks to those who give us praise. I also learned a more valuable lesson—that we can’t make the entire world into what we want it to be. The writer’s job, if you put your faith in the verities of old, is to shine a light on what is already there. To help us all awaken from the dream within a dream so that someday we may realize the dreams within our hearts.
Samuel Johnson wrote that we tell each other stories in an attempt to be made whole. Through storytelling we reveal who we are at the core; through storytelling we lay bare the hearts and souls of humankind, 6 billion people whose DNA can all be traced to a handful of common ancestors. Can there be any wonder that we share the same dreams?
So let me tell you a story from the set of Going to California—a story that even a sentimental writer wouldn’t have the balls to make up. In my episode, “Waiting for Gordo,” the two guest roles are Pucho and Fortunato, Latino characters inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. As the coyote Pucho, we enthusiastically cast Tony Amendola, the kind of actor you always dream will say your words. A man of infinite moods, Tony moves so deftly from darkness to light and back again that I wish I could be his full-time scribe, following close behind and whispering everyday lines into his ear just to hear him make me sound brilliant.
More important to today’s story, though, is the young man cast as Fortunato. The show’s producers knew only that on videotape, Bernardo Verdugo seemed to be an angelic natural as an illegal alien who is discovered in the trunk of a car where he has been locked by a coyote. Like so many people from so many parts of the world, Fortunato’s great aspiration is to come to freedom, to make a new life in America. After the first few scenes this morning, I complimented Bernardo on his performance, and he said that it was not a difficult part for him. Six years ago, well before he got his green card and residency in the United States, Bernardo was brought to America by a coyote.
“How did you cross the border?” I asked.
“Locked in the trunk of a car,” he said.
And then I watched him climb back into the trunk of a car. The lid slammed shut, and I thought of him there in the darkness, wondering what awaited him. Cameras rolled and our director softly said, “Action.” As the trunk came open, the sun peeked out from behind a tall cloud, and long rays of light shone in upon the face of Bernardo Verdugo.
And on a film set high atop a hill on a ranch outside of Austin, the shared dreams of a young man from Mexico and a writer from Texas came true.
We finished the scene to everyone’s delight, then the sun slipped back behind the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, “We need more light.”