Wherein our hero battles self-loathing, self-pity, arrogance, and the passive voice on the streets of Paris
I REMEMBER MY SHIPWRECKED STATE when the airport bus dumped me on the street, with Paris roaring around me. I was terrified, bereft, and wanted nothing more than to escape anyone’s notice that I was alone on an unfamiliar continent.
I had just one solicitous Frenchman to escape: a taxi driver. “Vous allez ou, monsieur?” he asked, doing calisthenics with his eyebrows.
Where are you going, indeed? A hostile question for a 21-year old.
I’d been practicing on the bus for just such a threat. “Cent-un Boulevard Raspail,” I croaked, and shuffled off in that direction. His accurate warning — “C’est loin, monsieur” — faded as I took my first steps onto the streets of Paris and into the rest of my life.
What was I doing there? Twenty-one-year old me had no answer, really.
I was enrolled in a language school, and I was carrying an extremely heavy typewriter to facilitate, um, writing things. I’m not sure I’d even read any Hemingway to that point, so my only moveable feasts had been dirty-water dogs on the streets of New York City.
I had grown up in a peripatetic family in southern Connecticut. On our modest suburban block, we were the family the neighbors asked, “you’re going where on vacation?” So, I remember pissing myself next to Rangeley Lake in Maine at age two, and hiding in a bush in Bermuda a year after that, where ants invaded my shorts and began biting my penis. My mom heard my screams, pantsed me in the garden, and swatted at my tiny boy-root. Whenever I smell hibiscus, I still think of that.
That’s one way memories are made. But not the only way, thank goodness.
As a family we’d driven across the country to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite (and, arduously, back) in the family wagon, but the coup de grace was a two week careen through Switzerland, France, and Italy in two rented VW Beetles. Near the end of that trip, I sat on a hotel balcony in Geneva with my mom, and saw a billboard on the railroad station that invited me to “Visitez l’Egypte!” In my family, even that seemed possible.
And so, to Paris?
Is there ever a more alarming time in your life than when you emerge from twelve years of schooling with no idea what might occupy you, or worse yet stifle you, for the next half century? After a distracted high school career, I feared flunking out of college. So I worked harder than anybody else in the freshman class, and aced everything in sight.
I was a star! Destined for great things! Then I graduated.
I needed a dramatic gesture to tell myself I still had “it,” even though I didn’t know what “it” was, nor did it seem likely that anybody would pay me for “it.” Paris was dramatic, so there I was, a 130-lb weakling carrying 75 pounds of books, a few clothes, a ball-and-chain typewriter, and utterly blank notebooks in need of filling up with incident, reflection, and writing projects.
Rereading those notebooks now, I see that I was too preoccupied with the “reflection” part. What did I know? I got a B- in Philosophical Theories of Time and Space my sophomore year. And all my puffed-up plans — written out in exhausting detail — for grandiose (but soon abandoned) writing projects embarrass me now.
But for some irretrievable reason, on October 11th, 1978, I wrote this on a blank page: It occurs to me tonight that I ought to be keeping a more regular journal, and the empty pages that follow must bear the evidence of the success or failure in that resolve. Tomorrow (I hate writing that word; “tomorrow” has too often meant “never” in my plans) I will start my daily journal, in which I will record my travels and observations, so that I might avoid the depressing feeling that I don’t write enough. I can transcribe my daily thoughts to good purpose, for it will make me live deliberately and think purposefully as the days unfold. On October 12 the daily record begins. I wait anxiously to see it stretch into an unending lifetime of writing.
My first sentences the next day were striking and typical, combining in an anxious stew of self-loathing, self-pity, arrogance, and the passive voice. “And why not begin with the topic of my immaturity?” I wrote on the first night of the rest of my journal. “Certainly it is one of the major obstacles to be surmounted in the quest of my goals.”
I went on to enumerate the five reasons why I was already a failure:
- Self-reproach for craving a literary career.
- Failure to distinguish my own writing prospects from those of the scribbling masses.
- Too much focus on writing for its own sake, as opposed to vigorously living my life.
- You can’t know what will happen, so why are you obsessing?
- Self-pity is the opposite/negation of creativity, so look outward already.