Bookmark Now is a new collection of all-original essays from writers of a certain age, ruminating on reading, writing, and other black arts in the age of information overload. Edited by Virtual Book Tour’s Kevin Smokler, contributors include Nell Freudenberger, Meghan Daum, Tracy Chevalier, and twenty-one others. The book opens with this excerpted essay, from novelist Christian Bauman, about army roommates, the last Saxon king of England, Venom ER vs. The Believer, and learning to write in a Government Printing Office notebook...
Not Fade Away
by Christian Bauman
I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what I did in the war—ten years gone and it fades, man, it fades—but I can still tell you what I read there.
Most of my time in Somalia I was outdoors, shirtless and sweating in a dusty white-hot port compound near the southern city of Kismaayo. But the end of my tour—a week? two? it fades, man, it fades—was spent in a cramped, second-floor room in the port's headquarters building, awake all night, every night. There was a radiophone on the room's only table; it rang every few hours. My mission was to take a message.
I’d requisitioned a folding chair but it was so uncomfortable I skipped it completely and took to the floor, stretched out with a book on the gritty concrete. I would stand every half hour, wiping dust from my pants and concrete burns from my arms. I couldn’t leave the room for more than a few minutes at a time, but I'd step into the stuffy, dark hallway lined with sleeping staff soldiers, boots peeking out from under the poncho liners they used for blankets. Down to my right the open door of an office and a constant, quiet conversation in French; my Belgian army equals, two of them minding the radio in there over a stack of Penthouse magazines. They never stopped talking, those two. Perhaps they worried what might happen if they did. To my left, the offices were all as dark as the hall, almost everyone sleeping. There was an American colonel at the end of the hall, and he watched CNN on satellite all night. As far as I could tell, it was his job.
I read a small pile of books in that little room—long hours pregnant with time to kill—but only one left an impression, Hemingway’s posthumous Garden of Eden. It’s a joke to say I read Hemingway on these nights, in Africa, away to war. They should take away my writing license for saying such a thing. It’s a joke.
But not really. I didn’t know it was a joke. Instead of college I’d studied dishwashing (among other ineffective ways of attempting to support a young family) before finally giving up to join the army. I was twenty-two years old in Somalia, but still a year shy of reading A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’d read “Old Man at the Bridge” and "Soldier's Home" in high school but was three months shy of reading them again and understanding.
So I read Hemingway at 2 a.m. in an African war zone, blameless and innocent as reading should be. It was a hardback of the first printing of Garden of Eden, with a torn jacket and $1.00 sticker. My mother bought it at a library sale and mailed it to me along with a pound of beef jerky and film for my camera. I was twenty-two and didn’t know anything about anything, about this novel and its place in the scheme or Hemingway himself or who thought what about this or that. None of it colored me as I opened the cover and cracked the spine, nothing shading my view as I read the front leaf then the back then the copyright page then the first sentence. The first sentence became the second then the third then it was just me and David and none of that other stuff, just me and the story. They were on the Mediterranean coast and the quiet, sad tale unfolded in colors of salt and white sky with a mouthful of dark wine and sharp, strong marinated olives. David was remembering Kenya and just months before I’d been where he’d been, briefly, and now his world was falling apart and oh I’d been there, too. He would swim and fish in the sun and I would stretch, washing down a stale MRE cracker with a cup of cold coffee, wiping my mouth and listening to the French whispers down the hall then finally back on the floor to my place on the page.
An hour before sunrise the sing-song of Somali chatter would float through the window, men brought in from the city to sweep up around the pier. There’d been violence—mysterious and malicious pipe bombs and road ambushes—and within two weeks the Somali men wouldn’t be allowed in port anymore. But I’d be gone by then, in Mogadishu with what was left of my unit, then home. For now, though, I was here, in my little night room with a radiophone and a book. The Somali voices meant I had only an hour left on my shift and I would mark my place and close the novel, lighting a cigarette and thinking about what I’d read. When my cigarette was done I’d step down the hall and wake the two Belgian privates. They always fell asleep but knew I’d come and warn them before sunrise. I don’t know what they did after I left.
The army isn’t where I started writing, but it is where I started writing well (or, at least, consistently). Back then, most of my writing took the form of poetry and lyrics—I fancied myself a latter-day Woody Guthrie—and there is a clear delineation around 1991 when I joined the army. Not everything I wrote before I was twenty-one sucked, but if I did something well when I was nineteen it was an accident. It was around twenty-one, twenty-two years old that I acquired a steadier grip on my pen. If I wrote something worth keeping I could look at it and know why, with some idea maybe how to do it again.
I wrote in notebooks, thin-lined five subject my book of choice but it didn’t really matter. The battery maintenance log of my LCM mike boat had a hard, green, Government Printing Office cover and thick blue-lined pages; I ripped out the battery-acid test results and filled the book with a mostly true story of a Somali trading boat we almost blew out of the water and the old wrinkled woman who glared unblinking at me from her seat on the ship's bow.
I had an odd style of longhand writing. Notebook open to a spread of two pages I would start on the right page, fill it, then go backward to the left. Like much of what I've done in life I’m not sure why I did this (yo man, it all fades). Trying to get at something, I suppose. Perhaps thinking if I sneaked up backward I could surprise it—grab, capture, and hold it.
There aren't many examples of this backward prose in my old notebooks, though. Longhand lyrics across two pages are one thing. Seven, eight, twenty pages of a short story is something else altogether. I have careless, impenetrable handwriting and a lazy streak. But there were things and people I wanted to write about that just wouldn’t fit within my songs anymore—for instance: the casual, creeping nerves pushing a young G.I. to want to shoot an old woman on an unarmed sail boat. I wanted to write about the soldiers around me, these laughing, spitting, often-silent friends of mine, and what made them anxious in Somalia and what made them anxious in Youngstown, Ohio. There was a song or two there, but how many songs are you going to write about the same thing?
Back at Fort Eustis, I bought a pack of the cheapest paper they had at the PX and began typing.
The world of reading truly opens in your twenties. Smart kids can get a lot out of books—I was a smart kid, although brick stubborn and careless in many things—but you don’t really get it until you’ve had to crawl through the mud a few times. Literature simply becomes richer after you've been fired, rejected, stranded, or had to change a few midnight diapers.
The upside of my uneducated situation was that the reading I did in my early twenties, this opening up of understanding, was unencumbered by anyone telling me what not to read or what something really meant or what a prick so-and-so had been to his wife et cetera. There is a downside to this, of course: I’d be hard-pressed to deconstruct The Recognitions for you, and there are slices of literature I missed entirely and am still catching up on. Harold Bloom weeps for me.
But I read the later stories of Andre Dubus and the early stories of Annie Proulx for the first time when I was twenty-three, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me the work was brilliant and I didn’t need anyone to tell me why: the anatomy was there for the dissecting if you were willing to do the work. I didn’t need anyone to explain what these stories did to me, how they could make me laugh out loud or sometimes go pale and glance over my shoulder.
Here’s another thing—not many creative-writing professors would have told me Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a perfectly built book (it is) or that one should re-read Anne McCafferey’s Dragonriders of Pern as an adult (you should) or that there is something crucial for all young writers in the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett (oh, yes).
I was an enlisted soldier, a private first class, when I deployed to Somalia. The young officers, second lieutenants, were about my age. They'd been ROTC, for the most part, meaning they were college graduates. And I wonder, if I’d walked in their shoes, had their experience, would I have read Hemingway in Africa, away to war?
Here’s the thing about cliches: they’re not cliches if nobody tells you. They're not cliches if you don’t know it. And if it is a cliché and you do know it, maybe you don’t pack it, maybe you don’t bring it. Think about what you've just lost, then—so much could be lost.
There’s a funny line I read somewhere about writers—I can’t remember who said it or whether it was about MFA programs or writers' retreats or what, but the gist was a young writer learns never to sleep with someone you thought wasn’t as good a writer as you. Which draws a picture of an aching, hopeful twentysomething presenting a stunningly executed turn of phrase at the door of their intended paramour. Do you look shyly down as they scan your material by candlelight? Do you carelessly, carefully expose a nipple in hopes it might draw attention from your clumsy words?
When I was twenty-two, I slept with—well, never mind. It’s not your business. Besides, ten years gone and it fades, man, it fades.
When I was twenty-two, the person I slept with most—as in the same room, not a shared bed—was my barracks roommate. His name was Derek, a squat, dark kid of twenty from a dying trailer town in western Massachusetts. He was two years younger but had been in the army two years longer. As he put it, he skipped the whole “trying to make it in America” thing and reached right for the government’s dangling carrot. He mocked me for working minimum wage so long before calling a recruiter.
Derek and I shared our small room, the beer in our refrigerator, a TV, and, for a while, a girlfriend. Derek's collection of paperbacks was the only one in the barracks rivaling mine in size—he favored true-crime and serial-killer books. Derek drank to excess, ate to excess, fucked to excess. He liked to pick fights, whether or not he had any chance of winning. If he'd picked a fight with me he would have easily won, but we never fought. Nobody liked him but me. I didn’t like him at first either but was forced to live with him and deal with him. He was a pig, but, you know, I like pigs.
Once a week or so I’d come back to the room and Derek would be gone for the evening, out drinking with friends he’d served with in the Azores. This meant a few precious hours of time alone with my typewriter. He’d stumble in drunk at midnight, spit-slurring questions after he fell into his bunk.
“What’re ya doin?”
“What’re ya writing about?”
I never answered this question. I didn’t know how to answer
it—whether asked by him or anyone else—and was embarrassed.
It didn’t matter; Derek usually passed out by this point in
the conversation. One night he didn't. One night he lay silent a
few minutes, then added, “You ever write about me, I’ll
Perhaps needless to say, I wrote about him.
A few years later, silly drunk in a bar with a group of writers, I slam-fisted and harrumphed indignantly that I’m just not interested in Ivory Tower writers—writing from within the Towers or writing about them. But that’s a naïve, simple statement and doesn’t quite capture it. Nor is it even really accurate. Lorrie Moore, it could be argued, frequently writes about lives inside an Ivory Tower, writes from inside the Ivory Tower, yet her books rest happily on my shelf, spine-crackled from second and third readings.
And what is this Tower anyway? Academia? If so, such drunken harrumphs cast this son-of-a-multidegreed-couple as a hypocrite, my own lack of credentials aside.
Or maybe the modern Tower isn't academia anymore, but a darker Tower, the Manhattan-centric world of publishing and publicists and journalists and media—the strange world where all of writing and literature is simultaneously taken far too seriously and not seriously enough.
Whatever it is, this Tower is an easy target for a riled drunk, but not an actual problem in modern American literary fiction any more than it’s an actual entity. The problem is those who holler from their towers with nothing to say. And those who claim to own language and literature the way political conservatives now claim to own patriotism. It comes across in the odd, modern misperception that you can't write unless you went to school for it, and the entwined, blind, twin misperception that if you went to school you can write. James Wood wrote recently, "For the first time in history, many poets and novelists are graduates of English studies," and some of these graduates have grabbed the reins of ownership as if it were a birthright.
But writers and writer programs and oh Lordy we don’t need to go down that road again. Whether tis nobler to write from the Tower or from the corner of the pub? To suffer slings of snobbery? Or arrows of my reverse snobbery?
But just between us, can I admit The Believer puts me to sleep? Is that alright? Look, I don't mean anything bad by it; just that sometimes I get sleepy. I’ve enjoyed books by the majority of the writers involved with the publication. I’ve enjoyed the first fourteen or twenty-two pages of almost all the articles I’ve read in there. I like where the Believers are coming from, editorially, and why. But still; new episode of Venom ER on Animal Planet or new issue of The Believer? My word. Decisions.
They did have a point, though, didn't they, those Believers, with their opening salvo and critical call to arms. Sure enough. And although this wasn’t their point, it bothers me, yes it does, let me say here: writing is the only art form where a good number of the artists make a slice of their living criticizing one another in print, in public. Worse, some don’t even make their living at it, some do it free of charge.
Actors don’t do this. Painters don’t do it, musicians don’t. It’s weird, it’s cannibalism.
Reading taught me how to write (speaking of cliches, I'm hardly the first to say this), although I didn't know it at the time. A sort of osmosis; the writers in the audience know what I mean. Reading was a joy, a desperately needed escape—I didn’t read to learn, I was reading to read. Still, it slipped through, the crinkled, incomplete spelunker’s diagram of how this all works, how to get in, how to get out. Reading wasn't all I needed to be a writer, it wasn't enough, but it was close. Ninety percent of a writer's makeup lies in their reading. If I never wrote another word but kept reading, I would become a better writer. Yet if books became illegal for me but my fingers still typed, my artistic progress, I’m sure, would halt.
I am of that Fadiman genus readerus compulsivus, and I still read mostly for joy, for discovery, but now I also intentionally read to learn, to hone craft, to keep me sharp, yes. And to keep me honest.
I revisit books I haven’t seen since I was fourteen and would crawl through my bedroom window onto the roof over the porch, smoking crumpled, bent cigarettes and reading Penguin and New American Library paperbacks by flashlight. But now I read as a young art student might walk galleries and cathedrals on his first trip to Rome. I've seen these paintings before, fallen in love with them long ago, but now I carefully eye weight, color, brush stroke. I've read—in some cases almost memorized—these books before but now I read them again, slowly, to discover why they worked (and discover, sometimes, the blemishes I’d missed).
I read my contemporaries now. Someone born directly in the year of my birth always gets my attention; I’m fascinated when all that separates is individual experience. Someone younger than me—I admit, I’m suspicious. Someone on the older end of my generation, or beyond—even more suspicious.
But all just a moment’s fleeting thought, with book in my hand, eyeballing the cover, the blurbs, the acknowledgments. Truth is, once narrative rolls I am forgiving. I am as forgiving and as eager as I’d hope a reader would be with me. I am excited, more often than not. At the least, I am curious—curiosity alone can carry us ten or fifteen pages, yes? At best, I am enthralled.
An interviewer once asked Peter Straub something about reading his contemporaries, and although I can’t quote it exactly I’ll never forget the metaphor of his answer. He said, Even as a reader I’m a writer—I know what you’re doing, I know you’re dancing. But still, I'll read because I want to see how well you can dance.
We’ve all embarrassed ourselves on the dance floor. I have. Moves and steps God never intended the body to make, or dancing partners never selected in the light of day. Worse, perhaps both.
But I love to dance, I love this dance. The din eventually fades—clamor and gossip, the heat of whatever chamber you’ve created in whichever tower you live—and you are left, finally, to dance alone. And you do, because there is nothing else.
I write because there is nothing else for me. Nothing else I’m any good at. Some things I’m passable—but passable isn’t what we strive for.
When I was ten I named my new dog Harold because Harold was the last Saxon king of England. When I was ten I could list all the kings of England from about Harde Canute on. Even if I wanted to, could I do that now? Of course not—it fades, my friend, and what it is that fades is what’s not as important. Or useful.
I write for the same reason I read; because it’s all there is for me. It would be easy and tempting to say I write to keep things from fading, and I suppose there’s a partial truth to it. The bigger truth, though, is I write because it’s all that holds me, all that doesn’t fade for me, not yet anyway.
I can tell you what I did in the war but it might or might not be true, because I might or might not have to make it up. Not because I’d intentionally stretch and brag, or because of Tim O’Brien’s elusive, slippery war truth, but simply ten years gone and man I’m starting to forget.
But it’s funny, isn’t it, I remember what I read there. And I remember what I wanted to write; that I had something I needed to say, and—fearless, reckless, naive—scribbled my way toward saying it.