He will be in Pittsburgh on his book tour: Wednesday, May 12th, 7 PM at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, SouthSide Works (510 South 27th Street, Pittsburgh, PA). For more info call the bookstore: 412-381-3600. This event is free and open to the public. Josh will be reading, discussing, and signing his book – and there’s always the possibility there will be a bubblegum-blowing contest. If you live in the Pittsburgh area, come out and join us. Tour events for other areas are listed here.
A big thank you to Josh for writing such a fantastic guest post for this week’s In This Light!
“Acting the Fool” by Josh Wilker
A few years ago, I finished a novel I’d been working on for years, tried to get it published, failed, and more or less shut all the shades and lay down and stared up at the ceiling with my stomach hurting. Now what? I knew I wouldn’t stop writing, because by then I’d already been writing pretty much every day for a couple decades, so writing was on me like an unshakeable bad habit, like nailbiting or buying scratch-off lotto tickets, but I was worried about setting off on another long writing journey that would end, as all my previous long writing journeys had ended, with me heaving a sigh and dumping a pile of pages into an increasingly tightly-packed file cabinet drawer.
The novel had been loosely based on my family’s experiences during my 1970s childhood, when my mom and my third parent, her boyfriend Tom, had taken my brother and me to the country to “get back to the land.” I structured the novel like a record album. I hoped the setup would not only be an homage to the Woodstock-era records that inspired and buoyed that hippie dream of reviving Eden but that would also justify the always risky narrative strategy of employing multiple first-person narrators: I wanted to create a web of voices in harmony, one voice in one song threading into a different voice in the next, like the voices on the greatest of the back-to-the-land anthems: Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and The Band’s first three albums, including the one they recorded in something like an attitude of pure play with Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes.
In Across the Great Divide, Barney Hoskins writes of Bob Dylan and the musicians who would become the Band: “Without the pressure of touring or studio recording hanging over them, the motley quintet had a ball with ‘the little workshop situation’ in the basement.
“‘They were a kick to do,’ Bob told Jann Wenner in 1969. ‘Fact, I’d do it all again. You know, that’s really the way to do a recording—in a peaceful, relaxed setting, in somebody’s basement, with the window open and a dog lying on the floor.’
“[Garth Hudson added]: ‘It was relaxed and low-key, which was something we hadn’t enjoyed since we were children.’” (p. 138)
After trying and failing to sell my novel, I needed to find a way back to joy. I needed to play. A few years earlier, while writing another file-cabinet novel, this one about a young aimless man who worked at a struggling liquor store, I had begun writing an occasional notebook entry about my childhood baseball cards. I was living in a cabin in the woods and slowly cracking under the self-imposed strain of trying to create something brilliant with the liquor store novel, and it was only when I took a break to write about one of my old cards that this strain lessened. I found that I didn’t so much care what I wrote. I just wanted to hold a card in my hand and let it take my mind wherever it wanted to go, just like the card had done when I was a kid, playing.
In A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally, Jerry Garcia speaks about the first music he and his friends made under the name The Grateful Dead. The first gig for the Dead, formerly a blues outfit called the Warlocks, was to serve as the “house band” of the Merry Pranksters’ acid tests, those attempts by Ken Kesey and his cohorts to reinvent the world by leveling everything within and starting anew, like a child. “The idea,” Garcia said of the new music, “was of its essence formless. There was nothin’ going on. We’d just . . . make something of it.”
Childlike, formless playing has a better chance of occurring with musicians than with writers, first because music is more rooted at its inception in the body than in the brain, and second because music can be a creation that’s shared, an action conducive not only to play but to joy. I wondered if writing could be shared in its early stages in a way that, while not exactly like the collaborations of musicians at play, at least might free me up from what had become a stifling, overstraining solitude.
My wife and I went to Target and bought a scanner. She figured out how to set it up. My brother helped me set up a blog. I got out my box of baseball cards. I wanted to try to tap back into that rejuvenating sense of play that I’d glimpsed while living in the cabin, and also try to find a way to share it. I reached into my box of baseball cards and pulled a card out at random. It was Mark Fidrych.
Of all the cards I could have pulled out! Fidrych embodied the brief yelp of joy that is this life more than any other baseball player ever had. For one season, before arm trouble set in, he was the best and most entertaining pitcher in the American League. He talked to the baseball and bounded around the infield like a kid after a teammate’s good play and in all ways had the time of his life, as if it was all just a game he loved. All I had to do was look at the photo of him on the card and hold the card in my hand as I had done as a boy and the words began tumbling out of me like giggling little leaguers from a bus that had just pulled up to a sunny green field.
I scanned the Mark Fidrych card with our new scanner. I posted the image and the words that had rushed and tripped out of me on my new blog. I shared them.
As that year I spent in a cabin in the woods was coming to a close, I began to understand that I wouldn’t be able to avoid it being a failure. Time was running out. I’d written every day, and yet the novel I’d hoped to write had never materialized from the muck of the writing. I knew in a few weeks I’d be heading back to the world, broke. The weather began to get warm. I had taken Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography out of the college library. I sat on the porch of the cabin in the sun and read. There were worse things I could have done.
Years later, as I started sharing my playtime writing about my baseball cards with whoever wanted to see it, I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I was having fun. The writing kept reaching out of that feeling of childhood play, allowing me to once again and with fresh eyes approach the subjects I’d been attempting to get down on the page all my adult life: the back-to-the-land years with my family, my lifelong bond with my brother, my years as a clerk in a struggling liquor store, even my year in the cabin. The stories in the packed file cabinet of failed pages were rising up from a state of suspended animation and flailing around, young again.
I didn’t know that I’d have that in my future as I sat on my porch at my cabin, defeated, and read fat books about Elvis. Nor did I know that all the formless playtime writing would begin to suggest a form, a book with a narrative shape, encompassing a life that had persistently announced itself as terminally shapeless. At that moment on the porch of my cabin, I was still a decade away from finishing that book, my ode to play and to my childhood baseball cards and to my holy stumble of a life.
But I do remember feeling something flicker inside me as I read about how it all began for Elvis. It’s one of my favorite stories, right up there with the story of Dylan and the Band having fun in a basement or Jerry Garcia and the boys inventing a new sound out of giggly nothingness.
Elvis came to his first full session at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios and worked late into the night, mostly on sentimental ballads that came out, despite his fine voice and sincere efforts, sounding stiff and lifeless. Just before they called it quits, the whole thing a glum failure, Elvis grabbed a guitar and started just horsing around. Instead of a ballad, he played a faster,looser song, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.”
“All of a sudden,” session guitarist Scotty Moore recalled, “Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill [Black] picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open . . . he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’
“‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’”
Josh Wilker writes about his life and his childhood baseball cards at cardboardgods.net. Since his first posting in 2006, his site has been featured in The New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and ESPN.com. He is a winner of the Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction and has an MFA from Vermont College. He lives with his wife in Chicago.