Dancing with My Eyes Closed
When I began writing nearly forty years ago, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose closest to lyric poetry. Unable to court successfully the queen of the arts, I turned my attention to her lady-in-waiting. This is not a rare form of abandonment (as Faulkner famously observed, "All fiction writers are failed poets"), but in any event, it's clear enough to me why I abandoned poetry early, almost too early to have failed at it, for the short story. Too many of my close friends at college and shortly afterwards obviously had the gifts (of language, wit, personal charm, good looks --- whatever it took to woo and win the favors of the queen's main muse), and by unavoidable comparison to poetry-writing friends like William Matthews, James Tate, and Charles Simic, I was tongue-tied, humorless, bad-mannered, and homely. No wonder I turned to prose fiction.
Before leaving, however, I did publish a fair number of those early poems in obscure --- but not obscure enough --- literary magazines and journals and published two chapbooks of poetry in small --- but not small enough --- editions. They show up now and then in the hands of collectors at book-signings, and it's all I can do to keep from tearing the book from the collector's hands and starting an auto-da-fe with it right there in the store. I'm not so much ashamed of those poor poems as embarrassed by the vanity of my youthful ambition, by its evident (to me, now) transparency, and am comforted a bit only by calling to mind Nathaniel Howthorne's first book, an absolutely awful bodice-ripper entitled Fanshawe, self-published in an edition of perhaps 500 copies that he spent his life afterwards quietly seeking out, purchasing, and destroying by fire, in the process (since he got all but a handful of copies) making it one of the rarest, most expensive books in American literature.
Unable to cohabit with lyric poetry, I, like my illustrious ancestor, took up temporary residence instead with her nearest neighbor, the short story, and only later moved across town as he did, to settle more or less permanently, I thought, with the novel. In the intervening years, though I've written a dozen or so novels and remain faithful to the form and its power, it's nonetheless the story form that thrills me. It invites me today, still, as it did those many years ago, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more stylistically elaborate that is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise. The novel, in order to exist at all, accrues, accretes, and accumulates itself in small increments, like a coral reef, and through that process invites from its creator leisurely exploration and slow growth. By contrast, stories are like a perfect wave, if one is a surfer; or a love affair, if one is a lover. They forgive one's mercurial nature, reward one's longing for ecstasy, and make of one's short memory a virtue. They keep an old man or woman young, so to speak.
A year ago, last winter, after a decade and a half of writing only novels --- four of them, actually, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter --- arduous years uninterrupted by my usual, earlier practice of following a novel with a wild and crazy year or two of short-story writing (as a respite, I suppose, but also merely to release my brain from the sort of obsessional thinking that goes with novel-writing), I finally sat down and over the course of the next six months wrote nine new stories. I felt almost wanton and promiscuous. My delight, however, was tinged mysteriously with guilt. Maybe I'd been having too much fun, or perhaps, as if dancing wildly with my eyes closed, I had inadvertently made a fool of myself in public, revealed too much of my secret, subconscious self. Troubled and intrigued, I decided to examine and evaluate earlier instances of this reckless behavior and went back and, for the first time in many years, re-read my four previously published collections of stories, Searching for Survivors, The New World, Trailerpark, and Success Stories, a group of nearly one hundred stories in all.
Many of them, most of them, were terrible, as bad as my poems, and evoked in me the same embarrassment and shame as had the poems --- for the vanity of my youthful (and in many cases not-so-youthful) ambition and its ability to cloud my mind and warp my judgement. Why, I wondered, had I even published them? Why couldn't I have made such terrible mistakes in private? It was a depressing and humbling read. Not that they were technically inept. In general, the stories were skillfully executed, stylish in the several popular modes of the 1960's and 1970's --- minimalist after Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, meta-fictional after Barthelme, Barth, Gass, and Coover, sometimes braiding the two formalist tendencies in a single story, as if the tendencies were not, as their respective adherents claimed, opposed to one another.
No, what depressed and humbled me was what I saw lurking behind the surface of the story --- the personality and character of the author himself, the young writer whose all-too-evident rage, pride, and insecurity were sabotaging his attempts to write stories that stood a chance of outliving him. Obviously, I knew a great deal about him already, his difficult childhood, his turbulent adolescence, his failed (as he viewed them) first and second marriages, and so on; but it was the stories themselves that gave him away. So many of them, it seemed, had been written to obscure the degree to which their author had no idea of who he was or what he was doing or whether he was any good at it. Preoccupied with the self, rather than with the world, they were the work of a young man who too often judged his characters, especially the characters who most closely resembled the author himself; and when he did not judge them, he idealized them, hovering like a custodial parent above the same character he'd just condemned, the one resembling the author. His characters were stand-ins for his shifting, unreliable opinions of himself. Thus his reliance on fashion, on the popular story-telling modes of the time.
A few of the stories, once I gave them a second look, did not embarrass me. Quite the opposite. They were the real thing, freed, it seemed to me, from the authorial vanity and literary self-consciousness. And I could see that, with a snip here, and a tuck there, if I sucked in their stomachs and adjusted the lighting a bit, they might, even to me, seem capable of successfully courting the nearest relative of the queen of the arts. These were, for the most part, stories about single mothers, blue-collar working men and women, elderly people, a retired army colonel, a gay bank clerk, and so on --- characters who did not much resemble their neurotic young author. The few whose demographic profile did match the author's portrayed him only as a child or adolescent, twenty or more years earlier, beyond judgement, beyond idealization, no longer subject to his rage, pride, or insecurity. Forgiven.
Of the nearly one hundred stories previously published in book form, I selected twenty-two that I wanted to revise and keep into my old age. The rest I decided could and should be consigned to the dustbin of juvenilia, even though some of them had been written when I was in my forties. With those twenty-two revised early stories and the nine new ones now in hand --- and ample, mixed bouquet displayed in my publisher's handsome yet unpretentious vase --- I might knock at the muse's door and be let in. I might be almost-a-poet yet.
In June when this new book is published, I will have just turned sixty. And while re-reading, rejecting and finally revising the best of them has been a little like visiting with my past and all-but-forgotten selves, re-acquainting myself with the man I was in my twenties, thirties, forties, and so on, it has also revealed to me the man I was not. Not then, anyhow, and maybe not now or ever. Unsurprisingly, the kid in his twenties who wrote "Searching for Survivors," one of the earliest stories included, a somewhat melancholy, dreamy, self-dramatizing fellow with a lyrical impulse running through his every perception, turns out to be not significantly different than the more ironic, bemused, and plain-spoken, late-middle-aged man who at the age of fifty-nine wrote the most recent stories in the collection. I have come to see that most of the stories I left behind, like my earlier selves, were failed experiments which at the time of their composition were necessary for me to have attempted, for I would not have learned my craft if I had not written them. And while I now wish that I had not afterwards submitted them for publication, I nonetheless must admit that had I not published them, first in magazines and later in books, I doubt that I'd be able today to recognize them as failures. If I'd tossed them out while they were still in manuscript form, if I'd strangled my darlings in their beds, as Flannery O'Connor advised young writers to do, I would not have learned from them as much as I have. In cold print, in black and white, wildly dancing eyes-closed in public for all to see, those experiments, like my early poems, like my early selves, taught me what I have no talent for and, in the end, no abiding interest in.
Excerpted from THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF © Copyright 2001 by Russell Banks. Reprinted with permission by Harperperrennial Library, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks