“Look here friend,” said I, “but if you have anything important to tell us, out with it; but if you are only trying to bamboozle us, you are mistaken in your game; that’s all I have to say.”
I reread, just now, work in my novel from the last few days, and I can see that there is something wrong with the way it is written. I have also, today, been looking at a book called A History of Pictures, by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, and in it they talk about a picture of Caravaggio’s in which all the figures are sort of occupying the same space, but without a real relationship to each other. It is clear to me that I am doing the same thing, in my writing, but it is less clear how I can correct that.
Usually when I need to figure something like this out, I leave it alone and go do something else. For a long time what I’ve done is read the next chapter in Moby-Dick and try to write about it. I have rules about this, namely that I read the chapters in order, and I can’t read the next chapter until I’ve written something about the last one. My problem, now, is that several months ago I read the next chapter, “The Prophet.” For weeks I hadn’t known how to respond to the chapter, but one day I went out for a walk and on the way back, in the sunshine, an idea came to me with its first several lines attached, and those lines were in verse.
I don’t normally write poems and I am, in all likelihood, an inadequate poet; nonetheless I was quite taken by the poem that I then wrote, also titled “The Prophet.” I decided to send it in to the Paris Review. I knew that it was entirely improbable that the Paris Review, which publishes really wonderful poetry, would publish my poem. But, as it happens, I was once, myself, employed (barely) by the New Republic to cull unsolicited poetry submissions. This history made me particularly able, I thought, to cast myself into the mind of the person at the Paris Review who would be reading my unsolicited submission—who was, after all, in some way just a younger version of me. I still thought it highly unlikely that the magazine would publish me, but at least somewhat likely that I would get someone’s attention.
So I wrote a cover letter that would convey this coded information, and settled back to receive what I expected would be a personalized rejection letter, sent through the years, from myself to myself. Months have passed without that letter, or any response at all. During this time, so many memories and ideas have surfaced, and I have put them aside without writing about them. Today, for example, reading Hockney’s and Gayford’s book about pictures, I remembered the little mirror my mother bought me in sixth grade, when I first got contact lenses. It had a square yellow plastic frame and it sat on my desk, and I stared into it when I put in my contact lenses every morning. My desk was covered with all kinds of things I don’t remember, most of them—the clock radio and this mirror being the exception—absolutely without utility to me in my daily life. But the little mirror was really useful—not only did it perform its contact-lens service, but I liked to sit in front of it for hours, sketching myself in the lined pages of a black-and-white Composition notebook.
I made one successful drawing of my face. More by chance than skill, dragging my pen across the pale blue lines, I captured some true aspect of my appearance by drawing my eyes, accurately, as differently shaped from each other. One eyelid was puffier, and the lashes curled differently, but also I allowed the eyes to relate more to the rest of my face than they did to each other. In sixth grade this mismatch struck me as a flaw. In art class we had been taught to draw faces by dividing them into parts and proportions, and when I drew, I strained for symmetry. Yet there my drawing was, mismatched and unmistakably me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to go on from this. I kept sitting down in front of the little yellow mirror and trying to draw an ideal.