Head Room

HeadRoomYesterday afternoon I went to a park, plopped myself down under a tall tree, and stared up at the sky.

There they were. Those clouds again.

Like that spring morning seven years ago when I learned that Mom had died.

Or, in the same year, that September afternoon we lost Dad.

It’s been ages since I’ve had so much time all to myself (probably on a similar summer’s day when I was, oh, maybe 12), lazing on the grass and gazing up at the sky.

I still wonder about the same things I probably did as a child: How big is the universe? Why are we on this planet? What is the meaning behind the shapes of plants, animals, people, buildings … clouds?

Is this—me, idle, lying under a tree in midsummer—all some sort of elaborate dream?

And maybe I’m entirely somewhere else?

***

On Wednesday, Oct. 17, 1984, while attending the University of Iowa, I walked around Iowa City “in search of Hickory Hill Park.” I wrote in the journal:

“I only made it as far as a cemetery, where I strolled through the gravestones. Automatically, persuasively, shifts the mind on to thoughts about mortality, fidelity, faith, mother earth, centuries, relations with others—such as husband and wife buried side by side by their surviving children, who inscribed on their stones: ‘Mother. Father.’ It set me wondering how close the couple actually were to each other. In the graveyard on a bright, cool, sunny day…the stone-studded hillocks pustulent with the dead, groundsmen were trimming the hedges and clipping the grass over cigarettes and small talk. I couldn’t find the park I intended to reach.”

Three months later I was back in Iowa after the holidays, and noticed that the undergraduate literary magazine, The Iowa Rag, was accepting submissions.

I’d been writing a short story with the working title “Mother & Child,” based on a horrific newspaper item I’d read about a high school classmate who’d abandoned her newly born baby in a Dumpster. Maybe I’d submit it to the Rag.

But it was a short story idea that was billowing into novel-sized proportions. I kept procrastinating. The journal explains:

“Is there therapy for procrastinators? The problem doesn’t lie in the creator, but in the critic. He’s stepping in too frequently and I don’t think he ever used to as much when I wrote before … it’s just that: I Wrote Before. And now how do I feel about how I Wrote Before? That it’s worthless, romantic, silly, pretentious (that’s a bullseye), verbose … Now, afraid of following suit and continuing that common tradition, I’ve Stopped Writing. Now that is silly. …Spill it out with the energy with which I attack this journal. That’s a first step. In writing, order and cohesiveness are important, but like any toy design, can be patched up later after one has stepped back to take a good look at it. There’s plenty of time to think, my mathematician friends tell me. Slow down. Look it over. I have to stop writing a sentence, glancing at it, and then hating the very sight of it. I want perfection, but I can’t get it.”

***

With the submission deadline fast approaching on Monday, Feb. 4, 1985, I ditched “Mother & Child” for a shorter piece I titled “Insomnia.”

A quick draft was followed by four consecutive days of rewrites and edits, “staying up late [the night before it was due] scanning the rewrite and making changes.” All submissions had to be in The Iowa Rag office in the English-Philosophy Building by 2 p.m.

“I typed the final and drank coffee until around 1:30,” the journal states, “when I tapped out the finishing period.” Furthermore, I admitted to not being “as happy with it as if I’d worked for weeks on ‘Mother & Child’ … and after all, I don’t risk submitting stuff anyway.”

That aching anxiety for perfection (and fear of risk) still haunts me today.

But I’ve learned to regard both with suspicion.

“There’s plenty of time to think…” It surprises me that I intuitively knew that 30 years ago. But when you’re younger, you’re always looking for cues from others.

Parental pressure was greater then, too. While my father was relieved I was back in college, I wasn’t sure what to do with all that education. Obviously some sort of career had to come out of it.

And Dad was determined I find one.

***

Perfectionism reared its ugly head. Again.

Sixteen days after submitting “Insomnia,” I was still tinkering with it. “I called Nate Oliver, associate editor for the Rag,” the journal reports, “to see if I could get [a] revision to him … he told me to drop it off in his mailbox. I’ve a feeling it won’t be accepted.”

You see, the submission committee had met a week after the deadline. They’d probably already made a decision about it.

“It’s a little squat-shit of a story,” I wrote, “but I’d like to see it printed. I know I can still do even better.”

In early April Dad loaned me $500 to get through spring semester. The plan was to come home for the summer, find a job, and then return to school in the fall.

It was also in April that I got the rejection letter from The Iowa Rag. When the issue came out, I was appalled to see that most of the accepted pieces were written by staff listed in the magazine’s masthead. So, I sent an angry letter to the Daily Iowan, which was published on April 24. A rebuttal from The Iowa Rag’s editor-in-chief followed.

I must’ve written a really petulant letter.

***

The bitterness of those sour grapes still lingers.

You see, “Insomnia” is as much of a dashed-off, insubstantial, “little squat-shit” of a story now as it was then. It was a conceit built around one measly “so what?” ending.

Anyway, a Thursday, Jan. 31, 1985, journal entry reveals that the inspiration for “Insomnia” came to me three months before, on that search for Hickory Hill Park:

“[The story is] about a man lying in the dark, trying with great effort to ‘sink back down into dreams,’ but he keeps resurfacing to consciousness, much to his annoyance. He slips into a dream, awakens, then slips into another, only to be awakened at its finest moment. The clincher to the story comes when the reader learns that [the] hero is … six feet under, buried in a cemetery, above which a day is warming in mid-summer afternoon sunlight: ‘Again, he’s staring up into the dark, eyes wide, fixed on the blackness, unblinking, up into the quiet, through the cloddy earth, the roots and fibers of the dry, late-summer grass, rippling in the fading afternoon, sweeping down past the headstones to the hedgerows, where two groundskeepers laid down their clippers to exchange cigarettes and small talk.’”

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~ by completelyinthedark on August 7, 2015.

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