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Monday, June 20, 2005

Echoing Echoes

I was at the bookstore today, looking for a book or two to take with me on the airplane Saturday. I settled on Nick Hornby's 31 Songs and Dave Eggers's You Shall Know Us By the Speed of Our Velocity. Why these two? As with any airplane book (especially when the flight is going to be close to seventeen hours when adding all the layovers and such together), I wanted something that I will not want to put down. I was also looking for something that would give me a little bit something more - a push, a nudge into a proper mindset to write. There is also the fact that I have been meaning to read the Eggers book for ages and just needed a special occasion (like an Asia to America flight) to prompt me to buy it.

I bought the books on my lunch break today. Just about 8 hours later, I find myself already half way through the Hornby book. It is a short book of essays written about songs that have meant a great deal to him. It is a short book, and I knew that if I started it, I would be done well before I flew home. And yet, I had time on the MRT and no newspaper to read. I just couldn't resist. (Guess I'll have to get another book later in the week).

In the second essay, (or sort of the first I suppose, after something of an introduction that accompanied thoughts on the first song), Hornby writes about Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road. I'm not much of a Springsteen fan, I admit, and I am not about to offer a discourse about the song. However, the essay itself has hit me like the pop songs he is writing about - something that, though it may not be great literature, or timeless music, strikes into your core, that captures you in the moment you are in and brings clarity or seems so clear and so appropriate to your life that you want to listen to it again and again (or in this case, read it again).

In the essay, Hornby mentions reading Anne Tyler's Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant in his student days and realizing as he read it that the book had somehow been written for him. That he had nothing in common with the narrator, the characters or the author was unimportant. What was of importance was the fact that as he read the book, he knew that this was the kind of book he wanted to write, that this was the kind of author he was meant to be.

The essay works its way then into the lyrics of Thunder Road, a song, according to Hornby, that is about a man who knows success is on its way. Again, it did not matter that Hornby is neither American, nor a car lover, etc...what mattered is the way the song spoke to his life. A man who wanted to be a writer, who, at least in his mind, left behind cities and places that could hold him back, who waited to declare to those who doubted him that he had succeeded, that he had done what they could not do. Thunder Road became a song he could listen to when it seemed maybe he would not pull away and do the things he dreamed of doing.

This is but a very general overview of the essay, and touches only on the points that I feel most in tune with at this particular moment. What is it then, that I find in this little essay, this discourse by one man on a song that means nothing to me? To be blunt, a lot.

I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in school as well, and quite enjoyed it. Nothing like Fitzgerald, though, or Kerouac. I didn't even like it as much as Wuthering Heights (and yes, I admit it, I like that book). From about third grade I have wanted to be a writer, you see, or been writing at any rate. In college, I wanted to be one of the big guns. I harbored dreams of writing a combination of The Great Gatsby and On the Road that would change the way a whole generation of youths saw the world.

Alas, that has not come to pass.

Maybe two or three years after graduation, my cousin suggested I read Fever Pitch. When I went to Prague, I bought the book and proceeded to read it three or four times in a span of about as many months. I don't know why I was so taken by it. I was not yet a big football fan, and I've never been an Arsenal supporter at any rate. It certainly is not a great piece of literature in the traditional sense. And yet, I kept going back to it. I thought, while I could not write this exact book, this is the kind of guy I am. I've felt the same way reading other Hornby books, and after reading each, I feel a great need to write.

Of course, anyone dreaming of writing an earth-shattering book, or at least one that would make it onto reading lists and be recommended to anyone of a certain age by someone who has already passed that age (and the recommendation accompanied by the words "I think you should read this. When I was your age, this really changed my life, and I think it will do the same for you," or some such thing, also dreams of a certain amount of fame. I did, and I guess I was afflicted by a bit of those feelings of needing to leave the place I was from, a place that would never allow me to succeed or to achieve what was rightfully mine.

Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, I find myself at a bit of a - place. I can't say crossroads, because the roads ahead of me are too many, and leading in too many directions to be as simple as a crossroads. What this place is, though, is a place where doubt flourishes, and where self-imposed pressure, if allowed to fester, might do one in.

To explain: anyone who has come to this page and read even a small amount knows I am about to embark on a journey of decent length, across most of China and a fair bit of Southeast Asia to boot. What may not be as obvious is the true intent of this trip. Sure I want to see a lot of new places and eat some funky foods and drink some freaky liquors and not work for half a year - I mean, who would complain about that? But in the end, this trip is about writing.

I can tell you I have written two novels. I can tell you I have written a whole bunch of short stories and some essays. I can tell you that people tell me I can write pretty well and that I should be a writer and that a few people have even said, damn, that really stuck with me about something I wrote, or that my they think my books are better than a lot of things they have seen published. I could tell you that, but what does it mean? Nothing, really. Sure, I'm glad I've written stories I set out to write, but they weren't really good enought to be published, and even if they were, they aren't.

So here I am, 29 years old. Am I starting to believe that this dream of writing (in the context of being paid to do it, to achieve some name recognition) is not going to come to fruition? I would be lying if I said no. Am I starting to doubt my talents? Maybe, just a bit. Am I starting to doubt that I have the drive to make it happen? You better believe it.

And that is the thing. I write things, and then they gather dust. I don't shop them, I am not aggressive in promoting myself. I just sort of assume that things will take care of themselves. That a magic door will open and in I will walk, claiming all the things that I rightfully deserve. Not the best attiture, I know.

Perhaps part of the problem as well is that I can't really picture myself as being a big name author. It isn't that I don't have confidence in my writing ability; I don't have confidence in my credentials. No big name college degree, no short stories that promise great things. I have read plenty of big name authors, both dead and alive, literary and not so literary, and I just can't picture myself being asked to speak about them. I can't imaging being asked to offer my thoughts or opinions of this or that author whose work is echoed in mine, because to be honest, I usually forget most of what I read after I am finished (save for the general feeling that I've just read something extremely good or extremely bad). I can't quote stories, and I often can't even name characters after I've finished. How can someone like that break into the ranks of respected (and hopefully) best-selling author?

I know that this is not my last chance, this trip, and the time in Argentina that will follow (a time, I hope, when my girlfriend will badger me and force me to shop the books that I haven't written yet). It feels like it though. And that is why reading this essay today meant so much. It kicked me, told me that, hey, it isn't over yet.

I was left with the feeling, too, after I was done, and while talking to Natalia over dinner, that even if all my dreams of literary fame don't pan out - well, maybe it won't be so bad.

On that note, it is time to walk away from all of these thoughts that I only started thinking today. I've moved out of my apartment and don't have interent anymore (why posts will be sporadic for the next several days). I have four days of teaching left and then I'm out of Taipei. It hasn't even occured to me yet to think about the fact that when I step on the plane on Saturday, I'm not coming back here, at least not for several years. It hasn't occured to me that the trip I have been thinking about for so long is about to be reality (and the whole thing about writing that did just occur to me to think about, but damn, its really hard to keep track of everything right now). Maybe it will all come to me on the plane, and I'll just be overwhelmed. The stewardesses will come up and ask "Is everything all right sir?" And I'll just say, "I think so, but maybe you should bring several of those bottles of red, thanks." And then I'll bury me head in my books and think about the day when some twenty-something year old kid is about to go abroad for the first time and he's all nervous and excited and after filling a glass of wine, says thanks to the stewardess and turns his attention to his book and my name is on the cover.


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