But Never After

“As it somehow always manages before the winter solstice, but never after, the early darkness was cheerful and promising, even for those who had nothing.” – Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.

This has less to do with failure to enact my past resolutions (though the failures are many) and more to do with how I don’t buy January as a time for renewal.

 No, if there’s a time that my body, mind and spirit anticipate the possibility of transformation and rebirth, it’s at the outset of autumn. Maybe this habit began during my school days (long-gone but somehow never forgotten) or perhaps it’s because I enjoy the erratic, transitional seasons of fall and spring more than I do the more stalwart seasons of summer and winter. Or maybe it’s just that the beginning of a new calendar year always feels like a let-down, an anti-climax.

January, therefore, is always a difficult month. The excitement for the darkest night of the year and those many holidays (however compromised by consumerism they may well be) are disappeared as if they never were. Family and friends have returned to their lives. There’s nothing left to do but get back to work, literally, figuratively, and all those other commitment-oriented ‘lys’.

 Moreover, the level of relaxation that I’m able to seep into this time of year is exponentially (and inspiringly) sloth-like, so bringing myself back to a place where I resemble a sentient being who can function in public around other humans can feel impossible.

 Yes, January is typically a non-month, one of those times of the year that I only recognize when it’s over.  “Oh, hey, it’s February. What happened to January?”

So, to completely contradict myself, I’m resolving to pay more attention to this January, to this darkest heart of the winter season when fading light is indeed extinguished and the spring is so far away.

 I’m going to sit with this, I’m going to feel this, and I’m going to be present. Welcome January. Stay awhile. 

Influences - TC Boyle

There are those authors whose works initially set us on our path to become writers ourselves. These are often the authors we read when we are kids or teens, the authors whose works first haunt us and spur us to take on this writing life.

Then there is the second category of author influences, the established writers we encounter after we’ve already begun our writing careers. They are the unexpected influence, the ones we didn’t see coming, whose literary work crashes headlong into your intended artistic path and forever alters our course, making us aware that life is not a path through the forest but a voyage upon an uncharted sea.

TC Boyle is that author for me.

I was in my mid-twenties, already committed to becoming—to being!—a writer, and I was reading through the Best American Short Stories of 1997, a habit I had picked up during my writer workshops. The BASS collections are often staid and stuffy, more a reflection of the American literati perpetuating its tastes than of truly publishing the best short fiction of that year.

Two guest editors in the 1990s gleefully twisted the typical BASS modus operandi: Louise Erdritch and E. Annie Proulx (now just Annie Proulx). These collections are stellar and inspiring—qualities that BASS often fails to summon—and as a fan of Proulx’s, I found her take on that year’s best fiction startling.

TC Boyle (then writing as T. Coraghessan Boyle) originally published his story ‘Killing Babies’ in the New Yorker, and its topic is what you would guess from the title. What was foreign/shocking/enlivening was the outcome – the antagonistic Pro-Life protestor getting his in such a blatant and violent way. The shock I felt—I think I said aloud, ‘You can’t do that’—galled me and pissed me off, and yet, I was instantly won over. The story was both overtly political and shamelessly vengeful, but above all, it was a page-turner. Boyle can turn a literary phrase while engaging and entertaining the reader, sneaking in the art while distracted you with the story. 

Thanks to a coworker, who was already enamored of Boyle’s work, I started reading everything he'd written. His novel World’s End is still probably my favorite (always dance with the one that brung ya, right?) But I love his short story collections, and the novels Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth are incredible examples of enticing narrative stamina.

His unabashedly Baby Boomer-focused fiction taught me how to structure a novel, how to delve into the minds of my characters, how to spice tragedy with humor. How to embrace my own flawed, contradictory humanity, even. My fiction would have continued to imitate that staid and stuffy BASS tone and timbre if not for Boyle’s intervention.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the unfortunate influences that the Iowa Workshop and Raymond Carver have had on the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of fiction. I’ve been unfair. As Carol Sklenicka’s fantastic biography of Carver reveals, Carver was an instructor at the Iowa Workshop when both Boyle and another, very different writer Mark Helprin, were in attendance. Perhaps the Iowa Workshop has always been more diverse than I’ve given it credit for.

Boyle’s career and output have done to the MFA v. NYC debate what Alexander the Great's sword did to the Gordian Knot.