There are a couple funny stories about this story (Song for Occupations up now at Flywheel Magazine). Actually not very funny, and it’s not really a story, but (sorta) one of those lyric essay things I seem to be doing of late (though this was not done “of late”). That first sentence was totally incorrect. There are a couple of blog-worthy factoids about this essay-ish formal experiment thing:
1) I originally wrote this as fiction. I first drafted this piece quite a long time ago, as fiction. It is being published as nonfiction. I believe everything in it is true – I have been mostly publishing nonfiction lately – this characterization of “nonfiction” seems to follow. I think there are two reasons I did not think of this story as nonfiction when I wrote it: a) at the time I wrote it I did not know what a lyric essay was (nor had ever heard the phrase), b) the subject matter is uncomfortable and embarrassing. I think I was more comfortable writing an uncomfortable story with the idea that it would be considered fictional, or that it would be published as fiction – and the reader could then decide how much of my personal experience went into the story and I could put it out of my mind. Without calling it fiction I probably wouldn’t have been able to write it.
2) This story was part of my MFA thesis and got the most interesting, to me, reaction in my thesis defense. It was not well liked. I understand why. It is an uncomfortable story. One of the people on my committee said how much they disliked the character. (As fiction, “the character,” as nonfiction “me.”) The same person, the only non-writer on my committee, also said how uncomfortable it made him. (He also said a bunch of really nice stuff – particularly about Chai Vang – and it seemed to mean more as it wasn’t couched in writer-speak.) I said I agreed, I found it to be a very uncomfortable story to write and I didn’t much like reading it. At this point, Michael Martone, in his manner, said matter-of-factly, “This story makes me nauseous. That a story could cause me physical distress is a helluva achievement.” He probably didn’t say “helluva.” Regardless, the sentiment was pretty cool.
So yes, I wrote this a while ago and at the time of writing it I considered it fiction. It’s not really fiction, all that stuff did happen. But I called it fiction because it made it easier to draft. It then sat in a file for a few years until it was added to my thesis in the interest of beefing up the page count. Then it sat for about another year until I dug it back out and took a look at it and decided to turn it into “creative nonfiction” – this did not require much. The piece is quite formal and these lyric essay things I’ve been doing of late are quite form heavy, so it fits with the general aesthetic of some of the work I’m doing now. (The heavy formality was probably originally to hide my role in the story – to mask my presence as narrator/character.) I then submitted the story as nonfiction. It was quickly picked up. It now appears in issue number 2 of Flywheel Magazine as “creative nonfiction” and all the old embarrassment and discomforts I have with the story and the events recounted in the story make their way to the internets for any and all to see. But at this point I’m growing old and unattractive and don’t give it shit if I’m uncomfortable or embarrassed by a story, so fiction/nonfiction, what the fuck ever. It’s all the same to me. Enjoy. Don’t. Read on an empty stomach. Vomit.
PS. Four authentic factoids: a) the title is of course an allusion to Walt Whitman b) the tale related occurred in the Fine Arts and Music Department of Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD–a fine library and a wonderful place to work, perhaps even my favorite job ever c) another story I wrote around this time also begins with an equation – it was a phase d) the cafe where I retreat to coffee at the end is the scene of one of the more grisly things I’ve witnessed in my life, when a woman, not unlike my friend Mrs. P___, jumped to her death from 5 stories to become the sidewalk. Her shoes shot like 15 feet, her stocking cap, a foot or two. All this will be related at length in my novel “Notes to the Libretto,” started around this time in Baltimore, of which this piece is likely part, should I ever continue writing it. (I have the general idea to go live in Chile for a year at some point and finish the book–the book ends in Chile–I’ve never been.)
PSS. Last night I read the companion creative nonfiction piece in the mag, and really enjoyed it. Weird synchronicity happening in the world, as I’ve been getting back into pranayama and meditation and have been exploring options to formalize my practice in Vietnam. So after some googling, I discover there’s a Sivananda Center in HCMC and it’s like a 5 minute walk from my house, crossing one gnarly large street, so I go, and start banging on this closed metal gate and some California swami white guy opens the door and is like “Namaste.” Oh, jeebus. But he’s a totally nice guy – as all those guys are – and we talk about a meditation retreat they have coming up, which I just might have to attend. I’m all glowing and feeling yogic and come back and read Joshua Schriftman’s piece The Yogi Who Could Blow My Mind, and ha! Not so fast! Anyway, funny, good stuff. And fits in well with the white liberal guilt of my piece. Read it!