Friday, September 12, 2008

Alaska.

I've been thinking about it more and more lately. I usually do, around this time of year.

Here's why I still think of it so fondly (this post originally appeared here):

Drunk & Unpublished at the Edge of the World

My first year of undergrad work in Alaska, I met a girl named Lou who drank a half gallon of Black Velvet whiskey every week, rolled her own cigarettes, wore steel-toed boots, and took home a different guy every weekend.

In Fairbanks, even more than other university towns, there’s not much to do during the winter but drink and have sex. When it’s 20 below and it’s been dark for the last twenty hours, you’re really not up for much else.

So Lou would coax me up to her room with promises of cheap whiskey and diet coke, and once I was sufficiently sloshed, she’d bring out her stories.

Lou was an English major from Oregon. She’d spent a year in the Philippines when she was sixteen, and most of her stories were about that year. They were beautiful, emotional pieces that took me to a hot, humid place, to beaches and palm trees and rice at every meal. They were potent escapes from a dark, cold, November night.

After the readings, we’d go down to the front porch of the dorm and roll cigarettes with numb fingers and smoke until we were frozen, then go back in and drink some more. I would drink until I realized that if I drank any more, I wasn’t going to be able to make it downstairs to my own bed without passing out in the stairwell. Lou said she wouldn’t have minded me not returning to my own bed, but Lou wasn’t really my type, and I was still holding out for somebody else at the time.

Lou was a good writer, something I was surprised to learn once she started reading. I’d had any number of people come up to me and claim to be a writer when they heard it was something I did. Most of them were of the, “I have this great idea, and if you write it, we can split the profits 50/50,” type or the “As soon as I have the time, I’m going to write a novel,” kind.

But Lou definitely had talent. She told good stories on paper and in person, and told me about the time one of her girlfriends shot off her boyfriend’s toe after he threatened to kill her and locked her in a basement for three hours.

These were the sorts of people Lou was friends with.

But Lou’s writing had one fault:

She never finished anything.

The impression I got from the bits and pieces she read about her experience in the Philippines was that something not all-together empowering had happened there, something that, after coming back to the States, she dealt with primarily by drinking a lot of whiskey and putting on a lot of weight. She liked to talk about how thin and desirable she’d been in the Philippines, how much men liked her blue eyes. She would say, “135 pounds” with the wistful nostalgia of a far older woman for a much younger self, though she wasn’t even twenty-two.

Lou and I hung out with the same group of stoner guys - the beer drinking, motorcycle riding, marijuana smoking, guitar playing types who were easy to get into bed. And while I mostly was stuck on one of them, she went to bed with all of them, and some of the drama and English majors to boot. I wanted to admire that kind of sexual freedom, but I soon learned that Lou wasn’t particularly happy with her conquests. Mostly, she was angry and bitter that a one night stand was just a one-night-stand. I suggested that maybe getting to know a guy and having a relationship with him before she had sex with him might lead to more long-term interest.

She rejected that out of hand.

“Men don’t want to be in relationships with fat girls,” she said, and she scribbled something into her notebook.

What always fascinated me about Lou was that when I looked at us, I often saw the same person. Or, rather, who I could have been. She was angry and bitter and pissed off at the hand she’d been dealt. She’s had one really bad experience, and it broke her, and she believed everyone was out to betray her and piss her off and nobody would stick by her. And believing that, she created the world just as she imagined it to be.

Most of our drinking and reading sessions involved discussions about how she would get back at the latest lover who had jilted her: not returned her calls, not been up for another midnight session, told her she was just a passing fuck.

When rumors began to circulate on her dorm floor that she and I were lovers, she wanted to stage a glorious public breakup in the dining hall, perhaps to draw further male sexual interest from the woodwork.

She had a flair for the dramatic. It made her a good storyteller, but a rather undisciplined one. Her life was in such a disarray, so full of drama and angst and drunken nights, that finishing most any bit of writing at all would have been a blessed miracle.

She was living. The recording could come later.

Some of the best advice I was ever given about writing came from Geoff Ryman, and it wasn’t advice about writing at all. It was advice about life. He sat me down for my one-on-one at Clarion West after a rather stunning critique of a story of mine in which he asserted that the he found the story “personally offensive” and believed it suffered from “a failure of the imagination.” Coming from a writer like Ryman, when I was twenty years old, the youngest in the class, was like a cold slap in the face.

He said I needed to travel and read outside the genre. He said I had far too much talent to be writing sordid slash-n’hack (I still write slash n’ hack. But it’s a better sort of slash n’ hack).

When I went back to Alaska after that summer in Seattle, Lou was gone. She had had a wild “breakup” with the group of guys we hung with, told one guy’s girlfriend she’d slept with him, told that girlfriend I was a loser slut who’d slept with her boyfriend, too, and was fleeing an abusive boyfriend who’d threatened to kill me (not exactly common knowledge at the time), and tried to get the motorcycle riders to ditch me, too. It worked pretty well. Everybody got pissed off.

Lou always did have a flair for the dramatic.

I’d spent a great deal of my life, about ten years of it, working very hard at “being a writer.” Whatever the hell that was supposed to be. I believed you just had to work really hard. You had to write every day. You had to finish everything. You had to read the books in your field (unfortunately, to the exclusion of all others). You had to go to writing classes and workshops (I’d been going to one sort of workshop or another since I was 14). You had to write, to the exclusion of all else. You had to cut yourself off from other people, because only the writing was important.

Lou didn’t really do any of that. But damn, she had good stories.

I’d like to say that not a lot of my writing got done in Alaska, with all that drama, all those dark nights, all that whiskey. But I sold my first pro-rate-paying story while I was there, something I popped off in a couple hours on a dreary October night while downloading porn and music from the networked computers in my dorm.

When it’s cold and dark and you don’t have a real job, you can say yes to every opportunity that comes your way and write about it, too.

Well, you can say yes to almost everything.

I think Lou may have said yes to too much. There’s a fine line between living out loud and driving yourself into the ground.

Stories don’t come from nowhere.

I remember spending one chilly May night at a ramshackle cabin in the hills just outside Fairbanks. The floor sloped precipitously, there was no running water, and the couple who lived there were growing marijuana upstairs in the loft. We ate wild rabbit cooked up with rice, and before the beer really got flowing, me and one of the other girls took turns shooting a rifle at makeshift targets made out of the remains of a sled dog kennel.

I drank eight beers followed by a fifth of vodka and promptly heaved out a stream of projectile vomit over the porch railing. The guy from New York was playing the guitar, and the couple were dragging themselves drunkenly to bed, and I retreated out to the bonfire just off the porch (fueled, as well, by the remains of old dog kennels) with the kid from Evanston. We huddled together for warmth, and I bled out a bunch of perceived ills and moaned about how unlovable I was, and how Lou had gotten laid more than me, and about the couple heading upstairs, and how I felt I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t fit anywhere. I always felt too smart around them. Too big, defective.

“You realize you’re a lot better than us, don’t you?” he said. “I’m not really sure why you’ve spent this long hanging out with us.”

I suppose I couldn’t help it. They had good stories.

When the guy from New York hauled me out onto the porch later and berated me for crushing on the coupled guy for the last year, I burst into tears, and he hugged me and said, “Listen, us, this group of losers, you’re not going to see us again. We’re just gonna be some guys you knew in college. This really isn’t important. It’s a chapter in your life. There’s a bigger picture. You deserve way better than that guy, and way better than us.”

Ah, my drunken Alaskan boys.

A month later, I went to Clarion. By September, the group broke apart, Lou’s forked tongue helped severe me from the crowd, and I didn’t see any of them again.

In some small, secret way, I suppose I loved them, and Lou, for being everything I wasn’t. Their expectations of the future were closer, more attainable, less risky. They wanted a good partner and a good motorcycle and good weed and a roof over their heads. They wanted enough money to live. They did not want to be known. They didn’t want to be heard. The stories they told were more private, secret histories, often far more interesting than mine, that they had no interest in broadcasting to the world. Why bother? What did they have to do with the world? That’s why they’d come to Alaska.

And it’s why I left. I wanted more in the way that the perpetually unfulfilled will always want more. I had more people to meet, more places to go, more stories to write.

Like Lou, I never wanted to get stuck in one story. I didn’t want to endlessly catalogue the mistakes of my youth. I wanted to finish what I started.

When I sent off my Clarion applications, I did so without the money to go, and without any real expectation that I would get in. I made the waiting list. I got in a month or so later by sheer virtue of the fact that somebody else didn’t want to go.

That seemed somehow appropriate.

Your writing life isn’t over once you get out of bootcamp any more than your life is over after getting married, or divorced, or having kids. Those are just mileposts on a very long marathon route, pit-stops for food and refreshment, and they usually turn out to be the places where you meet the most interesting people, and collect the best sorts of stories.

Sometimes, I can even finish some of them.

It took me a long time to realize that writing wasn’t about cutting yourself off from people and huddling in a dark room for hours and hours and hours every weekend (well, not every weekend). It was about going out into the world with big boots on and learning how to roll your own cigarettes. It was about riding motorcycles and drinking home-brewed beer and taking trains across New Zealand. It wasn’t just looking out at the world, it was about being a part of it, and living to tell the tale: yours or somebody else’s, somebody who couldn’t finish theirs.

You want to open up your hands and say to somebody, “Here, this, this is your life, what it was, what it is, what it could be. How do you want it to end?”

And I wonder if that’s why Lou never could finish a story. I wonder if she was afraid of getting stuck with the wrong ending, afraid it ended with her reading half-finished stories in a little dorm room at the edge of the world, drinking whiskey by herself on a cold, dark night, trapped by her own adolescent self and the roads she walked before the world became too much, before it reared up to get her, before she got lost to anger and fear.

I dream that she went out and made a better ending.

I know she can.

2 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Aldea said...

Very touching story - and it struck a chord with me because I experienced much the same thing in East Hampton, CT: hanging out with people who kept me at arms length because I didn't belong there; your friend at the bonfire was mine by the lake - telling me nicely to go away and be where I should, anywhere but there. Thanks for reminding me that while I haven't got to where I set out to be, I have no doubt it's where I should be :-)

Aspiring Solo said...

kameron, I'm so proud of you! You are a fantastic writer. You have already "made it". I've been following your blog for a few years now. Keep up the good work.