Jan. 31, 2014

What's in My Journal

by William Stafford

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

"What's in My Journal" by William Stafford from Crossing Unmarked Snow. © Harper Collins, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Norman Mailer (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1923. He's the author of more than 30 books, as well as stage plays, screenplays, poems, essays, and reportage. He's one of the founders of the "New Journalism" movement: nonfiction reporting that reads like fiction. He courted attention, engaging in public feuds and dropping controversial and inflammatory statements at every opportunity. Gore Vidal said of him, "Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells." Mailer was drafted into the Army in 1944, right after he graduated from Harvard. His experiences in the war led to his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948). It was Mailer's first — and last — book to receive universal acclaim, and it was his greatest commercial success.

It's his Pulitzer-winning book The Executioner's Song (1979) that is perhaps his most famous, however. He called it "a true life novel." It's the story of convicted killer Gary Gilmore. The book opens: "Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother's best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda's earliest recollection of Gary." Brenda was Gilmore's cousin, and after he was released from prison after serving a sentence for robbery, he moved in with her. When his teenaged girlfriend broke up with him, he killed two men and was eventually sentenced to death. The American Civil Liberties Union filed appeals on Gilmore's behalf but against his wishes. He fought to be executed — by firing squad — as soon as possible. He got his wish in 1977, becoming the first person to be executed in the United States after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The book was the idea of photographer and journalist Larry Schiller, who had collaborated with Mailer on a biography of Marilyn Monroe some years earlier. Schiller conducted the interviews, attended the execution, and shared thousands of pages of transcripts with Mailer so he could write the book. The book is a dramatic departure from Mailer's usual style: he abandons his dramatic, flamboyant style in favor of simple, declarative sentences. His tone is subdued, even somber, without sentimentality. Mailer never felt a particular emotional connection to the book, calling it "an exercise in craft." He refrains from his usual editorializing, and through most of the book he refuses to take a position on either the crime or the killer, although he did later say he wanted the reader to feel "what it means when we kill a man. That even this man who wanted to die ... that even when he was killed, we still feel this horrible sense of shock and loss."

Joan Didion reviewed The Executioner's Song for The New York Review of Books. She called it "ambitious to the point of vertigo," and said: "I think no one but Mailer could have dared this book. The authentic Western voice, the voice heard in The Executioner's Song, is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature."

Mailer died of renal failure in 2007, at the age of 84.

It's the birthday of composer Franz Schubert, born in Vienna (1797). He spent his entire life in Vienna, producing nine symphonies, dozens of string quartets and piano works, and more than 600 songs. But he died at 31, disappointed that he hadn't succeeded as an opera composer.

It's the birthday of Thomas Merton (books by this author), born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than 50 books, 2,000 poems, and a personal diary that spanned much of his lifetime.

Merton decided to write his master's thesis on William Blake, and he found himself deeply influenced by Blake. He converted to Christianity, and in 1941 he entered a Trappist abbey in Kentucky, where he remained for most of his life. In his diary from this time, Merton wrote: "Going to the Trappists is exciting. I return to the idea again and again: 'Give up everything, give up everything!'" Merton had become well-known throughout the world, in part because of his writing, in particular his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948).

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist John O'Hara (books by this author), born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). His father was a wealthy doctor, and his family lived in the most affluent part of Pottsville, but because they were Irish Catholics, they were never really accepted by upper-class society. O'Hara didn't do well in school, and his father punished him by getting him steel-working jobs during the summer. When he finally graduated from high school, his father refused to pay for him to go to Yale. He always felt inferior for having missed out on an Ivy League education.

He got a job as a newspaper reporter and started writing fiction on the side. Then, he said, "I went on the bum. I traveled out west, worked on a steamer, took a job in an amusement park." He ended up in New York, got a room in a hotel, and, using the bed as a desk, he wrote all night and slept all day, working on a manuscript. The result was Appointment in Samara (1934), which was well received. "Being a cheap, ordinary guy," he said, "I have an instinct for what an ordinary guy likes."

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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