A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman
Reading the page proofs of my forthcoming book (I can be a shameless self-promoter when moved), I am struck by how much can alter in the mind of the writer between composition and the stage at which he pretty well has to live with what it is he’s written. Not quite as indelibly as with the process of egg tempera painting, but that’s not an inapt metaphor.
One is always tempted to make changes along with corrections. In this case (my book is an anti-memoir of sorts composed over 2.5 seasons), and if I were writing it now, I’d put some things differently. But no, I’ve decided to be, in Worried Into Being, the guy (and I do mean guy) I was when I began the first section, “A for Aardvark.” You’re curious, right? It’s an alphabet book—well, not really (the alphabet’s a front)—and I chose to begin with the first interesting ‘A’ in my dictionary. Here’s a change I’d make: Latvia apparently has a river called the Aa. No joke. It’s not in my desk dictionary (though the Aar River in Switzerland is), so I never knew. Aardvark’s okay, but Aa would have been a fresher choice. A soft damn from me.
For the rest of it, I’m not unhappy. I was healthy when this began; I am now, let us say, significantly less so. The last three letters I worked on, back in May, were worked on with the proverbial black cloud hovering over me with a promised Whitney Pier rain. I hesitated, but then I stumbled westward and did the deed. Even then I had no immediate plans for publication, but wiser heads prevailed. I do business with an odd publisher, but their principals have been loyal for lo these 31 years, so here we are. Almost.
I couldn’t even re-read my manuscript for the longest time after completion, for fear I’d be disappointed in my own handiwork. It was a relief to discover that what I’d written—using a format I’d never before even considered, let alone employed—was good. Ah, what the heck, it’s far better than good, if I say so myself.
I am my own first and worst critic, I swan. I first published between bookish covers in 1969, and I have been anything but prolific since. But I’ve done what I’ve done and have just more or less completed an additional manuscript as well, for publication down the road a pike. A sense of ego-urgency has seemingly sucked hard on any high octane left in my system (not as apt a metaphor), and what used to take me a decade and more to accomplish as a writer has suddenly fruited within a 12-month time frame.
Some writers insist that creative writing can’t really be taught, though the one course I did take nearly 40 years ago was seminal for me. I tend to agree with the skeptics, though I do feel that it can encourage and lubricate ability that’s already there, if the instructor is robustly informed and inspired. I doubt any creative writing teacher would teach what I write and have written. My style has naturally evolved since the publication of that 1969 chapbook, but I’d not, for my part, choose to instruct anyone on how to emulate it. I was unquestionably naïve in 1969, about everything, and it shows in my work. Now (take heed) when I appear to be naïve, I’m just being ironical. There’s a difference. How to make a silk purse out of a cotton purse.
I’ve also been entrenched in creative perversity of a sort. This forthcoming book isn’t poetry, it isn’t straight prose, it’s partly made up, partly true as kittens. It’s one voice playing with possibility, in response to an invitation to the dance. My wife thinks it’s very funny. I hope the damn book appears soon.