My Years in the Wilderness
When I was living out of the back of my ’65 Chevy van, there was a kind of dude I used to run into from time to time. A hard-core road character, burnt brown by the sun, unbathed in months, living on dimes a day. I probably met and spent time with a dozen guys like this in places like Texas and Louisiana, northern California, Washington state—giving them rides, working day-labor jobs, staying up all night talking. They carried guitars and no-hope dreams. I used to ask myself, listening to their tunes in a stoned haze some place that I could never remember twelve hours later, “Am I as over the edge as these guys? Am I heading as straight down the tubes as they are?”
They were great guys, wonderful companions; I wish I knew where some of them are today. Okay, I hope. But I’m not so sure.
When I was struggling to teach myself how to write, I was so far gone that the idea of choice never entered the equation. The question wasn’t, Does this make sense? Am I getting anywhere? The question was, “Am I out of my mind? How much farther down is this road gonna take me?”
From time to time I’d make a stab at returning to reality. I’d get a real job. I’d work hard, I’d make friends, sometimes I even had a girlfriend. But I could never stick. I had to write. All through this time, I was estranged from my family. My Dad could make no sense of the choices I had made; I broke his heart. I had long ago driven my wife away. My mother thought I was crazy. What mainstream friends I had were on my side, but, on the rare occasions when I saw them, they regarded me partly with pity, partly with puzzlement, but mainly with that look that people get when they’re afraid they’re standing too close to something contagious.
Was I doing good work? Hell no. Everything I wrote was crap, and mainly I didn’t write at all. I had nothing to say. I had no point of view. I knew nothing and thought nothing. But still I was desperately driven. I’d work, save money, take a year or two and write a book. I say “book” but they weren’t books; when friends would read them, the look on their faces was excruciating. They were mortified.
I myself thought I was crazy. I’d had writing jobs, in advertising, which should have been easy. I wasn’t even any good at that. Who was I kidding? What did I imagine I was accomplishing? I didn’t even have a dream. Money? It never even crossed my mind. Praise? Critical success? I couldn’t get my own mother to pay attention. And still I couldn’t stop. The times I tried, I could hold it together for six months. I spent a season picking fruit. The tramps in the bunkhouses had an expression: “Pull the pin.” The term came from the old railroad days when the switching crews would literally pull a steel pin to uncouple one car from another. “Pull the pin” meant to bolt, to pack up in the middle of the night. You might wake up and the bunk next to yours would be empty. “What happened to Jack?” “He pulled the pin.”
That was what I did. I pulled the pin. (By the way, here’s the bunkhouse distinction: a “tramp” is an itinerant worker; a “hobo” is an intinerant non-worker; a “bum” is a non-itinerant non-worker.)
Sometimes in a city at night I would walk past a ballet studio and look up at the dancers hard at work. I envied them. They had each other, they had a troupe, a class. I envied actors who had rep groups and theaters. I had nobody. Not a soul who believed in me or thought I wasn’t crazy.
What keeps a person going? As I write this, I’m aware that there are people reading who know exactly what I’m talking about. Young painters and film-makers and novelists who are in that exact same place. Lemme say this to you:
Don’t quit. Bleed from your eyeballs if you have to, but don’t stop. What kept me going was the same thing that kept those dancers working at the barre. I just loved it. Even when the work was garbage, which was 99.9% of the time, I had to keep trying—and if you’re trying now, God bless you. Keep hammering. If you have a choice, you’ll know it and you’ll stop. But you who are like me … you don’t have a choice.
I had a friend in New York years ago named Denise Golinger. She was a painter. Tragically she died. Young, way too young. But I remember her painting these dark, Rembrandt-esque miniatures. Her apartment off Abingdon Square was her studio, and she filled it with these miniatures that even I could see were going nowhere, though Denise was beating her brains out trying to get better. I went away and came back a year later. “Lemme show you what I’m doing,” said Denise. And she pulled out a dozen new paintings that were fucking spectacular. What had happened? I didn’t know and neither did Denise. But she had broken through. She was painting full size and she had found her gift.
Don’t quit. Keep slugging. It takes time. There’s a price. Keep hammering.