When I started out with this writing shit, I had my literary heroes I wanted to emulate, the usual suspects who speak to the wanderlust of the broken hearted: Kerouac, Salinger, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Westerberg. You read these writers, and as amazing as they are, you're still thinking, I could do that. It's just words and sentences, right? A pretty image, an analogy, metaphor. How hard could it be? Pretty fucking hard. Especially when you try to condense the sprawling human condition down to short story format.
The first short story I ever wrote was called the Four Butchers. It was quite good. I wish I'd managed to hold onto it. I did for a long, long time, actually. Through a lot of the drug years and homeless bouts, sleeping in the back of the green Ford Ranger I sorta stole from my brother in CT (sorry, Josh) and drove out west with that hooker I picked up in Minneapolis, I had this giant green trunk I dragged with me everywhere I went--from the East Coast, up through Minnesota, where I reunited (briefly) with my darling, crazy ex-wife, living at the Roach Motel in Rochester, working day labor on a corn farm, surviving quite literally day-to-day, I had my green trunk. In it I kept my whole world, old drawings and cartoons I'd made; a Cat Stevens songbook for those times I stole a guitar and held onto it long enough to play songs of peace and hope and joy, even though those words increasingly played like bullshit; my copies of Catcher in the Rye (always had a spare); various odds and ends of a hobo's life.
One of the more beautifully ironic moments of my life was leaving Rochester to go back west to San Francisco, because I was sick of getting ripped off and beaten up by Minneapolis dealers, and leaving my wife, because, though I loved her very much, I loved drugs more, and Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" came on the radio just as I was pulling out of the Candelight Inn parking lot, and I looked in the rearview mirror and watched her just standing there.
My friend Matt used to say, when you are saying goodbye to someone at an airport (or Greyhound station, or roach-infested dump like the Candlelight), don't ever turn around; it will haunt you forever.
I picked up the hooker in Minneapolis as I made for San Francisco. It's not like I just picked her up on the corner. I knew her beforehand, sort of, the way all junkies seem to know each other. And I didn't have sex with her. She had the sickness. She simply needed a ride out west, and I was going that way, and could use the company. Seems I've known a lot of hookers from Minneapolis in my life. Never got a Christmas Card from any of them... (That's not true. I've actually gotten X-Mas cards from quite a fewof them.)
I hit the city...and then I lost my green trunk. I lost the green truck, which held the green trunk, and I lost my dreams. Lost most of my life. After that, I carried everything I held dear in a tattered maroon backpack, which was pretty big, far as backpacks go, but obviously not as big as a truck or trunk. You could fit a toothbrush, pair of socks in that maroon backpack, a journal, but nothing as big as a hooker, and I had no more short stories; the Four Butchers was the only one I'd written.
Most of those aimless drifting years, I still made art. Or rather, I tried to remain creative. Not sure you could call what I was doing "art." The Wandering Jews made a CD right before I went completely mad, and there are brief moments on that CD I am still proud of. A lot of it, though, is utter rubbish, parts where I was so high, so far from key, it's like I'm singing a different song. But "So It Goes" came out pretty good, and there are a couple others that shine, albeit momentarily.
I mostly drew pictures and wrote poetry (if you could call it that) to keep the chops up. That was easy to do, stealing drawing pads from Walgreens (I'd go in, pick up a pad and pencil, start drawing, and walk on out the door). I held onto some of it. My buddy Kelp mailed me back the drawings after I got sober, and the poems/lyrics morphed into some of the material I still play today. It's nice to have mementos. And of course I got the memoir, which I still believe will see the light of publishing day. Just probably not until after I am dead.
Theses days I've been focusing mostly on writing short stories. Short stories are a rather pointless form. I like writing them. Some people like reading them when they are done well, but for the amount of work required to create them, you get little bang for your buck. They aren't as pointless as poetry, but if you're looking for the big hit, want to knock one out of the park, you need a novel. Or better yet a screenplay. And even then, mostly what you'll need is luck.
After I got straight, I was in my early 30s and getting a check-up from our family doctor, Dr. Lawson. He just died. He was a good man. I was down over how little I had to call my own. And at my age... It was like I was starting from scratch.
"Most people don't start accruing personal wealth until their early 30s anyway," Dr. Lawson said, matter-of-factly. "You're right where you're supposed to be."
It made me feel better. Maybe I emerged from the fog with more than an empty, tattered backpack. I still had people who cared about me, who believed in me. Like Dr. Lawson, who knew all about my scumbag ways and didn't judge me. Or at least he didn't think I was a totally hopeless case. And he was right. Little by little, bone by bone (or bird by bird, as Anne Lamott would say), I started rebuilding. In the end those things I lost weren't all that difficult to replace, and what I couldn't get back, the music and hard copies and lovers, I carry them with me. They are a part of the new stories I tell.
It's probably good I don't have that first short story. Because in my mind, it was very funny, terribly clever, an example of irrefutable genius, but in reality, knowing how hard it is to write a good short story, probably the hardest of all writing forms (besides the villanelle, of course), it probably sucked something awful. It's best to let nostalgia airbrush those flaws away.