Making Cracks in the Block

I never thought that I was subject to seasonal affective disorder.  Quite the opposite; as a child, I loved winter and couldn’t wait for the first snowfall.  I had a tolerance for cold that amazed many of the kids I knew.

I’m not sure if it was the winter solstice, or all of the events and the upcoming transitions in my life, but I am coming off of what I now see is a bout of major depression.  The return (hopefully to last awhile) of the warm weather, and the fact that it actually feels like spring here in Columbus, have perked up my mood quite a bit.  I am not euphoric–far from it–but in the last few days I’ve found myself wanting to do more than just crawl into bed once Susie’s asleep.

(With the advent of my single parenthood this summer, I have come to realize that slacking off on therapy, and being lackadaisical about medication, are luxuries that I can no longer indulge.  I have a lithium prescription in my wallet at this very moment, and as soon as my current supply runs low, my next stop is the Kroger pharmacy.  When I wasn’t much younger than Susie is now, I watched my mother cycling back and forth–often in very short intervals–from one pole to the other.  Her extremes were more frightening to watch than mine, but I want Susie to see as little of it as possible.)

After I was done sulking at the inaccessibility of the OSU card catalog to us common folk, I rooted around in the over-the-shoulder bag, the portable office, that I always have with me.  I was surprised to find that I had a blank spiral notebook with me.  (I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I’m more likely to leave the house minus my keys than minus a notebook–of any size–or a pen.  My fascination with notebooks is public record, after all.)  I sat down, took out my pen, and began jotting down ideas for a “sort of memoir.”  (That phrase is the subtitle of Stewart Alsop’s Stay of Execution, a book about his leukemia diagnosis.)

I’ve filled four or five single-spaced pages thus far.  I added more yesterday when Susie and I were at Travonna, a 24-hour coffee house on N. High St. just south of W. 5th Ave.  The working title of this project is My Night Life, using my nocturnal habits, activities, and escapades as a backdrop to an exposé of my parents’ (especially my father’s) non-existent parenting skills.  (For example, when I was 11, he would frequently disappear after dinner to the apartment of the woman who would become my stepmother, without a phone number or a way to reach him.  My mother was in the psychiatric hospital in Worthington at the time, so was of no help.  Dad thought nothing of the fact that he would come home at 10:30 or 11 and find me wide awake, school night or not.)  Other passages, which exist only in my head at present, will deal with my fascination with late-night television, especially movies.  I think the faithful readers of this blog figured that out long ago, with my repeated references to Nite Owl Theater and the All Night Theater in this blog and the earlier incarnation on LiveJournal.  (When I was 14 or so, I totally understood Howard Hughes’ turning Las Vegas TV station KLAS into his personal VCR.  Hughes, living reclusively in the penthouse of the Desert Inn, wanted the station to show movies all night.  Once the station played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and signed off for the night, there was no buffer between him and his many inner demons.  Hughes kept badgering KLAS’ owner to show all-night movies, and the owner said that if he wanted that, why didn’t he just buy the station?  Hughes did.  In recounting this anecdote, I’m wondering if I was watching TV late into the night for similar reasons.)

I am just glad to be writing again, even if it’s only a few pages here and there.  I have maintained the blog, and I’m thankful I never made any public (or private) commitment to post something here every day.  And I am managing to write in the holographic diary.  I’m now about halfway through the current 200-page composition book I use.  But these have been major projects.  While looking for a batch of CDs I had misplaced, I found the fat 1983 New Yorker diary that I used to plot the outline of a larger fiction project, and actually put off the search for the disks to jot down some new ideas.  It’s a start; best not to make any commitments about when I’m going to get back to work on the fiction itself.

Last week, I streamed an interview from WGBH-FM in Boston, from the Website for the movie Hypergraphia, the upcoming biopic about Arthur Crew Inman, the reclusive wealthy poet whose only talents were his 155-volume diary and wringing his hands about all his imaginary ailments.  One of the guests on The Callie Crossley Show was Alice Flaherty, a neurologist who has written a book about hypergraphia.  Frankly, I wish I had this condition (although some people have suggested I have a mild form of it).  I recently watched a DVD of a documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger, about a Chicago artist who died in 1973.  He escaped an orphange while a teenager, and earned a living at janitorial and unskilled labor jobs at various Catholic hospitals in Chicago.  When his landlords cleaned out his room after he died, they found literally millions of drawings and paintings, as well as a complete novel, over 14 thousand single-spaced typewritten pages.

Barely a tip of the iceberg of Henry Darger’s manuscripts.

I found the story fascinating, and went to see if the library had the book Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal.  They did, but only a reference copy that could not leave the library.  I was in for another shock: The cheapest used copy I could find online was $600!
Maybe I’m hoping his hypergraphia will rub off on me.

Something Symbolic About the Books on Reserve For Me Today

I came home from work via the Northside branch of the library late this afternoon, and the two items awaiting me were a DVD of Joe Gould’s Secret and a hardcover of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice W. Flaherty.  Dr. Flaherty is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School.  Half her book is a study of hypergraphia, the overwhelming desire (urge) to write, the other half deals with the other side of the coin, writer’s block.

Joe Gould’s Secret is the true story of a hypergraphic person, Greenwich Village bohemian and indigent Joseph Ferdinand Gould, who prowled the streets of New York from the 1920s until the mid-1950s.  A Harvard graduate, Gould was frequently disheveled and penniless, but always pounded the pavement with a shabby portfolio and stacks of cheap composition books.  He claimed to be writing the longest book in the history of the world, An Oral History of Our Time, which he bragged was “11 times longer than the Bible” and still nowhere near completion.

New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell profiled him in 1942 in an article called “Professor Sea Gull,” detailing his daily rounds to collect money for “the Joe Gould Fund,” find rooms in flophouses, get meals in greasy spoons, and cadge free drinks from generous soft-touch friends.  As much as he talked up how monumental the Oral History was, Gould always had a million excuses whenever Mitchell asked to actually see the work in progress.  The few notebooks he let Mitchell see repeatedly covered the same subjects: the death of his physician father, and “The Dread Tomato Habit,” rewritten literally dozens of times.  Several New Yorker readers mailed Gould small sums of money after reading the article, and afterwards Gould would not let Mitchell alone, constantly harassing him for money, help with publication, etc.

Gould died in a Long Island mental hospital in 1957, and there was a mad scramble among his friends and those who remembered his Greenwich Village heyday to track down the many composition books which Gould said comprised his masterpiece.  The end result was Mitchell’s conclusion that the project was imaginary.

The many tellings and re-tellings of “The Dread Tomato Habit” and “The Death of Dr. Clarke Storer Gould” boomeranged on me while I was unpacking what I laughingly call my “files” when we made the move from Clintonville down here to Weinland Park.  To the left of my worktable here in the front room, I have a stack of bound legal pads, notebooks, and looseleaf pages.  I was appalled at how many of them were false starts of the same project, which I began sometime around 2003.  The working title is Collegetown, and it’s a novelization of my life at Ohio University in Athens during the mid-1980s.  The finished project, if I ever get that far, was for it to be a mammoth project, along the lines of Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County.  (I was inspired to try this after listening to the entire manuscript of Lockridge’s only novel as an audiobook.)  Yet I never seem to get past the same few scenes.

Someone may say I’m jinxing the eventual writing of the book by going into detail about it in a public forum such as this one.  All I can say in reply is that playing it close to the vest hasn’t worked for me.

I was reading The Boston Globe online the other day and saw that filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano will soon begin production of the movie Hypergraphia.  It’s based on the enormous diary of Arthur Crew Inman, an Atlanta-born professional inheritor and unsuccessful poet who lived as a near-recluse in an apartment hotel in Boston from 1919 until he took his own life in 1963.  Inman lived with his wife and an ever-changing staff of servants and hangers-on, writing about his own bigotry, attempts to publish his poetry, and the conversations he had with thousands of “talkers” he hired through the classified ads to come and tell their life stories to him.  The film project’s Website provides you with many details of Inman’s life, including sound files of his voice and interviews with people who knew him.

One of the 155 handwritten volumes of Arthur
Inman’s diary.

When I lived in Boston, Dr. Daniel Aaron was in the midst of winnowing down the 155 volumes of the diary into the two-volume, 1600-page version the Harvard University Press published.  I can only vaguely place the location of the apartment hotel on St. Botolph St. where Inman lived.  I remember it was near the Mother Church of the Christian Science Church, and near the Prudential Center.  (In fact, noise from the construction of the Pru was one of the major factors that led Inman, who was the Leonardo da Vinci of hypochondria, to blow his brains out.)  What sticks out in mind about that locale is that the subway stop always seemed to feature the same ragtag string quartet, and on the rare occasions I was in that neighborhood, they always seemed to be playing Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” at a manic tempo, so frenetically that I wonder why they didn’t saw through their strings.

I’ve wondered if I’m hypergraphic at times.  I just checked Dr. Flaherty’s book out of the library today, so I haven’t even cracked it yet, so I’m not sure of the diagnostic characteristics.  I’m not even sure if it’s a condition listed in the DSM-IV-R.  But I know there are times when I can sit down with pen and paper and have to write for hours, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s creative writing, i.e., something that I am thinking of and bringing into existence, or if I’m copying something that’s put in front of me.  I am in love with the mechanics of writing, and the fact that I’ve kept some type of diary since 1974 (when I was 10½) bears witness to that.  The other side of this is that bringing myself to write anything–as I wrote about in my previous entry–is a major battle.  I have several ideas for projects, and since I never work from outlines and seldom use notes, I’m as clueless as a potential reader when I sit down at the typewriter, computer, or ruled page and get to work.  (Louis L’Amour loved to tell the story of when his daughter came into his study and found him furiously at work at the electric typewriter, writing one of his many Western novels.  “Daddy, why are you typing so fast?” she asked.  “I want to see how this story ends!” he replied.)

Last Friday, I went to the kickoff of the Radical Queer Convergence at The Awarehouse, the repair bay/party hall in the alley behind the Third-Hand Bicycle Cooperative.  After the film Riot Acts, I was talking with two people outside (one had gone outside to smoke, and we followed, mainly so we could hear one another over the music inside).  Somehow we got on the subject of the actual mechanics of writing.  I think this came about when I mentioned that I had to buy Liquid Wrench to get my old manual portable back into workable shape, something that should have drilled the point into my psyche.  The three of us agreed that the mechanics of the writing was just as important–if not more so–than the finished product.  Miles, who had operated the laptop to show the Riot Acts DVD, mentioned the scribes who laboriously Torah scrolls.
That would take a kind of stability that a hypergraphic person probably could not harness.  I remember when a rabbi brought out the Torah scrolls in the chapel at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati when I was taking a night class there in 1990.  If the scribe–the Hebrew word is sofer–made a mistake, he/she cannot just cross the letter or word out and keep on going.  An error would mean beginning that particular panel over from scratch.  And a sofer usually doesn’t do just Torah scrolls.  He/she also does sacred documents, such as the marriage ketubah.  (They’re also the ones who will produce the get, the divorce document, so it’s a win-win situation all around for them, marriage-wise.)
What made me respect the mechanics of actual writing was reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, the two-volume book he wrote about his military career (not his Presidency, for good reasons).  He had gone broke when one of his business partners depleted their company’s assets and fled the country, so he wrote his autobiography to provide for his family.  About the time he began the project, he learned that he was terminally ill with throat cancer, not surprising for a man who smoked 20 cigars a day.  He dictated until he lost his voice, and then took to writing the manuscript himself in longhand (the first typewriter was patented in 1870, but Grant used a pen and ink), finishing it only four days before he died.
Ulysses S. Grant at Mount McGregor, N.Y.,
in 1885, writing his memoirs.

No matter what you think of the finished product, and setting aside what a dreadful President Grant was (Ohio may be the Mother of Presidents, but with the exception of William Howard Taft, they’re generally a pretty sorry lot.), I have to admire someone who was able to write while facing a literal “deadline.”  When Jimmy Carter’s memoir Keeping Faith came out in 1982, in my mind I kept juxtaposing the picture of Carter sitting in Plains, Ga. at the keyboard of his word processor, still very healthy (which, at 86, he still seems to be), and Grant at death’s door with his pen in his hand.
I wrote an essay a few years ago called “The Keys to My Heart,” in which I confess my love of typewriters.  I mentioned the memorable scene in the film The Shining when Jack Torrance’s wife realizes that he has gone insane.  While working as a winter caretaker for a haunted resort hotel in the Rocky Mountains, Jack plans to write a play, and laboriously spends hours in front of the typewriter, banging away.  His wife Wendy goes to his desk one day and finds, to her horror, nothing but reams and reams of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  My take on this was not that Torrance had gone over the bend (although, ever since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you just take for granted that any character Jack Nicholson plays is nuts), but that he was blocked, yet addicted to the sound of his typewriter. 

Holy Day of Obligation for Diarists

Samuel Pepys, we who are about to blog salute thee!  On this date, in 1669, Samuel Pepys wrote the final entry in his diary.  He was a member of the English Parliament and Naval Administrator under Charles II, and discontinued his journal (begun New Year’s Day 1660) because he feared (mistakenly) he was going blind.  So, every May 31 is the day that I feel I must post a blog entry, or write in my holographic diary, even if I abandon it all other times.

I started my first real diary on New Year’s Day 1974, when I was in fifth grade.  As a belated Christmas gift, my dad bought me a blank diary (blue cover with My Diary One Year on the cover, and a lock.  The lock was as impenetrable as Fort Knox unless you had a bobby pin.)  He bought me the diary at Sugden’s Book Store in downtown Marietta, and for the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s, I was itching to start writing in it.
I made my first entry New Year’s afternoon, as we were driving back from Richmond, Va. to Marietta.  We had gone there on December 28 to be with my aunt (my mother’s older sister) Jean and her family while her husband Roger was in the cardiac care unit of a Richmond hospital, undergoing treatment for the congestive heart failure that would take his life the following spring.
That diary, along with all the ones from 1974 to 1989, is long gone, since I stored them in a storage locker and never maintained the payments.  I distinctly remember writing the first entry with a dull pencil, even including a dateline (“Somewhere in Virginia,” which sounds like a Union Army dispatch to the War Department during the Civil War), writing about Uncle Roger’s return to Intensive Care, watching the ball drop at Times Square on the television, and how hard it was to find a gas station that was open.
I was hooked from then on.  My friends (particularly my male ones) thought it weird, but it was just another proof that I was completely nuts and 100% different from them.  (When I had friends staying over, or if I spent the night with them, they were respectful when I would get out the diary and a pen and go off by myself just long enough to fill a page.)  I even defended it with words I echoed from my dad: “You like to watch Star Trek, don’t you?  Well, when Captain Kirk does his captain’s log, that’s his diary.  Besides [I added, doubly righteously], the most famous diary in the world was kept by a man!”  It did take me a long time to get over the picture of the girl lying on her stomach writing when I heard the word “diary,” however.
I haven’t maintained a perfect day-to-day record, even in the many volumes that were lost.  I have gone days, weeks, and months between entries.  Overall, I am a pretty conscientious diarist.  I have used a variety of books as diaries.  Growing up, every Christmas I received a new one-year book (never another one with a lock), but when I was 16, I began to use blank books that were not predated, so I wouldn’t be confined to a page per day.  I varied in book types then, too, ranging from big red legal ledgers to spiral notebooks.
For most of my 20s, I used bonded leather blank books (usually the Anything Book brand), with the occasional stenographer’s notebook or appointment diary thrown in for variety, plus whatever books I received as Christmas or birthday gifts–when in doubt, get Paul a journal, was the wisdom.
From about age 35 on, I have–with some exceptions–written in simple composition books, inspired mainly by movies such as Se7en, Joe Gould’s Secret, and Henry Fool, where major characters make liberal use of composition books.  They’re cheap (often about $1 at places like Family Dollar) and much more durable than many of the more expensive variety.  That is the type of book I am now using.  (The current 200-page Mead composition book is 70% full, and its successor sits in my desk drawer right now.)  I have received expensively bound blank books with parchment pages, but they’re so beautiful you almost feel guilty marking the page.  Plus, I have good penmanship, but I can’t write without lines–the words go downhill almost immediately if I write on an unruled page.)
Steph vowed several years ago she had stopped reading my diaries.  There was no higher principle involved–the matters of trust and secrecy.  She had read them when she thought I may have had something to hide, or if there was something on my mind that I wasn’t sharing, but she quit for a much more practical reason.
“Your diary is boring!” she said.  She read page after page of my rehashing of a union meeting and its aftermath, where I would write something like:

John seems to think that this policy will help with the mandatory overtime, and he thinks that they should be adding five more people per shift per area.  I told him that he’d be playing right into Management’s hands if he did that, because they’ll be accusing the union (and I’m not sure they’d be wrong) of deliberate featherbedding, which will bite us in the ass come contract time.

 Steph’s remark that my diary was/is boring may well be true, but at the time neither of us knew much about the Reverend Robert Shields (1918-2007), a retired United Church of Christ minister in Washington State who kept a very detailed diary of literally everything that happened to him from 1972 until a 1997 stroke made the job impossible.  I first heard of him in a “News of the Weird” column in 1996:

According to a Seattle Times feature in March, Robert Shields, 77, of Dayton, Wash., is the author of perhaps the longest personal diary in history–nearly 38 million words on paper stored in 81 cardboard boxes–covering his last 24 years in five-minute increments.  Example: July 25, 1993, 7 a.m.: “I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.”  7:05 a.m.: “Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine.  Used 5 sheets of paper.”

I thought this had to be a joke or hoax, until shortly after Shields’ death, when excerpts from this mammoth diary were published on National Public Radio’s Website:

 One of the more exciting pages I could find in
Rev. Shields’ magnum opus.  Click on the
image to read the entries more easily.

This entry was written on my 31st birthday.

I bought a small white one-year diary at a junk store years ago for about a quarter, and used it for appointments, etc. until it disappeared with the coat where I carried it.  Most of the pages were blank, so I was able to fill in appointments under the appropriate preprinted dates.  There were a few penciled entries, such as “Me and Donnie told jokes at class today walked home there’s a good chiller movie on TV tonight.”
During my white-tornado blitz cleaning of the office the past few days, I christened the finished project with pictures from my new Kodak digital camera (see last entry).  One of the shots I made was of my own diaries.  This isn’t even complete, since some of the volumes are locked in my desk at work:
These are more or less in chronological order.
The current volume stays with me, so I can
write in it whenever the urge strikes me.

Just before Steph went to The Cleveland Clinic for her heart surgery, she made out a last will and testament.  I realize now I should have done the same thing, both as a gesture of solidarity and as a practical matter.  (I should have made one out when I got married, and again when Susie was born.)  I have no vast financial holdings–my net worth can be calculated by what’s in my wallet when I die, plus how many pennies are in the jar in my office, so I don’t have that many assets to distribute.  If I died intestate (as I am now), Steph and Susie would automatically inherit everything.  However, I do plan to bequeath my diaries to either Alden Library at Ohio University or the Ohioana Library here in Columbus–can’t decide which.
Whichever place finally gets the honor, I do have daydreams of the day they arrive, when the librarians march all my diaries around the facility in procession and people touch their garments to them.
Steph puts up no objection to my diaries ending up in a library vault somewhere–they didn’t interest her when I am alive, after all.  In this, she was probably a lot like Evelyn Yates Inman, whose husband Arthur, a reclusive and hypochondriac poet, kept a 155-volume diary.  Arthur Crew Inman kept his record while living off inherited money in a Boston hotel, living as an invalid because of a long list of imaginary ailments.  He began the record in 1919 and ended it in December 1963, when he took his own life.  Professor Daniel Aaron of Harvard University began editing the 155 volumes and 17 million+ words in the 1980s, while I was working for The Crimson, and Harvard University Press published a very abridged version in 1985.  A movie, Hypergraphia, about Inman’s life, is currently in production.  This Website for Hypergraphia is the place to go for the background and news on the film.
I discovered this Website 100% by accident last month.  It’s one that makes me feel like I’m a little less alone in my fascination with notebooks, diaries, etc.  The title is Notebook Stories, and I feel like I have a personal kinship with everyone who posted there.  I used to think I was the only one who would go back into my burning house to rescue diaries and notebooks (once my daughter and wife were safely outside).
And while I’m on here:

I slept until almost noon, then I got up, took a shower, and dressed.  My friend Jacques took me to lunch at Cazuela’s Grill at N. High St. and W. Northwood Ave.  (Normally, he’d be in Mineral at the Feed My Sheep food pantry, but the pantry is closed today for Memorial Day.)  He drove me back home, I loaned him two or three issues of The Catholic Worker (poor is having to buy a Catholic Worker subscription on layaway). I took Susie to our friend’s apartment so she could feed and water the cats, then she and I came back home.  She may go swimming later, once we’re 100% sure the cloudbursts are finished for the day.  (It’s in the low 80s right now, and the pollen count is in the stratosphere.)
And then I came home and wrote this entry.