Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“I do believe that there are limits to love and that even mother-love, that ideal concept that is presumed to indicate endless, infinite, eternal, is a figment of our dreams and not a reality in any genetically ubiquitous sense.”

—Duff Brenna, “The Secret Altar”

Short Works: Selected Essays


From “The Secret Altar”

As of this moment my mother in material terms is a heap of ashes in a can, but she is also imagery that leaps to life in the pages of a book. It isn’t actual life, of course, but it’s all that I could give her. If she’s able to know things in that unknown world, I’m hoping she’ll see what I’ve written as an act of belated love and not an act that has shamed her.


From “From Car Thief to Author: A Journey”

The first chapter of Too Cool is a fictionalized version of the time three friends and I went west in a stolen car. I was fifteen when the events in the novel took place. We were on our way to California, land of warm beaches and sunshine. It was a crazy, spur-of-the-moment decision. I had decided not to go to school that day, and I was lounging in bed, when my girl and my best friend and his girl came bouncing into my bedroom and told me we were all going to run away from home. I can’t remember what their reasons were, but reasons didn’t much matter to me in those days. For several years (since I was 12) I had been getting into a lot of trouble and was on probation for car theft, but the other three did not have criminal records. They were “good kids,” and so when the four of us took off together, those in the know (parents, authorities) blamed me; but for once I was not the instigator, though as soon as they told me what the plan was, I promptly went along with it. I knew it would be the end of me if I did what they wanted, but I did it anyway. I was a bit insane and certainly self-destructive. It’s a long story. The details are in Too Cool.


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From “Friendly Fire”

One day we get in a firefight on some suburban street. There are low walls and houses on both sides. A broad-shouldered Georgian named Melvin Payne grabs me and says, “Motherfucker, watch my back! I watch your back!” We press our backs together and lean against a wall. We set our rifles on automatic and spray bullets heedlessly. Again, I never see the enemy. A few seconds later, I feel Melvin go down. When I turn I see he is clasping his neck. Blood trickles through his fingers.

He starts making a bizarre gagging noise, a sort of “Gaagh, gaagh!” His eyes are huge and rolling. His skin is gray, like boiling beef. His whole body trembles. I squat beside him and search for the wound, but can’t find it. All the while he is making that “Gaagh, gaagh!” sound and I find it both annoying and funny. Without wanting to, I start giggling. Or maybe I’m hysterical, I don’t know. But he looks at me and says, “Man, what’s wrong wit you?”

“Sorry, Mel,” I say. “But that noise is so funny.”

“Don’t you know who’s dyin round here, man?”


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From “On the Road to Rejection: A Tale of a California Book Tour”

Basically, you’re up there selling whatever personality you might have and hawking your wares and making a little whore of yourself. ...It helps if you’re young and cute.... If you’re a wonderful writer, but physically just can’t cut it, you might consider consulting a plastic surgeon. I understand that plastic surgeons have a book of illustrations, like tattoo artisists, from which you can choose the look you want. Choose the one that says “struggling artist with ironic mouth and fire of genius in his/her eyes.”


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From “What I Would Tell My Student Writers”

Brood if you must, but get over it and get back to work. It is the only way to overcome the odds that are stacked against you. And really, what else would you rather do than write? What else is more important to you? What would give your life more meaning? Ultimately, when it is time to close the final chapter of your life, what else would you rather have done than spend it as a writer? You may be the writer who can make us hear, feel, see, touch, smell, taste the totality of our being better than any other writer who has lived. You may be the one....


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Full Text of Essays

The Secret Altar
The Literary Review, Summer 2002

In 1980 I published a story in Sou’wester called “In Memory of Joy.” The story concerned a boy of fifteen meeting a man and a woman who had just arrived in town. The woman had been a dancer in Las Vegas and the man was trying to make a name for himself as a bodybuilder.

The boy thinks the dancer and the bodybuilder are wonderful and he introduces them to his father, who ends up paying the bodybuilder for a night in the sack with the dancer. At the end of the story, the dancer and the bodybuilder have taken off with all the money that the father has been saving. The boy, in love with the two most fabulous people he has ever seen in his life, had stolen the money and given it to them. The story ends with the bodybuilder leaving his weights in the back yard and the boy looking at the weights and realizing he would never be able to lift so much, and that there are only certain people in the world, like the bodybuilder himself, who are able to handle great weights. The theme, of course, is WEIGHT itself, how we are saddled with it, how it pulls some of us down (like the father in the story), but how some of us handle it all right and keep on keeping on.

“In Memory of Joy” is based on a B-Girl and her boyfriend, whom I met in Alaska in the early-sixties when I was traveling around on my own. I lived with Joy and Chris (their real names) for a few months and, indeed, like the boy in my story, I did give Chris money. I worked as a rug-cleaner and a dishwasher in Anchorage and Chris was always bumming money from me. He spent his time at a gym, pumping iron and posing in the mirror and preparing himself for the Mr. Alaska contest. He also worked nights as a bouncer in a nightclub. Joy worked there too. She would sit with men in the bar and try to get them to buy her champagne.

I don’t know if Chris won Mr. Alaska, because I caught a ride out of Anchorage a few weeks before the competition was to begin, and I never saw my two friends again.

Cut to 1978 and I write “In Memory of Joy.” And I get the story published and pretty much put it out of my mind.

Cut to 1993, the year I find out my mother has Alzheimer’s disease. She was living in Prescott, Arizona, at the time and I went there with a truck and moved her down to San Diego and kept her for a few weeks, before I gave up and put her in a retirement home, where I hoped she would get the “expert” care she needed. I certainly didn’t know how to deal with her myself. She would act wild sometimes, pacing the house at midnight, babbling incoherently, taking off her clothes and piling them on the bed and trying to pack them in her suitcases, saying she was going to visit her brother or her mother or her dogs. She would lose her teeth, her glasses, her rings; anything that could be lost, she would lose it. She wouldn’t bathe unless I gave her a bath. This was a woman who had been fanatical about cleanliness ever since I had known her. When my sister and I were old enough to dust furniture and run a vacuum, it was our daily job to do both. We scrubbed the bathroom every day as well, the sink, the toilet, the bathtub, scouring pads used on all of it, the mirror cleaned, the faucets buffed with a dry cloth so that they sparkled. In the kitchen, the floors were literally clean enough to eat off of. The rooms in whatever house we lived were immaculate and reflective of my immaculate mother. She would bathe every night in a hot tub of water, shower every morning before she went to work, dressing each day in the purest, cleanest, whitest, most fashionable attire of her profession. She was an executive dietitian in charge of menus for an entire hospital. And then she grew old and sick and forgot to bathe, forgot to clean her dentures (before she lost them for good), forgot to flush the toilet, make her bed, change her underwear, wipe herself, forgot, forgot, forgot—

—who she had been, how old she was, where she was, what year it was, who was President of the United States, who her husbands had been, what her two daughters’ names were, what her son’s name was—

—forgot how to tie a shoe or how to press the Velcro straps of her jacket together or button a blouse or how to tell time. Like Benjy in Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury, there was an uncertain value in her clockless days, for she had always hated time, every time-bought wrinkle appearing on her face measured with a modicum of fear and anger; but at last in senility she was almost always in the present tense, with brief slippages into memories past, the distant past, the days of youth, never yesterday, last week, last year. The long-ago-far-away was present, was now, and what was now for the rest of us, made no sense to her.

I knew that her decline had quickened when she forgot that she had a dog, though she had loved him, it seemed, more than anything else on earth and had spoiled him like a mother would spoil an adored child. They would get their hair groomed every week, she to her hairdresser, he to his. He would sit in her lap at dinner and eat off her plate. She would pick out choice tidbits and feed him with her fork. Spoiled dog indeed, but a good dog, kind and loving and only asking for a little affection from me when I inherited him after it was clear she could no longer take care of him. Certainly his life changed radically after I took him into my home. No laps allowed. Regular dog food out of a sack or a can. The Dapper Doggery once a month and sometimes not that often when I would take the scissors to him myself and “groom” him in order to save money.

After my mother’s death he developed a heart condition (an appropriate response) and had to take digitalis. Amazingly, he lasted almost three more years, until finally his heart was so large it crowded his lungs and made him labor for air. He could only sleep fitfully sitting up, leaning on the couch or the recliner. He was suffering and I could see he was suffering, but I kept him alive for a number of days because by then I had come to want him and I didn’t want to let him and his living connection with my mother go forever out of my life. He died easily, maybe even gratefully, when I finally took him to the vet and she with a tiny needle put him to sleep. I wrote him into The Altar of the Body as the little dog Ho Tep, god of happiness.

I’ve read that Alzheimer’s disease is a hidden epidemic. Thousands of men and women across the country are at this moment coping with relatives who have the disease and are slipping further into it, inching away each day from their own awareness, their sense of self, their own unique personalities, and becoming zombie-sundowners, with now and then miraculous moments of lucidity, in which they know suddenly who they are and what is happening to them. Thankfully, those lucid minutes flare like a match, burn briefly, and go out. Otherwise, it would be too painful altogether for their caregivers and themselves to be so awfully, horribly, fully aware of the creeping loss of Self that is taking place.

Those who have experienced or are experiencing the cognitive death of someone they care about will understand best of all when I say that my mother’s illness was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to cope with then and now, more than six years after she died. I call it coping because that is the most that anyone can do with it. Not a day has gone by that I don’t think of her suffering and my failure to help her deal with it better. Is this after-effect a kind of post-traumatic syndrome at work? Who knows? But it seems very strange to be so haunted by her, for I wasn’t at all close to my mother. My theory is that whatever love she might have had for me was destroyed when I was labeled an incorrigible juvenile delinquent, going in and out of jails and making her life (as she told me more than once) “a living hell.” I do believe that there are limits to love and that even mother-love, that ideal concept that is presumed to indicate endless, infinite, eternal, is a figment of our dreams and not a reality in any genetically ubiquitous sense. In any case, my behavior eroded my mother’s love for me, and also my love for her. I had no more forgiveness for the way she ran her life than she had for the way I ran mine. At times I knew she hated me and I knew that I hated her. A Freudian could analyze our relationship and expose it as the tired, boring cliché it is, but I bring it up to prepare the way for the failures and triumphs (were there “triumphs”?) that followed.

All her life she had been a wild, fiery, take-no-prisoners kind of woman. She had left many shell-shocked men in her wake, went through six husbands and never looked back and never apologized for anything. As I said, I didn’t like her much. But in other ways I was proud of her, proud of her beauty and her gift of gab and proud of her courage and proud of the way she could dance and sing and get out of life everything her talents and life itself were capable of giving.

All of those winning traits vanished as her illness got worse, and I found myself no longer a son, but more like a father giving orders to her and bathing her, clipping her toenails and fingernails, dressing her, getting her hair done, giving her vitamins and scolding her when she forgot to take them. Once in a while, she would seem to know that something had fundamentally changed in our relationship. She would look at me with puzzled eyes and say, “What’s wrong with me?” Her illness must have been coming on for years. There was evidence of it. Inability to follow simple directions to someone’s house or a store. Failing the written exam for her driver’s license. Dressing occasionally in oddly mismatched clothes. And that baffling forgetfulness that I’ve already mentioned — people, places, things. Misplacing purses, keys, coats, books, food, shoes, teeth, whatever. If it could be misplaced, she would misplace it. Forgetting also the deaths of the dead. One day I was talking about my father, who died when I was four, and my mother started talking about what a great dancer he was. She ended the conversation by saying, “You know, I ought to give that man a call. I think I will.” Maybe in her mind she called him and they went out dancing. One can hope so.

The retirement home I put her in worked for a while, but eventually she couldn’t be trusted to stay within the grounds. She would go wandering and, of course, the home didn’t want her wandering off, and so they told me I would have to move her somewhere more secure. When people get Alzheimer’s one of the worst things you can do to them is move them. It completely disorients them. If they were making any progress at all, moving them will wipe the slate clean and send them into a frightening downward spiral full of fog and fear and confusion. I found a home that housed senile women only. It was a large, well-furnished home with bright rooms and a fenced-in yard, beautiful trees, and flowers. I told my mother that she had bought it. “My home?” she said. “Yes, you own it,” I lied, hoping she would take to the place. She didn’t. She hated it there. Women wandered about the house talking to walls or sitting like imploding snowballs in front of a blaring television, while classical music drifted out of the ceiling. It was a bad situation to put my mother in, but though my instincts told me it was bad at the time, my desperation and cowardice told me it was okay and was the best I could do for her. I knew in my heart that I was doing wrong. I knew in my heart that I should have bolted with her, put her in my car and taken her home and gotten someone to come in during the day and watch over her while I worked,  and then take care of her in the evenings myself. I knew it then and I know it now, that there is a right way to behave in such situations, but I didn’t have it in me to do the right thing and so I get to live with that. I’m not alone, I’m sure, but that’s no comfort.

I’ve heard of people who do exactly what they should do for their broken mother or father, husband or wife — whoever it is that they refuse to abandon, no matter how difficult their situation. I say I’ve heard of these people, but I’ve never actually met any. They are an ideal to live up to certainly. They are a definition of humanity at its best. I admire them infinitely. I wish I could say I was like them. I wanted to be like them, but life got in the way. My job was more important. My writing was more important. The calmness of my mind and my home were more important. I, me.

One day my mother had a stroke. I got a call from one of the caregivers. She told me my mother was dying and that I should call a hospice to take over. I went to the retirement home instead and grabbed my mother, cradling her in my arms like a child (she was so light, so hollow, the way a forgiven soul might feel if we could lift one), and I drove her home and called my two sisters and they came and together we watched over our mother until she died the next day.

I had a tough time with her death, but not because she was dead. Death was a blessing to someone in her condition. But I had a tough time because I knew that our differences would never be settled, nothing between us would ever be healed, we would never come to an understanding, never forgive or accept one another. The end-stop period was finally in place and nothing could erase it. On the twenty-fourth of May 1995 she went away, and six years later she’s still gone.

So the time for reconciliation passed, and I knew I would live whatever was left of my own life knowing that I had failed her and failed myself in a moment of truth. I understand Conrad’s Lord Jim better now than I ever did before. Jim cut himself off from his floundering ship and the helpless people that needed him, saved himself and lost himself.

Within a few weeks of her death, I began to write The Altar of the Body. I brought Joy and Chris back from the 1978 short story and put them in the novel as Joy and Buck. She is an ex-Las Vegas dancer. He is a bodybuilder with titles like Mr. Los Angeles and Mr. Baja Peninsula to his credit. The two of them are traveling around the country, trying to make a living off their bodies, and they are aging and nearly broke. With the two of them is Joy’s mother. The mother is the same age as my mother was, seventy-four, and she is in the first stages of senility from a series of mini-strokes she has been having. Her name in the book is Livia Miles.

In the town of Medicine Lake, Minnesota, Buck has a cousin named George McLeod, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty-nine years. Buck’s car breaks down a few blocks away from George’s house and Buck pushes the car with the two women in it and that’s how the novel begins, with Buck, the man of weights, pushing weight.

What you come to find out later is that this man, Buck, who seems so jolly and in control and full of jokes is on daily anti-depressants. His body is no longer what it used to be and he, once so beautiful, is having an impossible time coping with what aging is doing to him. Joy is round-shouldered and breaking down because of the psychological weight that she is carrying. Buck and Livia are weights in this sense, but so is Joy’s past, which is like most pasts, filled with mistakes. Livia herself is quietly escaping into another world, where she can be the hero of her dreams.

As the story progresses more and more we see Livia moving into a paperback novel called West of the Pecos, becoming a partner to its hero Cody Larsen and then supplanting Cody Larsen, entering the book and taking over his role. A fine madness, that.

George McLeod is another character in Altar. He is a forty-four-year-old lonely loner and he gets taken over by all three of the principal characters. They move in permanently, take over his house, take over his life, especially Joy, whom George falls in love with.

George McLeod is the moral center of the story. He keeps everyone going and in the course of time, his example begins to work on the others and they begin to change a little, especially Joy, who begins to see that the big bad beautiful Bucks of this world are mostly more trouble than they’re worth. She also changes toward her mother, from seeing her at first as a nuisance to be gotten rid of, to seeing her as pitiful and needy and worthy of a daughter’s care no matter what has happened between the two of them once upon a time. Buck himself makes a huge transition before the story is over, but like a lot of transitions it comes too late.

When my mother went through the process of losing her mind and becoming the shell who ultimately died a wretched, undignified death, it was writing that gave me a means to endure. Even as your world is crumbling around you and you feel like you’re going to fall to pieces with it, if you’re a writer you keep one portion aside to observe what is happening and how everyone is behaving and how you feel about it. You tell yourself you can use it. You take the “truth” and you make it into fiction. And people reading it one day in the future know that it’s as much truth as it is fiction. And maybe they’ve had a similar experience and what you’ve said has helped them to know they are not alone; or maybe they haven’t had a similar experience, but you’ve widened their horizons a little bit and maybe strengthened their hearts for the tasks ahead.

I hope that what I’ve done in writing the story of my mother’s last months into The Altar of the Body has given her new life in some meaningful way. I know the writing itself gave me a purpose and was therapeutic to some degree. And I’m sure it was cheaper than Prozac or psychoanalysis or alcohol. As of this moment my mother in material terms is a heap of ashes in a can, but she is also imagery that leaps to life in the pages of a book. It isn’t actual life, of course, but it’s all that I could give her. If she’s able to know things in that unknown world, I’m hoping she’ll see what I’ve written as an act of belated love and not an act that has shamed her. Maybe I’m as incorrigible as ever. Or maybe I’ve finally done something she wanted me to do. Better now than never, she might say.

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Duff Brenna in skydiving gear (January, 2007)
Photo of Duff Brenna in skydiving gear

Friendly Fire
Web del Sol, Writers on the Job, 2005

In jump school the instructors insist that you adopt a proper pose as you exit the aircraft. In one continuous motion you leap out, stiffen your legs, keeping them tightly together, while tucking your chin into your chest and gripping a reserve chute strapped to your waist. Picture a tire iron. There are mockup doorways set on twenty-foot towers to help a recruit practice his form. He climbs a tower, straps on a harness, and hooks it to a pulley overhead that zips down a cable to a landing zone some forty yards away. When he lands, he will unhook himself and do the whole thing over until he gets it right — according to an instructor standing below judging him.

The first time I make one of these jumps, the instructor, a lanky Black sergeant named Charlie Hill, wags his finger in my face and says, “If I see you wishbone again, I’ll put my boot up your ass, young soldier! Now get up there and do it right!”

I run back up the tower. Hook onto the cable. Fling myself into the air. And my legs wishbone a second time. Sergeant Hill jogs to the landing zone screaming at me, telling me that I am the most asinine, dim-witted recruit he has ever seen.

What I don’t tell him is that I have a slight groin pull. It only hurts badly when I jump. No matter how hard I try to keep my legs together, the pain of the straps digging into my crotch is so acute it forces my legs apart. Time after time I climb the stairs and leap into the air resolved to keep my legs together. But can’t. By my seventh jump, Sergeant Hill is foaming. Nose to nose he goes at me as I stand at attention shouting, “Yes, Sergeant!” to every insult he spews in my face. I am the most sorry-ass soldier he has ever tried to instruct in this man’s army! I wouldn’t pass muster in the Boy Scouts! Not even the Girl Scouts would have such a candy-assed-little-motherfucker like me! And so on and so forth. The insults don’t faze me. I have been through Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training and have had my share of the shouting and posturing expected of every drill sergeant worthy of his rank.

Almost everyone else in my platoon has averaged five or six jumps before they have the form down pat. I jump at least a dozen times until finally, in complete disgust, my torturer gives up. He leaves me with the order to knock out fifty pushups and then jog to the barracks backward quacking like a duck. His parting shot is to tell me that I will end up fouled in my risers the first time I exit a real aircraft at 2,000 feet.

So after failing proper form, numbskull that I am, I also fail to know my right side from my left. Well, actually I do know the difference, but I simply refuse to land on my right side after leaping off a ramp into a pit of sawdust. Again, it is an injury. I had been roughhousing with friends, playing knights on horseback, and another knight threw me off. My horse was a farm boy named Glenn Chandler. He fell on top of me and I felt something go in my rib cage. I’m guessing that it was either a cracked rib or torn cartilage. I will never know because I refuse to go on sick call to find out. If X-rays reveal my injury, I will be held back for however long it takes to get fit for duty. I already hate jump school and want out. I definitely do not want to cool my heels pulling KP, or guarding some empty building, or anything else the Army can devise to make me earn my pay while I am healing. So, as with the groin pull, I run up the ramp and leap into the air many times and land well enough, but always on my left side. The exasperated Sergeant Hill has never known anyone dumber than Private Brenna and he predicts that I will never make it through jump school. I will be one of those pussies who will wash out. He guarantees it.

Three weeks into our training, we board C-130s and take off for one of the sandy drop zones that dot Fort Benning. Like everyone else I have no trouble following the Jump Master’s instructions. I stand up, hook up, check my equipment and the equipment of the man in front of me. I sound off — “OKAY!” —as loud as I can. And slap the man I’ve checked on the shoulder. When the light turns green, the Jump Master yells, “Go!” and we are rushed out of the aircraft so fast I am sure we will end in a mess of fused parachutes. The prop blast flips me upside down. My helmet falls over my face. My legs hit my deploying chute. My feet flirt with the risers. The heel of one foot is caught in some lines. Everything happens at a ferocious pace and I’m thinking, Sergeant Hill was right! I am getting tangled in my lines! As the chute balloons above me, and the risers stiffen, my heel is ejected and I straighten out. I lift my helmet off my eyes and see the sandy DZ below. I look up and see the T-10 fully open.

“You beautiful green bitch!” I shout.

I relax, swaying like a slow pendulum as I watch the ground rising to meet me. Then, as instructed, I look away towards tree top level and take my five-point stance, prepared to hit toes, calves, thighs, buttocks and onto my left side. And then roll over and end up ready to return fire or leap up and run. In eighteen jumps in the Airborne I will never make one of these cagey five-point landings. What I discover on my first jump is that I am a heel-and-head man. My heels hit as I drift sideways with the wind and then my head is bouncing off the ground. I scramble up and catch my chute, roll it into a ball and hustle to the waiting trucks.

Ultimately, I refute Sergeant Hill’s prognostications. A day arrives when I am given a certificate announcing that Private Brenna has successfully completed the Airborne Course given at Fort Benning, Georgia. And then I, and a number of other newbies, are flown to Fort Bragg, North Carolina and assigned to the 82nd Airborne.

Duff gets his wings
Duff Gets His Wings
  I am sent to Company B, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry. The First Sergeant is a Korean War Veteran named Harold A. Smeltzer. As I stand at attention in front of his desk, he chews an unlit cigar and reads my file. He looks at me with hostile eyes when he says, “This true? You can type?” He raps my file.

“Type, sir?”

“Goddammit, don’t call me sir!”


“Can you type or not, Brenna?”

“I took a course in it in the ninth grade, Sergeant.”

“Can you spell?”

“Yes, Sergeant!”

“Goddammit, we don’t have nobody can spell around here! Go put your gear in your locker and report to the Company Clerk!”

The Company Clerk gives me a pile of forms and some handwritten letters to type. I sit at a desk banging on an old Underwood. Sergeant Smeltzer occasionally comes into the office and looks at my work and grunts approval and stares at the Company Clerk with disdain. Which doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He is an impudent, handsome Spec 4 with a sarcastic grin. I learn later that his favorite way of picking up girls in bars is to go up to them and say, “I’d like to turn you upside down and lick you like an ice cream cone.” Legend has it that he gets a lot of pussy that way.

I also learn that he is a “short-timer.” In two weeks he will muster out, and he’s lost all interest in clerking for the company. For the next two weeks he kicks back and tells me what to do. I go to the office early and type and file and make out the Morning Report. Afterwards I catch up with my platoon and join them in whatever training is scheduled for the day.

When the Company Clerk becomes a civilian again, I am given his title. A month later we have a “surprise” General Inspection. I have everything in order. My office is given 98 out of 100 points, which pleases the First Sergeant. He tells me I no longer have to join my platoon for training. I am to be his Company Clerk full-time. Cushy job, but I don’t like it. The long, boring days pushing paper, answering phones, filing and re-filing forms, and typing what must be a perfect Morning Report. No mistakes allowed. I spend my evenings in the Enlisted Men’s Club drinking beer and grumbling with other beer-drinking grumblers.

At this point in my non-career I am painfully aware that I’ve made a mistake. I hate taking orders. I hate authority of any kind. I am hoping to just do the work and get discharged on time. Go find a better way of making a living. Since quitting school after finishing the ninth grade and leaving home, I have worked as a dishwasher, a busboy, a rug cleaner, a fruit picker, a hay bucker, a cascara-bark peeler, a hod-carrier for block layers, a ditch-digging-pipe-laying laborer, a potato burlap-sack sewer, a pin setter, and a dock loader loading trucks with crates of frozen chickens. And I have made money by committing various forms of larceny. Graduating from stealing car batteries and selling them to battery rebuilders in Denver for four bucks each, to hot-wiring cars and cannibalizing parts to sell to junkyards. I have no doubt that I’ll do all right if I can just survive the Army.

As the months go by, the Vietnam War heats up. Some men in my company volunteer to go overseas and fight. I stay behind my desk and mark the days off on a calendar. Until one day everything changes and I am ambushed.

The lockdown comes in April 1965. Sergeant Smeltzer tells me to go to the payphone in the hall and remove the mouthpiece. No more calls to the outside world. Immediately, the rumors are flying. Most of us think we are going to Vietnam. Others say the Dominican Republic. Communist rebels have taken over the capital. There are those who say the lockdown is just another drill, the sort of thing we have gone through periodically — everyone made to wait until it is time to mount the “cattle” trucks for the ride to Pope Air Force Base. Time and again we have marched into C-130s and found ourselves over a Fort Bragg drop zone. Red light, green light. Back to barracks by sundown.

On the second day of the lockdown, we are driven to the base and put onto waiting planes. It all looks familiar except for the pallet of boxes piled beside the bay doors. We sit in the nets staring at the boxes. Next to me, Specialist Zane Smith nudges my elbow and says, “Live ammunition, man.” I hear someone else saying, “This ain’t no exercise.”

Hours later, when we are in the air, the company commander tells us we are going to the Dominican Republic to put down a commie coup. I know nothing about the Dominican Republic except approximately where it is in the Caribbean and that it shares half of some island with Haiti, a place where everyone believes in voodoo.

And I tell myself, “If you had washed out like Sergeant Hill said you would, you wouldn’t be here, you dumb son of a—” And then I have a premonition that I’ll end up a casualty of war. I’ve been set up by the system, that’s for sure. Clerking has made me soft. I haven’t been to the firing range in over a year. I have almost forgotten how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble my rifle. I am not ready for this. I want to go home.

The order comes to load our magazines with live ammo. We are told not to inject any bullets in the chamber until we are given the order. They know we are all very nervous and they don’t trust us not to accidentally shoot one another somehow. Loading up with live rounds makes everything realer than real. I feel queasy. Some of the boys around me are deathly pale. Some are grinning like road-kill. I am not going to wake up and go to my office and pound away at the old Underwood. My country has “enemies” it wants me to destroy.

After I load four magazines, I sit back and make a plan. Sergeant Smeltzer doesn’t look at all scared. He looks pissed off about having to put his life on the line again. I decide that I am going to stick close to him. He has survived one war. He will know how to survive another. I will learn on the job by doing whatever he does.

The best laid schemes ... gang oft a-gley. We land at 2:00 A.M. on a runway shaped like a U. The planes taxi around. They swiftly unload us and our equipment and take off again. The noise is deafening. Orders are being shouted, but I can’t hear them. I chase after Smeltzer and then lose him in the dark. I can’t find anyone I know. I wander into a grassy field. The grass is as tall as my chest. A few seconds later I hear the chatter of an M-16 on automatic. On the other side of the runway someone answers. Then, like dogs barking at each other, rifle after rifle joins in. The enemy is everywhere! For two seconds I contemplate moving toward one of the firing zones. Then I tell myself not to be a fool. It is too dark. I don’t know who is firing at whom. For all I know they are firing at each other! I have no idea where my company is. I don’t know where I am. And where the hell is Smeltzer? I decide to just lie down and let the grass hide me.

The next morning, I see a few heads popping up here and there in the grass. Before long there are hundreds of heads. Minutes later we are all moving towards each other. We join in a general flow of soldiers marching southwest. I keep hearing others asking, “Where we goin, man?” Nobody knows. Some order has come from somewhere and we are on the move. Eventually I hear that we are to take the Duarte Bridge and hook up with the Marines in Santo Domingo.

I finally spot other men from my company. I find Sergeant Smeltzer. He beckons me to his jeep and pulls out a wooden box. Inside is my old Underwood. Smeltzer gives me a list of personnel actions that make up the Morning Report. I carefully type the report and give it to him. Then rejoin the flow of soldiers heading for battle.

Taking the bridge proves to be anti-climatic. The Marines have already been there. The smell of gasoline and roasting flesh is everywhere. We march past a pair of smoking bodies and enter the city. As we creep around corners, I hold my rifle strategically over my chest to deflect any bullets that might be aimed at my heart. All we find are some frightened people huddling in a house. When we flush them out some of them say, “Love America! Love America!” After a few hours of searching for rebels, every soldier I talk to is frustrated. Those damn Marines taking our bridge! We are anxious to shoot our rifles, use our grenades. “Where are the bad guys?” we keep asking each other.

Over the course of several days I learn that my fellow soldiers (including myself) are every bit as dangerous to each other as they are to the enemy. We are green. We are nervous, frightened, angry, overly aggressive, and confused. We shoot at anything that moves in places where we have decided nothing should move. If someone sees what he thinks is a sniper on a rooftop, our response is to lay down a withering fire, while at the same time bringing up our M-67 recoilless rifles and M-79 grenade launchers to blow the building apart. We know it is overkill, but we do it anyway. We never bag any snipers. I never personally see any.

Every morning I check in with the First Sergeant and make out the dreaded Morning Report. When the Underwood breaks down and no one can fix it, I’m allowed to fill out the report by hand. Which is actually much easier on me. My hand is steady, I don’t make any mistakes, and in a few minutes I’m back on patrol and hoping Smeltzer will quit being lazy and fill the damn report out himself. But he never does.

One day we get in a firefight on some suburban street. There are low walls and houses on both sides. A broad-shouldered Georgian named Melvin Payne grabs me and says, “Motherfucker, watch my back! I watch your back!” We press our backs together and lean against a wall. We set our rifles on automatic and spray bullets heedlessly. Again, I never see the enemy. A few seconds later, I feel Melvin go down. When I turn I see he is clasping his neck. Blood trickles through his fingers.

He starts making a bizarre gagging noise, a sort of “Gaagh, gaagh!” His eyes are huge and rolling. His skin is gray, like boiling beef. His whole body trembles. I squat beside him and search for the wound, but can’t find it. All the while he is making that “Gaagh, gaagh!” sound and I find it both annoying and funny. Without wanting to, I start giggling. Or maybe I’m hysterical, I don’t know. But he looks at me and says, “Man, what’s wrong wit you?”

“Sorry, Mel,” I say. “But that noise is so funny.”

“Don’t you know who’s dyin round here, man?”

Stifling my giggles, I take out my First Aid Kit and tear a piece of cotton from the roll inside the kit. I wipe away the blood and find what amounts to little more than some nasty gashes beneath his right ear. Lying next to him are sharp fragments of concrete clipped from the wall.

“Gaagh!” he gags as I press hard to make the blood stop.

“Mel,” I say, “stop making that stupid noise. It’s a scratch, man. Hardly anything. You caught a ricochet.” I pick up one of the fragments to show him.

“Why am I bleeding so bad?” he asks.

“Hell, I don’t know. It’s fuckin nothin.”

He calms down. Sheepishly, he smiles at me while I clean his wounds and put Band-Aids on them. “I thought I was dead for sure, man,” he says. And then he tells me he had a premonition on the airplane that he was going to die.

“Don’t be stupid,” I say.

“You think I’ll get a Purple Heart?” he asks.

“Hell yes,” I tell him.

On another day a soldier I know named Danny is searching through an upstairs apartment when someone spots his shadow and yells, “Rifle!” Everyone starts firing. In seconds we empty at least 500 rounds into the place. Finally, we stop and we wait. We listen for movement.

“Did we get him?” someone asks.

“You motherfuckers!” is what we hear coming from the blown-out window. “You dumb motherfuckers!”

Danny stands at the window screaming obscenities as we turn away in shame.

Later on, when he finally comes down and we go back on patrol, I ask him how the hell he survived such an onslaught. He says he stayed on the floor and rolled from one side of the room to the other, back and forth, back and forth. It seems impossible that he not only lived but he isn’t even wounded. I tell him that somebody up there likes him. Gravely he shows me a Holy Medal hanging from his neck. On it are three tiny figures representing Mother Mary, Jesus Christ, and Saint Christopher. “This was blessed by our priest,” he tells me. “My mother give it to me. She said it would keep me safe. Wait’ll I tell her what happened! All Asheville will know.” He is chuckling as he kisses his medal.

“Wonder where I can get one of those?” I say.

“Too late!” he says. “You better watch your step with these guys, Duff. Everybody in war is crazy, you know!”

As the weeks pass, there are a few casualties in our company, most of them self-inflicted. One soldier can’t get his M-79 to fire, so he hits its butt with his palm. It fires and the backblast blows his hand off. Another young fellow is playing with a pistol. It goes off and splits the skin up the front of his entire forearm. Both those men get Purple Hearts and are sent back to the States.

Within three weeks the rebels are defeated, though American troops continue to occupy Santo Domingo until September 1966. The Navy holds the sea. The Marines and the Army link up and hold the land. At the height of this unremarkable, unremembered little war, 20,000 Americans are involved. Ultimately, there are one hundred sixty-two casualties. As far as I know enemy figures are never released. Or perhaps never counted.

Weeks later, while flying back to the States, the plane I’m in has generator problems. The pilot cuts two engines. The plane can fly on the other two, but the first thing I think of is that here I am having survived the Dominican, but now I’ll die in a plane crash. So all along my premonition was right, I tell myself. I watch the shadow of a frozen propeller on the wall inside the plane. The other engines are roaring desperately. What if another engine should go? The pilot is a major with a sense of humor. Over the intercom he tells us that we are close to Cuba, but not to worry because, if we go down, Castro’s boys will be right out to pick us up. We all laugh wildly and the tension is broken. Hours later the plane lands safely. My experience with war is over.

When my Army service ends in mid-June of 1965, I fly out of Fayetteville, North Carolina on Piedmont Airways. I have little idea of what lies ahead. Northwest of me are Wisconsin and the rim of Lake Superior, where I will one day bet everything I have on a dairy farm that will go bankrupt. The cows and machinery will be auctioned off May 4, 1984. But immediately in my future is a shipyard in San Diego and seven years of rigging steel and operating gantries and going to night school to get my degree from San Diego State. In 1977 I will end up with a Master’s in English and a part-time position teaching composition. I’ll buy the dairy farm in 1982 and after losing it I’ll go to Prescott, Arizona to drive a ten-wheel dump truck. I will lose that job too and turn west again and get hired to teach Medieval Literature at the brand new Cal-State San Marcos. That same year, 1989, my much traveled, much rejected novel, The Book of Mamie, will win the Associated Writers Program Award and the University of Iowa Press will publish it; and I will be given a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. And over the course of the next fifteen years, six more novels will follow.

But nothing of such a future seems even possible as I leave North Carolina that June day. I have hated the Army with all my heart, but I have to give it credit for giving me a self-discipline that I didn’t have before, and a GED, and the GI Bill that will one day help fund my college education. I have also had some worthwhile experiences that I’ll use in a book called The Law of Falling Bodies. I will never go back in, but I won’t be sorry anymore that I joined. I will still mistrust authority. I will still hate war. Everything will change as the years pass by. And yet essentially nothing will really change. Though I might in retrospect plot out how I got to where I am today, it will always, in the end, remain a mystery.

Brenna still has the right stuff (January, 2007)
Photo of Duff Brenna skydiving

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On the Road to Rejection:
A Tale of a California Book Tour
Turbula, Spring 2003

Here is an account of my recent experience with doing a book tour through California. From L.A. on down, the word literature is disdained. In the bookstores in San Diego it is tough to get a crowd, unless you are already a celebrity who writes How-To books or Feel-Good Fiction. There are some literary-minded people around, but they’re overwhelmed by other entertainments and many of them end up following the crowds to TV sit-coms, public mush, and soap operas. The left-over diehards like myself are so small in number we don’t count at all.

I’ve been doing readings, taking my weathered face in front of small crowds and reading from my novel, The Altar of the Body. I don’t do it for fame. Fame scares me. I do it for mercenary reasons, because I want to sell my books. I want to sell enough of them so that my publisher will want to publish me again. I’ve written four novels, but so far I haven’t made anyone any money except a publisher in Germany, where my books sell better than they do here. I’m told my work is odd, quirky, character-driven, and sometimes too literary, all attributes that German readers seem to love and most American readers seem to hate. I could argue with such an assessment, but it doesn’t really matter what I say. It never matters what an author says about his own work or [what] his readers [say]. Once a book is published, the author is helpless and at the mercy of others who make their assessments and tell the rest of us what to think. I’m talking about book “critics,” many of whom have fetal alcohol syndrome. There are some good critics. The good ones get the subtleties of your book. The bad ones don’t. Like Ross Perot once said, it’s just that simple.

I don’t like crowds. I don’t even much like people, unless they come in ones, twos, and threes and will sit down and talk and have a drink and let me do most of the listening. If those at my readings buy a book, I like them for a while, especially if they don’t ask me for the formula for becoming a writer. I’m not selfish. I would tell them if I could. But I don’t know any answer, other than write and don’t forget to read. Read only the best writers you can find. If you make a habit of reading bad writing, you’ll get infected and write badly yourself. This does not mean, however, that if you only read good writers, you will be like them and write good stuff. Reading starts the process. Remorseless labor does the rest. It also helps if you have some sort of innate talent for using words.

If I had my druthers, I’d never read from my own work again. But the book tour is what writers do these days. No one can think of any other way to sell a few books by unknown writers, so you’ve got to do it. Basically you’re up there selling whatever personality you might have and hawking your wares and making a little whore of yourself. There are too many writers and too many books and too few readers, so you’ve got to do what you can to get attention. It helps if you’re young and cute. It helps if you’re handsome and have white teeth and a close-cut beard that enhances your cheekbones. I have none of these attributes. If you’re a woman it helps to be an ex-model, be beautiful and sexy. Get a nose job if you have to. Do something with your hair. If you’re a wonderful writer, but physically just can’t cut it, you might consider consulting a plastic surgeon. I understand that plastic surgeons have a book of illustrations, like tattoo artists, from which you can choose the look you want. Choose the one that says “"struggling artist with ironic mouth and fire of genius in his/her eyes.”

Those who used to read would rather watch television now, slip a movie in the VCR or DVD and stay home. Kick back with feet on coffee table and mind on passive receive. The world is too much with us. We have to keep our horizons narrow. Unfortunately, good books are known for broadening horizons and giving people too much to think about. We have to escape.

TV might put you in a borrowed-sitcom mood after a horrid, suicidal day. The mood won’t last, but for at least an hour or two you won’t be the jerk who walked in with a chip on your shoulder. “Between the bridge and the brook, the knife and the throat,” there is TV.

The first reading I did for The Altar of the Body was with the bassist/guitarist Gunnar Biggs. He played music while I read five passages from my book about the weightlifter, Buck Root, and Miss Las Vegas Legs, Joy Faust, and senile Livia Miles and laid-back George McLeod. There were probably sixty or seventy people in the audience and at least half of them were forced to be there. Thank the Muse for professors who show up with their students in hand. The crowd got into the story and the music and they applauded loudly and bought a lot of books. As far as these things go, it was a mild success. But I didn’t trust it. I went home in a bad mood.

The next night, Gunnar had another gig, so I went to Grossmont College alone. The professors there made sure I had a good crowd again. I put on my author mask and read to them, and again it was a success. The bookstore sold every copy of Altar that they had. But I wasn’t happy. I knew the good times were over. When on reading tour, keep your expectations low and you won’t be disappointed. Although, actually, you will be disappointed, but you’ll be able to say, “I told you so. I knew no one would come. Can’t fool me.”

The next Friday I went to DG Wills. My sister and brother-in-law showed up at the reading. They wanted to make sure there would be at least two people to read to. I had been through it before, when I was touring with my second novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, and two people showed up at a store in Beaverton, Oregon. I read to them. They were my Aunt Marge and my Uncle Dean. My uncle bought a book.

At DG Wills five other people showed up. With Dennis Wills and Gunnar and Bonnie Biggs, plus moi we had eleven. For some reason I was very nervous and it was hard to do the voices of each character as I changed sections. I think maybe it was because my sister was there. I hate having relatives watching me bomb. When it comes to readings, I want them to stay home and let me endure my failure by myself. Gunnar and I did our act and sold a few books and Dennis, being the soul of kindness and wanting us to feel good, said that Gunnar and I should be on TV. Between "Friends" and The Star-Spangled Banner, I’m sure we could find somewhere to fit.

My next reading was in Los Angeles, at the famous, highly respected, much touted store called Dutton’s. My editor was thrilled I had been invited there. I wasn’t thrilled. I had bad vibes. The producer, Denise Shaw, who optioned the film rights for my novel Too Cool, lives in Santa Monica and she picked me up at the Brentwood Motel, a charming little place with creaking floors and lumpy beds. Denise and I went out to dinner, then to the bookstore. No one was there. Not one fan showed up to hear me read. This has happened before. In fact, it was just last year when the hardback of Altar was out and I toured the Midwest. Again, the colleges were fine, but the bookstores sucked big time. So at Dutton’s I signed some of the stock, waited half an hour, and left with the producer. She bought a bottle Coppolo’s red table wine, and we went over to Michael Convertino’s house. He’s a musician and a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for Too Cool. Denise kept filling my glass as soon as it was empty, and I started feeling less depressed about Dutton’s and the other empty bookstores waiting for me up the road. Denise, Michael, and I sat and talked for hours about screenwriting and actors and Too Cool as a movie and about movies in general.

I have to admit that the pain in the ass of driving in L.A. traffic, with its schools of sharks nosing along trying to nip each other, was mitigated by my evening with Denise and Michael. But the distrust I have of bookstores and readings was powerfully reinforced. If bookstores are not going to work to get an audience, they shouldn’t invite unknowns like myself. Stick to the big shots, the Greshams and Sheldons and whoever else is on, or near, the bestseller lists. Critically acclaimed but unread authors like Who? Huh? and What? don’t need anymore humiliation, rejection or self-doubt. They don’t need to be shown again and again what nothings they are. A book tour seems designed to castrate struggling writers, put them in their place. It does the job extremely well.

In a few days, I head north. Next stop Corte Madera, a place called Book Passage, where I expect I’ll be embarrassed once more. But maybe not, who knows, who can say? When I toured San Francisco with The Holy Book of the Beard in 1995, I was pleasantly surprised by how many people came to the readings. Frisco was like a little island of culture and learning back then. An impressive number of people actually seemed to like literature and did not see it as a dusty, archaic drudgery waiting to waste their life, a common attitude among southern Californians. We’ll see how it goes in S.F. and in Portland and Seattle. Bellingham is the last stop.

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What I Would Tell My Student Writers
Turbula, Winter 2003

There is a story about a writer who had great talent, but not enough resilience. One day this writer decided that he couldn’t take rejection any more and so he killed himself. The writer’s name was John Kennedy Toole, and he had a brilliant manuscript that no one would publish. For years and years his book was rejected, and finally in despair he gave up and went the way of those who just can’t take it anymore. Luckily for us, Toole had a mother who believed in him, and she continued to send his worn manuscript around. Rejections piled up for six more years. Then in 1976 the novelist Walker Percy read Toole’s much traveled book and realized it was, “A great rumbling farce of Falstaffian dimensions.” Percy sent it to Grove Press with a recommendation that they publish it. Grove Press did publish it, and in 1980 Toole’s book, A Confederacy of Dunces, won rave reviews and the Pulitzer Prize. Walker Percy wrote: “"The tragedy of the book is the tragedy of the author, his suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. Another tragedy is the body of work we have been denied.”

It is a pity that Toole didn’t stick around to collect his prize and to go on writing more novels. But he didn’t. And we are the poorer for it. The writing world is abundant with stories like Toole’s — writers killing themselves in one way or another, either physically or psychologically, writers giving up and considering themselves to be failures because they can’t get a publisher; or they do get published and find out it was not a dream come true after all. They are still ignored. Nothing has really changed. They still have to battle to get their next work printed, and their next, and their next. Finally, for many of them, it is just too much. So off they go to drive trucks, or become teachers, or janitors, or used-car salesmen. Who knows? The point is, they give up on themselves as writers, and some probably should, but certainly not all.

Noble Prize winner William Faulkner, working in solitude and neglect, was an unappreciated writer whose seventeen books were out of print in 1945 when he was rediscovered by the critic Malcolm Cowley who, in his The Portable Faulkner, told the world that it had a literary genius in its midst and it should pay attention. The rest is history.

Herman Melville gave up on himself and died believing he was a failure. His works were re-evaluated in the ’20s and ’30s, and now he is considered to be one of America’s greatest nineteenth-century writers, equal in his own way to Hawthorne and Twain.

Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward Angel, wrote big, gushing novels that were a trial to any editor’s patience. It was Maxwell Perkins who finally realized the value of what Wolfe was saying. Perkins edited Wolfe’s works and turned them into classics that are still being read today, some seventy years after they were first published.

A good editor like Perkins is a god-send to an author, but there aren’t many out there in publishing-land. They are all overworked and some are burned out. And there is too much pressure on them to buy books that increase profits rather than prestige. Editors don’t have time to work with or develop an author. It is not their fault; it is just the way the business is. The hell with this art stuff, you know, this “literature” that writers want to write. Keep them cranking out fast-read, commercially lucrative pabulum for the masses. Watch television sit-coms, then go write something similar. I mean, do writers really think that the American mind has time or inclination to work on intellectual enlightenment or the nourishment of its soul? How precious. How naive. How pitiful. How “Russian.”

Wolfe, Melville, Faulkner, and Toole would all be rejected today and have to go begging (as William Kennedy did for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed) until they found an editor willing to fight for them. How horrible it must be for these editors sensitized to fine writing by their college education to realize suddenly that they can’t make a difference in the way the system works, and that the only way to survive is to become desensitized and serve Mammon or lose your job. Publishing has become truly American in the way it abhors mere modest profits and social responsibility. It holds contempt for the intellectual, while continually searching for the formulaic blockbuster.

Publishing’s profit margins force it to reject the innovative or the artistic, and writers must know by now that if they insist on being a writer dedicated to the notion that writing is an art, they are going to be rejected. They are going to feel awful about themselves. Their confidence will dwindle. They are going to get depressed, maybe even suicidal. But if they are the kind of writer who needs to write, the kind that would write even if they didn’t get published, and the kind of writer who realizes that the writing life is a path not a place, and it often leads him or her through dark woods where the straight way is lost and then found because of the writer’s own stubborn efforts, remorseless labor, and resilience — if you are that kind of writer, then the odds will narrow in your favor and your chances for success will be vastly increased. It is an axiom that those who get published are those who refuse to quit no matter how devastating rejection is. They stay with their craft day after day and perfect it and make it impossible to resist. But they are up against that “vision thing,” the lack of it that many publishers have, and writers have got to be bloody stubborn to go on. They have got to have a mean streak in them that refuses to take no for an answer. They have got to hang onto their belief in themselves, and believe that they will overcome.

I speak from experience. My first novel, The Book of Mamie, was rejected by 23 publishers (none of whom would allow me to send the manuscript) and 23 agents (three of whom did read but rejected the manuscript) before it was given the AWP Award for Best Novel in 1988, and finally after four years of rejections was published by the University of Iowa Press. There is satisfaction in knowing that I knew it should be published when so many editors and agents told me, in effect, don’t bother us. Had I given up, my book would be sitting in a drawer turning yellow with age, and I would be brooding over the publishing world and cursing it with every breath; and yet wondering in the back of my mind if they were right, these expert interpreters of the word, and was I, in fact, awfully stupid to think I ever had anything of value to say? Had I let the system pulverize me, my four [currently five] published novels would not exist.

So what I’ve got to tell my writing students is — brood if you must, but get over it and get back to work. It is the only way to overcome the odds that are stacked against you. And really, what else would you rather do than write? What else is more important to you? What would give your life more meaning? Ultimately, when it is time to close the final chapter of your life, what else would you rather have done than spend it as a writer? You may be the writer who can make us hear, feel, see, touch, smell, taste the totality of our being better than any writer who has ever lived. You may be the one to realize Conrad’s task of awakening “in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of ... solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”

That, in part, is what fine writing tries to do, and that is what so few of those who publish books can see — that physical, intellectual and spiritual ties which bind are also the ties which fine writing strives to reveal. And that these revelations would help us toward the creation of a better world, a more elevated, more insightful and more admirable world, one which understood itself better because it appreciated the best writing, the most intelligent writing, the most profound and insightful writing our authors were capable of producing. The power of the written word can change people’s lives forever, and that is why it is so important that we are given the best selection possible to read.

We live in a time of fear and wonder, despair and hope — fear of the oppressive power of our economic condition and the barbaric capabilities of our fellow human beings, and wonder at what has been accomplished by the human mind; despair at the violent country we have created; and hope that there is a way out of the mind-boggling complications of modern civilization, a path to some oasis, some more rational, peaceful side. Writers, not just of literature, but all writers, have an obligation to put this world into perspective for us, to tell us about the meaning of it all, to expose the world as it is: the realities of a staged and insolent political power, and human impotence in the face of that power; impotent as long as we respond to power’s gimmickry, its silly flag-waving symbolism, its five-second sound bites of the day, its abstracted points of light, its lack of depth in confronting the great questions of the future of our country, of education, or the environment, or the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the unemployable. Where are we going? Where have we been? Why do we suffer? Writers have traditionally confronted these issues and given us insight into them. “Books are where things are explained to you; life is where they aren’t,” some writer once said. It is true, nothing explains what life is and what it means to be a part of it better than a good book.

And if those of you who create the books would only understand that you are part of a noble and necessary calling, which in the most profound and potent ways continually rescues this world from barbarism, then you might somehow find the resilience needed to go on, despite the devastating rejection which comes with the territory. Jerry Bumpus, King of the Underground Writers (according to novelist Vance Bourjaily), once gave me some advice about coping with the system. With affection and respect, I pass that advice on to you, student writer — “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.”

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