Creative Juices in a Time of Commodification, Watered Down Drivel, Nothingness of American Fiction

Like a viper coming at me: age, obsolescence and drudgery

The autumn of the patriarch, man, thinking hard about Marquez’s book, thinking back in lamentation bursts, going back in time when I met him at the University of Texas at Austin, and how he spoke to me as a young person, hopeful that I would be something as unique as he was, using what I told him was my West Texas/Chihuahua “magic realism,” founded on what I learned from his One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Those were the days, man — Kurt Vonnegut and Denis Levertov, Annie Dillard and Tim O’Brien, Robert Bly and Leslie Marmon Silko.  So much more in the verdant garden of my youth.

…as he discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth…

…the day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole

Gabriel García Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch

El Paso, Gateway to the Jornada del Muerto

It was a lie, really, belief — young, in my twenties, teaching English, working my ass off in graduate school, odd jobs in Juarez, lots of poetry readings, art shows, radical border rights militancy. In and out of dream, really, living in El Paso, in an old apartment complex that used to be a bordello Pancho Villa reportedly frequented, then turned into a TB sanitarium. I thought I would have been set up like some great American novelist, or ensconced in tenure playing the MFA game, or just a vagabond with a one hit, the one-hit wonder of it all. By thirty.

Long in the tooth, 61 coming barreling down next month. So many connected and fragmented thoughts, and a few dozen novels inside, despair, natural revulsion of Oprah or clique NYC publishing world, and fear of the Hollywoodization of every thought sputtering out of the masses. Here’s a weird scene: I vividly remember the peas and mashed potatoes Cormac McCarthy pushed around on his plate at a cafeteria in El Paso. Man, he was beginning to take words and his spare punctuation big, from the hollers of Tennessee, the muse of Faulkner’s Mississippi hardscrabble set in motion; now in Paseo del Norte, hiding out (sort of) looking for beat-up West Texas seclusion and novel inspiration. It was a brief hello, and on the surface he looked like insurance salesman or appliance store owner. I asked him if he’d come on board by showing show up to one of the undergraduate classes I was teaching at the university (UT-El Paso).

In a nutshell (mesquite bean) McCarthy basically said he didn’t do those things, things like throwing in for students, guiding aspiring writers, messing with his own art with others.

I saw Cormac (The Road, All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian) on a fat lazy chair on the Oprah Show talking to her in her giddiness about his punctuation – or lack thereof. Literary genius?

A Country Not for Old Men — Re-Birth Inside Transitions

How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?
― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

Unfolding dementia at a young age? The shit I did and saw and believed, no Hollywood or any-Wood writer or director could dream of, script in, or even hang with me living it. This is not some blowhard release, or a “wow look at my experience now that I am turning 61 on February 6, the same day just another nemesis of mine, Ronald Reagan, was born” admonition. This is the reality of a Marxist living and working in “their house,” putting on those scrubs of their trades – English faculty, environmentalist, budding-aspiring novelist, photographer, newspaper journalist. No big laments, for sure, as my luck of the spin on the globe where I was borne probably has given so many incalculable advantages. Guaranteed, most consumers of story – book readers – are looking for simplicity in language, stories set in the love and hate, death and fear that encapsulates American writers, including McCarthy.

Anyone looking at my life seems like an antithetical process of literary creativity, and I am anything but what the average consumer of books wants as an author, but the kernel of what ends up on the page comes from the weight of tides and blurry sunsets and all the storms and heatwaves in between. Sweating through visions, and the hard ache of failure after failure, and the unbearable, sometimes, of witnessing the perversions of the world. We have to take stock in all of that messy emotional landscape. Being out of work this time around – sacked October 26 – and hunting for the crumbs of the capitalists is a process of bleary thinking, emotions lost in an oil slick of the leaky boat listing on the ocean of our discontent.

My birth: San Pedro, California, for my first six months in air, and then, the Azores, thanks to enlisted Air Force father. A real epigenetic reckoning, my first four years on the Portuguese islands, all that sea, those ocean chasms, earthquakes, the white-washed Catholic puritanism, the old fishers and young kids, the poverty and the USA using strips of land for Air Force machinations. I had a local woman – Maria Gloria de la Sauza — taking care of me and my sister, and we went to her family’s place on religious occasions, those memories hard-wired forever. Trapped in some dreams even half a century lived.

The festival of the bread each Saturday, the masses, the fishermen bringing in their hauls. Barracuda caught with piano wire. The weeping candles in black moldy chapels. The priests and the military men. Poverty, bellies protruding, rust, cobblestone roads, potato fields, hacking tuberculosis, heavy hips, skinny men, children like hermit crabs scampering about, the unbelievable heaven in that blue sky and the black ink of the Pacific. Nine hundred miles from Lisbon.

Exactly the spring of my existence – aunties and uncles in Germany and Scotland and England. I remember those trips over the sea, prop planes, the absolutely magical motion of Douglas DC-7’s flying the friendly skies of Pan Am and Eastern Airlines. Imagine, four years old, and one of the four prop engines catching on fire as we were coming back to the Azores. Imagine a time, 1961, when the spring of a child lasted with the touch of fingers on the pages of books, in the hard breathing of hikes, walking, outside until dusk, rain without umbrellas, seas and beaches beckoning youth without the paranoia of the 21st century.

Early Light, Early Seedling Growth

I am treading water here, in the night off the coast of Scotland, maybe, I can only imagine the reader says. It’s night, near Dundee, in a cove near Abroath. Around 1963. Real people expecting a five-year-old to swim, not panic, and see the world from the tide in and out.

Spring for the child as I headed to Maryland, and then, Paris, France, as my Air Force father went US Army, a warrant officer pip on his shoulders, and, a family of four in Saint Germain en-Laye, living with other families from other countries as part of that SHAPE — Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Vietnam War, the French and Yanks, the old WW II tunnels, chateaus as movie theaters, the Algerians living in the sub-basement, languages, competitive teens, and I flittered through those times young, visiting the old ones. Always around adults.

Fast forwarding to 2018, from, oh, say 1986 El Paso, then to Merida, Yucatan, and then hitchhiking to Panama, or, say, to 1992 when I decided to go to Vietnam to push the pulse of the American lie out of my system. At any point in the sinew strength of my late teens, through to 2001, the lies were compounding quickly, as I was given to confidence and pushed-up hope as part of the barrier reef or those malpais lava flows near Warm Springs, New Mexico keeping me from succeeding as I had imagined.

I had a New York agent, man, Jack Ryan (what a name, uh?) and he was old school, as the drafts of those books I wrote – five – came back to me stinking of Pall Malls and filled up with chicken scratch edits and comments. He was a tireless worker, and for me, he was more than just a fan. He had a deep regard for my writing. He too was up against the vagaries of Vassar and Brown University publishing house readers and the market of books, tied to the little swath of being New York hip to the incantations of literary fiction.

What a long row to hoe, and, alas, one book, a collection of short stories, thematically tied together by the Vietnam War tangentially, well, he had a big bite, finally, from Picador Press an imprint of MacMillan. I almost got the book sold – Eyes Wide Open: Vietnam Memories. The deal was a committee of five, Ryan said, had the voting role in a thumbs up or down vote on the book. The publisher of Picador Press said he wanted the book, but he was voted down, three to two, not in favor of going with the project.

The reader has to understand that the publisher accepted the manuscript, essentially saying he was all for publishing it. We lived on that arc of that humanity for a few weeks, but then Jack Ryan got the news that the book project went south.

New York Literary World Gone Sour

I know, I know, again, in the scheme of things globally this is not big deal. Rejection from literary circles. A dime a dozen. We’ve been told as writers that it’s luck, being in the right manuscript pile, or knowing a friend of a friend of a friendly editor; or to just pull yourself up by your boot straps and DIY and self-publish and manage a web site and e-commerce account. Compared to the daily struggle of the Pacific Nation Kiribati, for example, which is disappearing quickly as sea level rises, I get it about “counting my lucky stars.” I always come at the world from that foundation – woe is me can’t cut it in a world of absolutely insane suffering and perverted wholesale abuse on a massive scale. But from the bowels of an artist already way outside the mainstream looking to get a book (or several) schlepped by editors at New York publishers, put into their ubiquitous mainstream fiction or literary fiction categories, well, every disappointment is magnified.

Get this, though – I’m going on age 61, and the last time I attempted hawking a novel was 2001, when I ended up moving from El Paso to Spokane. Odd feeling indeed, in 2001, giving up the quest. I still wrote/write, still published/publish, but not books.

It (book in hand) came pretty darn close, and if you put me into an internet search, “Paul Haeder and Reimagining Sanity,” you’ll get a project that “almost” turned into a book. Well, it’s a book, in pdf form, but not on Amazon’s top 1 million list. We have to Fast Forward from 2001 in Spokane to 2015 on the outskirts of Vancouver. I was contacted by a publisher to write a book based on my musings and comments tied to my work at Dissident Voice, this political on-line magazine going on 18 years.

Heady stuff, the book jack recommendations:

Paul brings out a certain raw, emotional side to his subjects and issues. You never can predict what he is going to ask, and his ability to cut right to the point makes his writing an unpredictable thrill ride to the heart and the truth.
―Bart Mihailovich, environmental writer and advocate

Try reading him … with no allegiances to the elites and powerful. If you need a house call for quick intellectual triage, pick up a book of Haeder’s and dive deep into its layers. At the other end of the journey, you will be baptized in a new wonder of showing no fear, fearing no one.
― Charles Orloski is a working class poet living in Taylor, Pennsylvania, who writes regularly for the Hollywood Progressive and other venues

Haeder’s topic is always the world, and Haeder is the filter through which the world has to pass: rhythmic outburst, lyric language, howling at the moon. When other authors have forgotten to be outraged by the outrageous, Haeder has been a North Star who says, “You gotta look at this! You won’t believe…” and fill in here the absurd and unimaginable bullshit of the universe.
― Michael Strelow, author of Henry, A Novel of Beer and Love in the West; and The Greening of Ben Brown. Kesey is his non-fiction book. Upcoming novel is The Moby-Dick Blues.

Paul Haeder does not have a politically correct bone in his body nor is he willing to rent any! A book by Paul will bring reaction from readers, pro and con, but you can bet that it will be a book people will read with interest.
― Angie Tibbs, Dissident Voice, Senior Editor

It’s a hell of a publishing house that went belly up after just three years, but a dozen or more years the dream of the publisher, Kermit Heartsong:

Tayenlane Publishing
Reimagining Sanity: Voices Outside the Echo Chamber

The belly was exposed by the publisher’s distributor – you have to get these books put into book shows, wholesale book distribution points. The distributors (more and more middlemen) can cut a jugular on a small publishing house, and that’s what happened to Tayen Lane Press. But before the plug was pulled, Kermit the publisher solicited me back in 2015, and I was at/in/on a really bad place: going through a divorce, out of the Vancouver house we had just purchased, away from foster twin boys, and my dog left with my soon-to-be ex. I ended up in a doublewide trailer (no complaints about mobile homes) with a bipolar out-of-work heavy equipment operator, who was flipping out half the time, from euphoria to suicidal tendencies. I was working as a substitute PK12 teacher in several rural school districts, and this fellow I will call Rylee, was drinking all day, sleeping around with two or three women, and the place was heated with a wood-burning stove.

Another roommate was brought on, and a stinky bulldog with flatulence (don’t they all have this problem?) and leaky orifices (ditto) was also part of the mix, and the roommate’s always-present girlfriend.

Man, bonfires out on his five acres until 2 a.m. Beer and tequila and all-night pyres and yelling and moaning about life, as Rylee and the other roommate moved around all this slash from a tree clearing project with the younger roommate’s fully appointed excavator. Drunk, loud, 24/7 cigarette smoking, and I was pounding away at this manuscript, teaching kids and wondering where the hell I’d be in five months.

After two months, I had to sneak out on a Sunday, filling my van with my shit and just skipping out so a confrontation between me and between Rylee didn’t take place. I wanted to kick his ass, but that sort of pile-driver attitude would have gotten me, I believe, handcuffed and charged with assault, a job killer in the fields of education and then a new job as social worker for vulnerable populations.

Reimagining Insanity or Sanity – More Voices

Okay, so I have this anti-memoir going over at LA Progressive, titled, Terminal Velocity: Man Lost of Tribe. That’s thirty-eight up in that series – pieces all over the place, most tied to commentary on the state of the world, the state of my sanity, of my self in a world of pain. Make that 39, since this one now goes up as such. Plenty of railing against the machine, and plenty of angst and polemics.

I have this conversation all the time – some people say they’d cut a finger off to read my stuff, to see my name up on some marquee, my books turned into movies. Some want to see me elevated, and then, most people I run into could care less about lives lived and still being lived, that is, lives unaccomplished or partially gelled. Most people are not interested in struggle, struggling people and the ones who either never got the brass ring or flubbed it on the last merry-go-round. This is a time of celebrity infatuation, and no matter which side of the thin political line they stand, young and old care more and more about what’s in Twitter-land or on Facebook.

We are all navel gazers, now that Amazon Fascism Publishing has everyone set up as a budding multi-book best seller.

Shit, everyone’s a writer, isn’t it so, and everyone is a movie maker, star, and prognosticator and hero or heroine in his or her own mind. Plus, the sheer number of books published, remaindered, cut up and used for insulation, it’s way beyond what the mind can fathom.

Whether a life half resolved is interesting or not, or whether anyone cares about the hustle of living and beating out books and trying to hawk them, those are questions that run through many of our minds.

Lee Marvin and A New Dirty Dozen 

I have this screenplay, Just a Coupla’ Chancers. Set in Arizona,1980s. I wrote it while being a reporter in Southern Arizona for a small conglomerate of newspapers. My byline was in the Bisbee Daily Review among other publications.

Simple stuff, a redneck cowboy along the border dealing with more and more incursions – crossers – into his state and country and on his property. Well, he is hard-bitten, but he finds a heart in the story. Salvadorans dead in the desert, their coyotes or smugglers long gone.

The main character has to make a decision: three children, 8, 12, 15, make it to his property. They are the only survivors, and, well, to make a screenplay short, the coyotes are looking for them, and the rancher has to hide them and then smuggle them away. He’s got the border patrol, local authorities, the crime bosses involved in smuggling, his family and the three siblings’ uncle looking for them and going after him.

This was based on some reporting I did around real people who perished in the desert, right where I was set as a beat reporter. I ended up having a few drinks with Lee Marvin in Tucson, and, after some time, I got his address up in the foothills of the Catalinas. Man, we played tennis, I had lemonade, and I met his wife, and, Lee took the screenplay.

I’ve written about that story, meeting and drinking with the Dirty Dozen’s Colonel, before pitching the story. He ended up dying early, and suddenly, and I ended up going to his widow wondering how I might help, and inquiring about the screenplay, of course. She told me Lee was interested in the main part, as I thought he would. She told me he respected the script, from a young guy, resonated with him — seemed pretty set in reality. Poignant, too.

I’ve written a short story, fiction, about that moment in time, fictionalizing some of the stuff.

Desperados and I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges

Lo and behold, here I am, desperate, held to a standard at 61, going to interview after interview trying to muscle out another four or five years working hard in the land of usury and death capital. I just pulled out three dusty manuscripts, three novels, one of which was my graduate thesis I defended.

I’m scrambling now working to get some energy back and rework one of them. This is a story again based on someone real, a woman who had been looking for both silver and treasure in the Caballo Mountains near Hot Springs, now Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

I spent hours with her in her small apartment in downtown El Paso, and she was in her 80s then, in 1987. She was obsessed with silver and that cache of stolen gold and other treasures from the Spanish. I even took her up the mountain, on crazy dirt roads, looking for something, reading her map, but never finding the remnants of the mine she had been working on for more than 50 years, on her own.

I have a discredited reporter ending up in the story. Someone who answered an advertisement in the El Paso Times from a woman looking for a ghost writer to get her story in print. The real woman was even hip to the possibility of her story spanning 80 decades turned into a movie.

Her life was amazing, having grown up in Mexico City in a middle-class family, her father a mid-level bureaucrat and politician. When she was 14, she met a 29-year-old millionaire from San Francisco. He had documents and map and some bibles. He was a frozen food magnate, and he was looking for someone to translate the Latin and the Spanish.

He met my protagonist, and the young woman – turning 15 – heard the stories of silver and gold, heard this millionaire’s gold lust.

Rebecca was 16 when she married him, and they ended up back in San Francisco, and then her new husband took her out into the middle of nothingness in New Mexico, overlooking Elephant Butte, and there she learned how to be a miner’s wife, living with hardened men, learning how her new husband had been bitten by the silver-gold-treasure bug.

Six years into it, they had hit a few lines of silver. Seven years into their mining, a wall collapsed in the mine and took down Rebecca’s husband. He lingered in a hospital bed for eight weeks. His final wish was for her to continue looking for the famed treasure and silver.

For fifty years, Rebecca looked for the cache. She ended up teaching Spanish to high schoolers, and every summer she got the supplies and the few men she trusted to head on up to the mountains.

That’s how she spent her summers, for fifty years, until she hit 75. I met her when she was 82.

Now my book, Woman of the Mountain, has my reporter, a former college football star teaching community college journalism classes. I have a sheriff who has been hiding his homosexuality all his life. I have an old Mexican miner whose father once was on Rebecca’s mining team.

I take the reader back to Mexico City, into the mountains, into Rebecca’s life, and the short time with my African American journalist. The mountain speaks, and the story revolves around her disappearance, and the search for her. My journalist was the last one to see her. The miner ends up missing.

It’s literary fiction, and, well, the story is certainly compelling for today’s reader, and it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to imagine the book turned into a screenplay/movie. Selma Hayek, Tommy Lee Jones, Denzel Washington.

In one sense, non-fiction is stranger than fiction, and those months I spent with Rebecca, hearing her stories, and that time in the mountains with her (she was hacking and coughing, and I thought she was going to die), and subsequent times in the mountains on my own with a decent pistol and Winchester lever action, well, I wrote the book, draft after draft, and sent it out to Jack Ryan, the East Coast agent.

It’s funny the parallel of looking for caches of Spanish gems and artwork and gold, and my own quest to make something of myself in the world of fiction. Shit, my master’s thesis adviser, James Crumley (The Last Good Kiss & Dancing Bear) had a lot of faith in me. I was the go-to guy, newspaper journalist, dive master, a guy in his thirties who went to Mexico and Central America. A guy who did some shady things with my Mexican counterparts. Something wild in me, Crumley could tell. He ended up back in Missoula, Montana, fired from the University of Texas for things unbecoming a writing teacher (or that’s what they said . . . you know, drinking, some lines of coke, partying with students).

So, here’s this book. Staring at me as I finish this article. Big fat old 430-page manuscript. I touch the pages and it’s as if 30 years melt away, the light brighter above me here in Estacada, Oregon, than anytime thus far, more than 1,600 miles away from the center of my writing life, in West Texas,  El Paso, Merida, Yucatan . . . Chihuahua.

Yet that old rush is like morphine inside the spleen, and the imagination, mine, races like the old days of Mexico, West Texas, stories, tequila and coke and all-night sessions talking about story, and sometimes craft.

Crumley’s dead . . . some of my friends, dead . . . Jack Ryan, dead, and the artist friends, many are dead . . . Rebecca dead, wave after wave of memory like the aura borealis in my head, pulsating in dream, and now, as I take this manuscript and look at the pages, I am ready for one more push, one more bite of a dream to get something going, just another chancer, me, believing in some magic, like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Hayden playing away into the night.

Her story, Rebecca’s, will be the same this time around, but the plot and action and sequence will be different. What do 31 years do to a creative world, a novel, one based on some real hard things I heard and saw, but morphed into the dream of a storyteller giving paint and hue to the black and white memory of people?

I know I’ll open up with the jail cell, and the lines from Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, Dobbs, Curtain and Howard in the Treasure of Sierra Madre. I know I will shift points of view, and go back and forth in time and place. I know this story — mine, Rebecca’s, the mountain’s —  has never been told, never been written, and I push ahead now, treading water, standing on the line of creativity and marketing, looking for an agent, and in between despair and fear.

When you have something to say and a way of saying it, there is so much to lose. Like a welterweight picking up gloves after 20 years out of the ring.

In a scene later made famous by the movie version of Treasure of Sierra Madre, the prospectors run into a group of shady-looking, heavily-armed Mexicans, who they suspect are bandits.

Indeed, the Mexicans are bandits and the meeting ends up in a gunfight. But just before the shooting starts, the leader of the bandits tells the prospectors that they are federales — the local “mounted police.”

Dobbs says skeptically of that claim: “If you are the police, where are your badges?”

In B. Traven’s book, the bandit leader replies angrily (and colorfully):

“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabron and ching’ tu madre!”

Email me, Paul K. Haeder, @  haederpaul (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an agent or director in mind, don’t you know! Really!

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. A forthcoming book (Dec. 15, 2016), Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber, looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice, and before, to bring defiance to the world that is now lobotomizing at a rate never before seen in history. Read his autobiography, weekly chapter installments, at LA Progressive. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.