Sunday, October 14, 2012


Having completed the submission of my materials to the University Press of Colorado, I suddenly found myself with nothing to do.  Normally, throughout my life--even during the long period when the demands of career and a troubled marriage prevented me from actually trying to write--potential stories had been lining up one after another in a private space deep in my consciousness.  After coming to the mountains I was finally able to access and release each of them in its turn, and to do so freely, without undue effort.  Novel after novel came down the line, all save one emerging fairly intact in first draft; and in that last instance, Stephen Kirk, one of the finest editors now working, wisely and respectfully shepherded me through a rewrite that eventually became another award-winning novel, The Cock's Spur

With that one exception, writing came easily for me then--all too easily, now that I look back on it, perhaps because each story had been marinating for such a long time in my mind, awaiting its release in the sequence, that it had virtually composed itself unsupervised by my conscious mind.  But after finishing the editorial work on Season of Terror, when I consulted that space in my head where new story ideas had always anxiously lain awaiting their turn, all I found was an echoing void.  For the first time in my adult life, no topic eagerly pushed its way forward to take its turn on the production line.

This was a shocking and frightening realization.  It seemed that I had nothing more to say as a writer.  And as that awful realization dawned on me, I found that, in addition to having emptied my treasury of story ideas, I had also fallen into a psychological decline that had rendered me almost mute.  Suddenly I couldn't remember the names of loved ones, friends of long standing, politicians I had admired or despised, motion picture stars, the titles of what once had been my favorite films.  I would meet old friends and, while I recognized their faces, would be miserably unable to recall their names and even, in some cases, their identities.

My speech was affected as well.  I discovered that it had become extremely difficult for me to utter a complete sentence, or to engage an any sensible way in a conversation.  Words eluded my lips.  I would start to speak but stop short in mid-sentence, unable to recall what I was trying to express. Complex thoughts, even on the unlikely occasions when they formed themselves in my increasingly foggy mind, could not be spoken because the necessary words refused to come.  This, I remembered, was not unlike a loss that Styron had experienced; in his mental decline his voice withered and shrank to the scarcely audible whisper of a very old man.

Simultaneously, for me, there was a physical aspect to this sudden shearing away of the simplest of skills.  Often when I would work on my computer--not composing any fiction, for that was now impossible for me, but just attempting to maintain a semblance of communication with reality by typing e-mails, I would pause to review what I had written and find to my dismay that I had left out all the consonants, or all the vowels, so that what stared back to me from the computer screen was complete gibberish.  It might've been typed by a monkey--and not a very intelligent monkey at that.

The most appalling of these changes in thinking and motor skills came over me at the most inconvenient time of all, the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival which Ruth and I had founded in 2005 with the help of a dedicated group of friends.  This was only last month, the second weekend in September.  On this occasion I, who had always been on relatively easy speaking terms with most of the writers who participated, suddenly and horrifyingly found myself struck dumb in the presence of admired writers and friends such as John Ehle, Fred Chappell, Tony Earley, Marlin Barton, Joseph Bathanti, Robert Morgan, and many more.

What had walled me up in my tomb of silence was a sudden conviction of my complete worthlessness both as a person and, even more importantly, as a writer.  Owing partly to a long tradition of humility and self-doubt in my father's family, I had never completely felt sure of my ability as a writer.  Even in the good times, when I was caught up in the euphoria of composition and felt confident of my writing skills, I had never been able to shake off an underlying suspicion that I might in fact be a fraud--that the honors and awards and fellowship of other writers had all been undeserved.  Now, in the grip of my depression, that notion grew within me like some loathsome mushroom.  I was a failure.  My books did not sell.  I earned no royalties because I still owed money from advances that had not been earned back by sales.  I did not belong in such august company.  These great literary figures were polite enough to admit me into their circle but I knew now that they did so only out of compassion, and that secretly they pitied me my all-too-evidently mistaken belief that my writing had any merit at all.

I stuttered and stammered my way through the festival, all the time inwardly squirming in an agony of self-hate.  The culminating episode in my deterioration came when I found I could not even speak face-to-face with my dear friend, literary confidante and surrogate daughter Britt Kaufmann.  Britt has been mentioned in this blog many times in gratitude for her spectacular talents which, frequently, she has put at my disposal to design and market my books.  She is a gifted poet and, more recently, playwright, and the occasion of my next and worst breakdown was at a staging of her new play Between the Tackles at Burnsville's Parkway Playhouse.

I had been unable to attend Britt's premiere because of the malaise that was smothering me which, by then, was keeping me prisoner in my mountainside home, where I wandered to and fro, listless and morose, or slept long hours like a narcoleptic.  This house, which I have loved, and has loved me back, for seventeen years, fueling and fostering my magination, had by now become, ironically, both a protective cocoon in which I could hide from the world if not from myself and a prison which confined my talentless and deluded non-ego lest I venture out into the world to be recognized and derided as the fool I was.

But dear kindly Britt bought tickets and invited Ruth and me to attend a later staging of her play.  Even in my wrecked state I could not refuse.  We went.  Between the Tackles--a comedy about football-obsessed husbands and their long-suffering wives, was a resounding success by any standard, and at intermission I felt an obligation to go to where she sat in the rear of the auditorium to give her my congratulations.  But when I stood beside her I was only able to murmur some innocuous remark and then stand ridiculously mute, my mind a blank, my lips unable to stir--this before the one person in the world who, other than Ruth, has probably had more faith in me as a writer than anyone else.  I think it was the worst moment of my recent life.


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