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Why I Write

Issue 20, Spring 1998

© Ernesto Artillo

I always experience a mild depression whenever I type up what I have written. This act seems redundant. The work has already been done. I adore the praise of the public, no mistake. But the primary motive must be unpublic. Much more, I'd guess, the inner journey of the imagination itself. There is the ecstasy. The rest is simply good. Some money, a little fame. Not to be rolled over by time like a crab in the surf. Etcetera.

I write out of a greed for lives and language. A need to listen to the orchestra of living. It is often said that a writer is more alive than his peers. But I believe he might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted, thus more precise.

I write to live and I write to share. The Original Creator's version seems random and fascistic, but there are enough consistencies, if you wait and watch for them, to give remarkable tales. You must wake up terribly to catch them, even though what you produce may be close to dreams.

My life seems precious, even though often sad, and crammed with mystery. My past seems a fine gray like good old movie rain. I forget almost nothing. Even when I was drunk I recalled too much, and hence was forced to relive events in an agony of shame. Friends and confederates are often astounded by what I remember of certain afternoons an age ago—weather, dress, music, mots. A blessing and a curse. I feel superior to nobody because of the gift, and in other talents I rank very low. I do not rate myself highly in thought, for instance. I find life too vivid for thought, really. Thus I go about preaching, of course, that thought is overrated.

I see them pass still, the little old tiny-headed women of Clinton, Mississippi, in the '50s, in their giant cars on the brick streets. Or on their porches or at their azalea beds scolding dogs, then me; nestled in the pews and bobbing heads in the aisles of the church. Bringing in their covered dishes to church suppers. They established the tone of my world. All of them ancient beyond years now or dead. They observed and accounted. I fled them; I was a creature of the night, a little sinner. Or was I only paranoid, like the biblical thief who fleeth when none pursueth? Those days when they were big, these women, in my youth. But now I see their replicates in my grown town, don't I? I always wanted to explain to them how they didn't know how it was, they hadn't the faintest. I picked up the rhythms of Scripture for my tales, I'm certain, but it was mystery and sin that had me. I was not the echo for the voices of the tiny-headed women. Was not antiphonal to their voices. I was the dreadful opposite voice to whatever they asserted, the polar howling wretch. In Baptist songs I always liked where you were a wretch or a worm or, just as I am, hopeless.

But many of the women were kind, too kind, to me. Mrs. Bunyard in the third grade, she encouraged my tales and lies, as long as I wrote them down. Even at the same time she made you wash out your mouth with hard soap for swearing, or even for finding humor in the term jackass. This was in the good days when teachers listened patiently to your explanations, then beat hell out of you with a holed board. Fiction is work, and I suppose there would be no fiction in the Garden of Eden until the apple and the fall. Begins the mystery of evil, or of the Other. And the making of books of which there is no end, as warned in Ecclesiastes.

Another kind woman, Mrs. Ashley, was the victim of an early mystery, such things as I have been obsessed to declare. I have never written about this, but there was a boy—M., I'll call him—in the Royal Ambassadors with us. He was one of us, I insist. Mrs. Ashley was warden to us boys of the church. One day she took us to the circus in Jackson. M. did not go with us. But while we were away, he attacked Mrs. Ashley's bedroom. Trouble of the brain, a sudden cyclone of it. M. destroyed many items, both costly and worthless. He did not steal. He simply wrecked the place and left it so. There was no explanation. He was not jealous of the circus, he could have gone. But he chose. He was a silent, tall boy with wide gray eyes. Nobody recalled him saying much at all, only a mutter or whisper every now and then when he was pressed. Nothing was done to him, but he sank off the town map. He disappeared into the scandal. I cannot even remember his reappearance although I know he still came to church and school. But he was erased to our eyes by his pathology. Nobody wanted to look at him. The fury hidden in M. We looked away, ashamed for him. Where is he now? What is there to say for him? What is his story? What is it, M.? Please deliver. No. So I'll write one for you, pal, these many years from you. It still matters. And there at the center, too, kind little tiny-headed Mrs. Ashley, who loved all her boys. And M., this was the thing. He was one of us, he was no stranger.

The furies turned up the volume of our own inner voices, it is told. Such was their punishment. These voices want both definition and deliverance. So I write to both record them and free myself of them. Once you are into the life of writing, you are never really rid of the inner voices, and they are certainly not all your own. They will exhaust themselves for a time, but then there will be another siege and you have to sit down and do something about it.

Even as a Baptist Christian woman, my mother told yarns. She would be telling about times when I had accompanied her and I would know that what she told had not happened. I believe she was completely unconscious that she was enlarging on the truth. Otherwise she would know I could shoot her down as an eyewitness. I think it was the Irish in her. To my father, l owe a sense of diction. I never heard my father make a grammatical error. He was an insurance salesman and then a banker. His customers were Jews and blacks as well as the usual whites. People trusted him. He would not lie, and he never importuned. I don't believe he had a sales pitch at all. Because of Depression poverty at home, he had been unable to finish at the university. He loved knowledge and good language all the more, and read a book a day when he retired, a solid and respected success. He told me once about the dog and the robin at a service station in Forest, Mississippi. The dog adopted a wounded robin theowner had in a box under the counter. He licked and nuzzled therobin.The robin was almost well after two weeks and began hoppingaround the station, not quite able to fly yet. Then the dog, ever faithfulto his friend, began playing with it. Unintentionally, he killed therobin. Then the dog was very sad. The men of the station, too, werein grief. My dad told me this story in a faraway voice full of tendernessand wonder. There was no moral. The whole thing had beenbothwonderful and terrible. Whatever kindness there is in my work,l owe to my parents and the unflagging love of my brothers and sister,who all told tales and gave me the world. I was spoiled rotten, latebabe that I was, and inherited great pieces of their lives before me.

I have evermore been amazed by bursts of kindness in improbabletimes, the warm hand in dire straits.

But it was an eruption of vileness unprovoked by anything beyondlocal ennui that marked my first publicart, and it was theater. I still rememberthe complete happiness of making thattape. Reel-to-reel recorders were avant-garde where we lived. Fourpals and I set about enacting a wrestling match with commentary,with a few jokes about prominent parochial fools—the DeadDeacon, the Choir Hag, Minister Masturbo, Butt Ream Bob, theRenegade Cheerleader. This was high adolescence, a valedictory tohigh school, and we had wild fun making it in the instrument roomofthe band hall. But the tape fell into the principal's hands. Heannounced over the public address system to the entire student bodythat something had fallen into his hands, as he put it. It was so corruptthat it had shaken his faith in Youth In Our World. It was a sad,sad artifact, a thing that would crush, just crush, the parents of theoffenders if they knew. He paused. Was he weeping, or just stringingout the fear? Cold chills took me. This seemed the end, expulsion.But nothing was ever done. Over and over I recalled my contributionto the tape, where the Dead Deacon "was kicked in his giant balls justaflappin' out of his trunks there . . . . He seems to be, oh no . . .he'svomiting out . . .what . . .waves I tell you . . . of turnip greens . . . myHoly God!" There was no redeeming theme. It was no dreadful sermonette.It was just dreadful. But it was precious, I tell you. It wasmy art. And it was out there in the hands of the public. Many yearslater the principal, in his senility, drove down a sidewalk and into the store of a remote town. When I heard this I thought immediately of our tape.

Then to connect the tape, a fantasy, with Upont, I'll call him. Upont was from St. Louis and even at eighteen he looked seedy. He had big whiskered cheeks, a slouch and the fat waist of a man deep into middle age. He played third-chair trumpet in the marching band, and even his cornet was nasty green, brown, and splotched, leaking saliva at the spit valve. But he was one of us. He had a filthy wit and a big-city accent we'd hardly heard, so that even the mildest comments from him sounded cynical and decorated with slime. Actually, we thought he was fairly wonderful and he hung with us in the room, the cafeteria, vespers, here at the college. I guess it was a college. They called it college. Very Christerly. Conscious of the far mission fields but not the world.

I was at the local moviehouse on the big hill and there was some commotion in the lobby. Small children coming down the stairs to the balcony and pointing upward toward what they'd fled. I went upthere and in the front balcony seat was Upont with his arm across theshoulders of a small local boy. The boy was frozen there as Upontwhispered in his ear and then fastened a tongue on his cheek. The boy just sat staring ahead. This was the thing, just as Upont was thething. He was one of us, he was Youth In Our World. I cannot forgethis utter obliviousness, his helpless tonguing of the child, hiswhispers. Children around them had fled with little howls of alarm,baffled nausea, signs of throwing-up. Upont was heedless, too deepand gone into it. And the boy was allowing it. He seemed fascinatedby it all. A first in our time, in our town. It could not be one of us.It took Mrs. Moody, one of thosetiny-headed women, who ran themoviehouse, to separate them. Iwas so wretchedly astonished I just hung there, mouth open, thenquickly ran out the doors and down the hill, lest I be connected toUpont. When I saw my pals in the dorm room I could hardly speak.There seemed to be no straight narration to the event. Grave newworld. This was no fantasy, no tape.

Upont was "withdrawn" from the college, as the books have it. We did not much discuss him but he was still in the room with us. The voices began in my head and never have I set Upont down in print until now.

The fact is, in a real way, Upont's passion was more sublime, even in its horror, than was our wrestling skit, which was only teenage filth. And the child, this is what kept me going. Just sat there, tongued, whispered to, fascinated. He was ready. You had to gather Upont as a pro. He could spot them. And who could know whether this illicit tenderness might one day proceed to a cyclone of destruction, as with M.'s strange afternoon. Even homicide, I discovered later.

I must get this right.

Must tell it for all of us.

Especially those bright and hungry pals I ran with in school, always my best audience, forever. It is clear now I had no real stories through college, although I was bragged on by my poet teacher and even accused of plagiarism by another old bat teacher who wrote verse for greeting cards. My work was bursts of expression that imitated content and charmed others.

The fact is I wanted to write long before I had anything to say. I don't find this condition at all unusual in young writers, good or bad. A sort of attuned restlessness. Often it is simply an overriding need to talk. A sort of transcribed logorrhea, worse than decent gossip. I've taught these people, forever blasting away in wretched detail, solidly in love with their own noise. I must say, I was never infatuated with my own voice. It was the ideal inner voices that took me, and they came from everywhere, especially Hemingway, Joyce, Henry Miller, and later, Flannery O'Connor. Like many Mississippians, I shied away from Faulkner, who was at once remote and right there in your own backyard, the powerful resident alien. Having read a little of him, I sensed I would be overcome by him, and had a dread, in fact, that he might be the last word. That I would wind up a pining third-rate echo, like many another Southerner. Then T.S. Eliot, especially "Prufrock." But the earliest great howler who made me want to make the team was the badly forgottenDylan Thomas, whose voice seemed available everywhere inEnglish departments in the '50s and '60s. It seemedto me a finething to get drunk and just start being Welsh and crowing surrealism, asI perceived it. Put that against the sullen bitchery of Holden Caulfield, which charmed almost everybody my age, and you would be cooking. Miles Davis might one day shake your hand. He was God, and that would be very nice. 

On a pier in the early '60s, Bay Saint Louis, with a fine-looking girl who was dumping me but being pleasant about it, I accidentally declared myself. The brown waves ofthe two-rivered bay of the Gulf of Mexico were lapping against the pilings and we were alone. Maybe she wanted me to hurt a little, come to think of it. She was in a two-piece red, white, and blue swimsuit, blond hair on her shoulders that broke yourheart. She was a smart girl going to Millsaps College, but from a poor family in an old gray-board house. Her father stamped the price on cans at the grocery. Her motherwas frankly mercenary. I was in the running when I was pre-med, very hot. Then it became known I had changed to English major and I was cold. Nancy, however, thought this needed a polite farewell, because she did like me. I was in street clothesand she was near nude. But what will you do? she asked me. I had no idea. I had no interest in teaching, only in my stories and wretched Beat poems. But I blurted,"Protect me King's English" just to be ironic, hip, careless. I felt like a very mocked knight at the time, a sad punk really, but what I said is what I have tried to do all these years, even when I had nothing much to say. The language still strikes me as amiracle, a thing the deepest mind adores. At its best, when you lose your arrogance and are least selfish, it can sing back to you almost as a disembodied friend.

I think of those moments in Faulkner, Beckett, and Holy Scripture, when the wordsseem absolutely final, bodiless, unattached, as out of a cloud of huge necessity. My desire is to come even close to that team—to be that lucky, to be touched by such grace. I do believe that as you write more and age, the arrogance and most of the vanity goes. Or it is a vanity met with vast gratitude, that you were hit by somethingas you stood in the way of it, that anybody is listening. When you are ashamed andrevising your comments to old girlfriends of thirty years ago, you might be shocked to find out you really have nothing much better now than what you said in the first place. This is what I would tell her now: I want to say good stuff.

I finally had a real story at age twenty-three up at Fayetteville, Arkansas.

This followed a near religious conversion tedious to everybody but me, I'd guess. I'll only say that I became more committed to people who could never tell their ownstories and that I was no longer ashamed of being from the most derided state in theUnion.

Another time I was fishing one Saturday afternoon with my father, nephews, and mysmall oldest son Po, who was afire with Jimi Hendrix at the time. We were catching big bass, all of us up and in a sudden chilly breeze, a momentary violent change almost as if toanother, northern geography. In July, out of the heat, it seemed puremagic, and it felt wonderful. I knelt there consumed by a decision. A huge basssuddenly grabbed my line. I went into a spiritual ecstasy. My family was all around me, we were in heaven. You could cut the joy with a knife. We all felt it, althoughnobody spoke. This is it, this is it, my life! To say good stuff, like this. To say it, maybe so well they won't forget. This is it. Thanks to God. Later, before his death, my fathertold me he had never had a better day. He had caught a seven-pound bass, the family record. But that's not what I mean, son, hesaid. The other day my son, out of nowhere, asked me, Dad, you remember that day on Elwood Ratliff's dam?

Twenty years ago I was out in the woods alone. The weather was clear and very cold,but felt good. I had a Pall Mall in my hand and I walked into an old abandoned cabin of the Roosevelt era. Inside the cabin was just a bit warmer than out. A dusty tin bed with a thin mattress on brown springs. I wanted to light the Pall Mall very badly but Iwaited a while for the dark. The hairs of a feral dog lay in a circle on the planks infront of the hearth. In the last grip of faint grays, I lit the cigarette and the smoke felt exquisitely good inside me. I knew I was pledged to something. This lonesomeness,this cold lost place I would soon warm up. Nobody knew where I was, nobody. It wanted to be lived in here. I knew life would be sad but quite fine then. I felt a humof joy in my head. Like some old muttering conquistador stumbled up with a flag toram the staff into God knows what mud.

Forever afterward I would crave abandoned rooms in lost places, me with my penciland paper. I would mount a small country here.The frame was already there, you were not really a conquistador, let'snot kid our girlfriends. But you would warm upand put somethingin this hole. It might leak a little bit but it would be yours.From all my military readings I have gleaned the comment mostpertinent to me and the gals and pals desperately given over to thewriting life. The writer meant Korea and Vietnam, but he put histruth to the exact same glory and grief of our efforts: It's the war wecan't win, we can't lose, we can't quit.

I'm waiting, however, for the future priest to be kicking around theshards of our old cabins. He finds some pages. My God, it's paper, ancient paper. He bends over, holding the cigarette pack-size computer to his shirt pocket so it won't fallout.

Poor devils, the old scribes, jabber jabber, yadda yadda, he says.

But wait, this is pretty good.

Barry Hannah

Barry Hannah wrote eight novels and five short story collections, and taught well-known writers such as Larry Brown, Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower. He is one of the region's most acclaimed writers. He died in Oxford, Mississippi, in 2010.