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WHY I WRITE

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By James Robison

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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Collage (1950) by de Kooning

Oil, enamel, and steel tacks on paper
22 x 30" (55.9 x 76.2 cm)

The Solinger Collection

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I'm lonely but I dislike the company of other people and this puts me in a hellbox. MoMA just now has the de Kooning show and a reviewer somewhere was rehearsing this man's method of work, which was draw, paint over drawing, draw on painting, scrape off some paint-I know I know.

You mess around and hit suddenly at an arrival point where the work is a perfect wreck, as new as dew to your eyes and Venice-old also, at least to your eyes. You can't see how it looks to others and you better not care too much. I had a really providential dinner with Donald Barthelme and John Hawkes at Don's Houston place, and a young writer, Cindy Williams, asked them, "Why do we write?"

"Has to be something about surviving after death-" John Hawkes said.

"Well, it's the most interesting and difficult thing there is," Don said.

I agree with both but especially the idea that writing engrosses me so thoroughly I get out of the hellbox. But there is this warning too, for me, to be saluted and defied, as William Carlos Williams said about a dangerous element, and the warning is Do Not Write Every Day. Maybe if people still paid for writing, I would still write every day, but for now I need what I cannot buy or work through.

Detour. When one writes now-anybody-one will probably get kicked in the face. These are the rules: No money, but face kicks, teeth cracked, dislocated jaws, orbital bone splintered. Even if you tell the hard-won snake-bit truth to a friend. Look out molars. Rejection.

I had to write about LSD. To do that, I needed what I could not buy or work through and no amount of overtime in the factory would get me the good good product.

I had to think about LSD. The thing I cannot buy is time. It took me decades to have the truth of LSD come to me. Size the board. Let it dry. Slap on the base coat. Some charcoal lines. Sable brushes and badger hair bristle brushes. Oils need days, decades to dry. (Fuck acrylics.) You better have ten things going at once. One you work and the others are busy drying. Turpentine thins color.

When I started painting as a kid, I wanted the paint to behave in ways paint hates. Oil paint in metal tubes wants to run like rain or be thick as icing or wet plaster or spatter or be glazed like glass and then it wants time. Time bought me the final truth about LSD: reality may be shattered fiercely and with violence, therefore reality holds no sovereignty over perception and therefore my hold on the things of being, the petals, mufflers, wasps and thighs and pines and pigment, was weak and so susceptible to variations of horror that I will never again in life be bored or even understand quite the concept of that word. We are balanced barefoot on the razor's edge. The magic state for all is sanity.

And. The sustaining, formative, melting magic of those days forty years ago was a girl and movies-the psychedelia had to do with only warfare more brutal than Indochina's, worse than anything. I mean I drank relentlessly to escape the conceptual implications of brain trips and then wrote to escape the brain trip terrors of drink.

Again, like people say, "Well you're a creative type," and I think, "Hell no, I'm always running away from, I'm not making, building creating, I'm sprinting away from the LSD, the DTs, my phobias, the hellbox, not adding to the landfill on purpose, just getting involved in the most interesting difficult process to distract myself."

I came to terms with paint, oil paint in its metal tubes. I know how it wants to be, and behave. You must give it 80%. You get 20% to fuck with. Same with writing. Fuck everything: logos, pathos, ethos. Screw everything. Put it down. Wait. Scrape. Wait a year, two. Draw over it, white out that bit. Edit. Block out all that. Paste over it. Every time I sit down to write a new thing it not is as if I forgot all I learned from the last thing. That is a familiar twist on a familiar utterance so I would white out that, as it was traced maybe, but then, I like the shadow left, I like the veiny line variations of the shadow so I will keep it, as is, above.

I used the example about hallucinogens because it took me forty years, (how long since I last took any of any stripe or kind), to write the right story about them. I have a new story addressing those issues and the story absorbed me. One day recently, I was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, far from shore, far out, and a butterfly flickered over me. Nothing I saw when I was high was so odd and oddly enthralling.

To escape death. To distract oneself. I might add to discover, sort of, in this sense: The picky, compulsive, godawful and fussy fretful changes, the hammer blows and kick marks, and the strike-offs, all conspire overnight until one morning, a piece occurs as I read it, like a beautiful accident. Everything smashed and sprayed in some correct proportion to say, if I am lucky, what I didn't know I knew.

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| SHORT STORY |

GREAT LAKES FOUNDRY 1990

BY JAMES ROBISON

In a used bookstore I buy a self hypnosis guide for a quarter and take it under leaning clouds to my apartment and in the spring afternoon I hypnotize me, going down the dark staircases of my ego and id into the deepest parts of my inner self, a trance in the bedroom where a mirror reflects an alarm clock...

| read |

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James Robison has published many stories in The New Yorker, won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel, The Illustrator, brought out by Bloomsbury in the U.K. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and Grand Street.

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 "The Illustrator"

"Robison's precise command of language, his wickedly acute ear and mocking voice, mark him as a writer of talent. But his slim novel ultimately boils down to another tale of urban angst and emotional burnout..."

-- Publishers Weekly

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