Going Back to Washington, Fifty Years Later

Washington.

I used to live there, or near there, in the years before the Metro was built. In my mind it was my town, although I had no feel for politics, or indeed any sense at all, being young. But one could get on a bus in those days and roam all over the city, taking in the passing scenery, observing the people on the street. The view was exciting. You can’t see anything worth looking at out of the window of a subway train.

keybridge1The family home at that time was in Arlington, a house my parents rented from some army colonel who had been posted to Panama for a year. (Every year we rented a different colonel’s house.) I would get on the bus and ride to work in the city, passing the most amazing and seductive things. A used car lot full of strange European cars: a pale gray Opel, a huge black Mercedes sedan whose thick passenger-side windows were pocked with bullet holes, a tiny blue-green Morris Minor that I coveted. If I ever got hold of some money and learned to drive, that Morris would be mine. Or the Mercedes. You had to admit it had cachet.

Just over the Key Bridge was a grain factory belonging to the Washington Milling Company. They had posted a sign just outside the factory: “The objectionable odors you may notice in this area do not originate in our plant.” Where, then, did the smell come from? I never knew. In fact I don’t remember it smelling all that bad, but I can’t forget the sign.

One morning I saw, standing on a corner, a tall man in a floor-length black cape, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a long red scarf. I was thrilled and intrigued. You must remember that this was the early sixties. People didn’t dress funny. Come to find out he was only the doorman at a night club, not the actual Shadow. What the nightclub was doing open at eight-thirty in the morning is another of the secret mysteries of D.C.

My job in those days was as a library clerk at the Washington Post. Politics were talked in the library by people much more knowledgeable than me. A friend made me read the Post’s  copy of the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, in the hope that it would raise my consciousness. It sort of did. After a year at the Post I was fired for conspicuous lethargy.

Time went on and I married a newspaper man, my college sweetheart, to our subsequent chagrin and distress. When we left Washington we were still in love, I think. John Kennedy was president. The highest ambition of a number of people I knew was to be invited to dinner at the White House. I still didn’t understand politics.

The nature of politics is slowly becoming clear to me. The only reason I seem to have anymore for going back to Washington is to scream at the government, which one is better off doing in a large group of like-minded people. If you do it by yourself you attract unwelcome attention.

It’s not the same city. It’s full of cops and bollards now because of terrorism. Everyone rides the Metro. If you want to dine at Trump’s White House, I don’t want to know you.

We will go to D. C. next Saturday and scream at the government, if only to vent our frustration. I will breathe the air of a place where I was once young and silly. Maybe I’ll cry a little.

Meanwhile I’m going back and reading the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens again.

What’s Worth Writing About

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Anything?

Followers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t posted to it in some weeks. I wasn’t sick, particularly, although I had one of those colds where you have to cough all the time in order to keep breathing. I wasn’t depressed, although my beloved mother-in-law just died and I heard from a respected agent that she thought my latest offering had no discernible plot. I wasn’t too busy to write, although it seemed as if I were doing things all the time, I forget what. I had people over for Thanksgiving. That was fun, but nothing to write about.

I just didn’t feel like putting finger to keyboard.

I still don’t. I know, these are the times that try men’s souls, I should write a protest column. But I wouldn’t know what to say. Others have said it better than I can. The enormity of these outrages has passed beyond my powers of expression, even counting the bad words. I’m going to Washington next month with the other enraged women and I don’t even know what slogan to put on my button. I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit. (Maybe that’s my slogan.)

Personally, our lives are good. We’re having house guests for Christmas. That will be fun, but not something I particularly want to write about. The neighbors seem happy. Nothing to complain about there. If there were, I wouldn’t write about it anyway, because I won’t violate people’s privacy and I detest drama.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong with my book, lack of drama. I have put it aside for awhile to be looked at later. Meanwhile I found another one on an old thumb drive, something, I think, that failed to interest my last agent. Called Broken Sister, it’s all about a mysterious adoptee returning to the town of her birth. The first few chapters struck me as being really good, right up to the part where I revealed the murder. Maybe it doesn’t need a murder. Not every story is a murder mystery. Maybe I’ll cut it down to the place where I still liked it and take it in a completely different direction. After Christmas, when I get time.

Naked Writers

titiaan_zondeval_grtWriters of fiction, and even of non-fiction, reveal who they secretly are in everything they write. Their feelings about themselves, their feelings about other people, their politics, their level of education, their attitude toward organized religion and the Lord God Himself—it’s all there, in the way the writer’s characters behave, in the way fate, society, and the other characters treat them, sometimes even in the occasional page or two of philosophizing.

Philosophizing is frequently a feature of  grim-jawed right-wing men’s thrillers. There are a lot of those around, great big fat volumes with the name of the author and title of the book in a huge font size that takes up the whole cover. People like them. I like them.You don’t have to be on board with a writer’s politics to enjoy the writer’s work. Many are written by grim-jawed right-wing men, no doubt, but the thriller writers I’ve met are soft-spoken, friendly people who don’t even carry guns.

Bernard Cornwell is a nice guy and a good public speaker. I love his work, all full of violence, battle, and severed limbs. After reading one of his Saxon novels, where the churchmen are stupid, tyrannical, hate-filled villains who get hacked to pieces in front of their deluded Christian followers by the heroic Viking protagonist, I feel as though I should go to confession. And I’m not even Roman Catholic. I sense a certain hostility to organized religion in those books.

Writers (and fans) of so-called cozy mysteries appear from their writings to have a low tolerance for chaos. Theirs is a world where the cats and dogs never die. The body falls, always the body of a human being, and the rest of the book is devoted to the restoration of order. These writers are my friends and Facebook friends, and their lives are as frightening and disorderly as anybody else’s, with horrible things happening to their neighborhoods, their families, and yes, their cats and dogs, because that’s real life. Who needs it? The cozy writers perform a valuable public service by giving us a place to hide out with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and escape for a little while.

The most naked sort of naked writing has to be the semi-autobiography. Women don’t do those so much. It’s a man thing, an entitled man thing. I am Man. Behold my words. Famous literary lions have been writing them forever, so that the Great Man Writer has become a dramatic convention.  You don’t see women in the movies writing their thinly disguised life stories to great respect and public acclaim. But if you do write a semi-autobiography, trust me, you are standing there starkers.

The idea of the great manly semi-autobiography as a worthwhile endeavor tends to lead young men astray, I think. Everyone says, write what you know, but before you start you should make sure you know something. Years ago I ran a workshop at a conference where among the other offerings I was supposed to critique was a chapter and an outline for a young fellow’s great manly semi-autobiography. When I read this opus I instantly hated the kid.

It was a story of how he took a job in a profession that I knew a little something about, and worked for a woman very like friends of mine. He proceeded to sneer at his job as worthless and sneer at his boss for being old, ugly, and lonely. Then his character went out to a bar and picked up a needy girlfriend, who moved in with him. I think he hung out with her because they did the same drugs. When his cold, rejecting, self-centered behavior drove her to try to kill herself he regarded it as a personal annoyance.

Luckily two women in the workshop were able to help him with his manuscript, which they wanted to do because he was very good-looking.  Maybe I would have cut him a break, too, if I had seen his face first. But probably not. Did you know that Steinbeck kicked his dog? I read that somewhere. At least it isn’t apparent in his work.