In the winter of 2011 I had been working as an adjunct English instructor for ten years. Back then I spent a lot of time pacing between my office cubicle and the adjoining lounge — kicking the carpet, wondering how my career had come to this. One day, as I muttered and paced, a streak of motion caught my eye and I went to the window. A mixed martial arts (MMA) gym had moved into the long-derelict building across the street. I could see two young men in a chain-link cage. They were dancing and hitting and tackling. I felt a sharp stab of envy.
I crossed the street to learn how to fight, and to research a book about the ancient glamor of violence. When I first entered the gym I was 38 years old. When I left it for the last time, three years later, I was 58.
Cage fighting is a game of breakage. The sport comes down to one-on-one tackle football — with the addition of punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, joint wrenching, and strangling. By the end of my time at the gym, I’d been hit in the brain thousands of times. I’d entered a minor league hockey arena and lost a forty-second fight to a twenty-four year old martial arts champion. I’d developed arthritis in my big toes, an evil case of Achilles tendonitis, a trick neck, a bum shoulder that just got the knife, some unhealable tear in my rib cartilage and, worst of all, a rupture in my hip joint which has my surgeon talking replacement.
But I also left the gym with a book that I was proud of. And I was proud, in large part, because of the damage. Like an anthropologist, I had immersed myself in the warrior culture of MMA, and I had the scarification to prove it. I liked George Plimpton’s Shadowbox, but I didn’t fully respect it. Plimpton didn’t live or train like a boxer, and he never really fought. Yeah, he sparred against the great light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, but it was more like friendly roughhousing than an actual fistfight. And so, at the end, Plimpton didn’t know how punches detonate like bombs inside the brain. He didn’t know how scary fighting is. He didn’t know how fun it is. He never learned how bad it hurts when you have to stop.
When I first crossed from cubicle to cage, I was obeying ancient authorial wisdom: Write what scares you. As the novelist Dorothy Allison once put it, “I believe the secret of writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of a writer’s courage…I believe, absolutely that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.” So many different writers have said this in so many different ways that is represents something like the Prime Directive of creative writing. Here’s how the novelist and writing teacher Chuck Kinder puts it: “You gotta risk all the risk you can possibly take. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you?”
On the milder side, you could become like Kinder himself, who served as the model for the struggling writer Grady Thompson in Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys. Much like the character in the novel, Kinder endured an absurdist twenty-year war with a novel that metastasized to over three thousand pages before finally being published at one-tenth the length. Or you could be like George Orwell, who went to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War to fight and write, and got himself shot through the throat by a fascist sniper. Miraculously, the bullet missed everything vital, which is why we have Homage to Catalonia, not to mention 1984 — a novel which, according to Orwell’s biographer Michael Shelden, cut the author’s life short by a number of months or even years. In his frenzy to finish the novel, Orwell severely overworked himself, neglected medical care, and succumbed to tuberculosis at 46.
Or you could spend years working up a non-fiction Fight Club and endure all the violence in the cage along with the usual violence at your writing desk. Once the book is released, you could watch as the reviews begin to appear, and then taper off. And you see that your book just doesn’t have that elusive brilliance, or shamelessness, or luck that makes a book really go. And you could fall into a year of sadness, watching your Amazon rank plummet along with your sense of self-worth.
I set out to write about authors who had been broken, in big ways or small, by their own books. But I ran into a problem: Literary history is a history of victors. So stories about the struggles of well-known writers almost always follow the comforting arc of suffering redeemed. But what about the true failures? What about the legions of writers who dreamed big and dared greatly but lacked talent or luck?
I described my problem to my father, and he sent me the journal of his dead sister — the poet, Sally Patton (she wrote under the name Sarah Patton). In the summer of 1991, my Aunt Sally was struggling with schizophrenia and diabetes. She was unemployed and so impoverished that she couldn’t afford eyeglasses, allergy medicine, false teeth, or postage for poetry submissions. She was dealing with a solid year of rejection slips from the poetry journals. She was living in a trailer, chain-smoking her way toward emphysema. She was trying to remind herself that the taunting voice in her head — You are no good, just no good — was only her disease talking. At 53, Sally had reached a state of loneliness, poverty, and despair that was impressive even for a poet.
The summer of 1991 began with Sally waiting eagerly, as any author does, for her new book to arrive from the publisher. “I am waiting for my book,” she writes. “The book will change everything. I know it. I feel it. It is the deciding factor for me. It will change me inside and out. It is a wonderful book.”
She dreamed that the book might bring in a little money and a little respect. But mainly she just wanted to communicate with the world outside of her trailer. “[Writing poetry] has enabled me to realize much. I can only hope someday it may help others to become deeper and more aware. That is why it is important to get published. People need their writers, whether they know it or not.”
And writers need their readers too. Sally knew that a book without readers is just pulp and ink. Writing only stirs to life when it is held in the hands and minds of readers. So when hundreds of copies of her book, The Roses, finally arrived in boxes, Sally saw at once how foolish she had been. Her books would be trapped, as she was, inside the old trailer. She had spent her last $800 printing the book at a vanity press. She couldn’t afford to advertise. She didn’t know how to place it in stores.
Sally fell into a ruthless depression. She wanted death, and prayed for it. Her journal begins to read like a prelude to suicide. And, in a sense, it was. Sally decided to kill the best and truest part of herself. She swore off poetry for good. From that point on, she would try to live without the torture of artistic hope. She would putter around her home and garden, “reading murder mysteries and the poems of those who have succeeded.”
“Yes,” Sally wrote, “it has been a bad life.” But she had one small solace. “Someday I will be gone, but some of them [her poems] will remain, at least for a while. That’s really a rather remarkable thing. They will survive. My book will survive — at least for a while.”
Thirteen years after her death in 2003, I could find only a few copies of Sally’s books shelved at the 72,000 libraries searchable through WorldCat. Even Google knows nothing about her, save that she died of emphysema at 65, and was given a private service in a Kerrville, Texas funeral home.
My Aunt Leslie sent me a copy of The Roses from her own shelves. It’s a thin volume between slick covers — a pamphlet. But the poems are fine. One of Sally’s favorites, “The Glasses,” evokes a summer day with the smell of gasoline and iced-tea, and “a lawnmower licking up the lawn.” It describes how merlot flowed “like the blood of black tulips/into the pistils of wine goblets.”
Sally felt “mislead” by a romantic notion that if she felt deeply and wrote honestly, the world would take notice, and she would be saved from poverty and solitude. “I tried so hard,” she wrote. “I thought it was possible.”
It’s too little now and too late, but I noticed. This poem, “Dark, Bitter,” is one of my favorites.
She narrows her eyes,
draws in thin lips,
sucks at the dark, bitter coffee.
She presses gaunt arms
against her sides, pulls hard
on her cigarette,
tucks a stringy hair
behind a small, close ear.
From a mouth slit
slide ticker tapes
of paper-thin whines
Dark and bitter
her life has been;
that’s how she tells it,
tinny and flat
like small change
on the table.
I see the meticulous waiting,
her life pincurled
to her head for years
and never brushed out.
Like this poem, the total effect of Sally’s journal is heartbreaking. It is a reminder that the writing game, like the fighting game, mostly ends in breakage. But the journal is also an inspiring testament to the crazy resilience of a real writer. Sally was brutalized by the world’s indifference. But she was never fully broken, and all of her attempts at artistic suicide were botches. Again and again, she’d bid farewell to writing on one page of her journal only to find herself scratching new stanzas on the next. Writing wasn’t something Sally did. A writer is what she was, inescapably, whether she liked it or not. She lived twelve more years, occasionally collecting new poems in self-published volumes.
And I’m still writing too. But as I limp through life, diminished in my body and my career prospects, I find myself fantasizing about time travel. I see myself moving back through the years. I feel my body mending itself as all of those punches and tackles play back in reverse. I see myself standing once again in the English Department window, envying the tough boys across the road. And I say to myself: “Don’t be an ass. It’s not for you. Even Hemingway knew to study the bulls from the stands.” And then maybe I’d write my book in a safer way — or maybe I wouldn’t at all.
But I know it isn’t true. I couldn’t bear to sit in my time machine watching my book unwrite itself from last page to first. I’m fond of the book. It is part of me. And I can’t regret it any more than I could regret an underachieving child. If I had a chance to go back, I know I’d do it all the same way, risking all the risk I could take.