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.