July 21st 1998ce
Q: “How long have you been writing?” – T. Rhae Watson, question posed by e-mail – July 17th, 1998ce
A: I have never answered this question before. I include here a discussion only of the things I still possess – that are thus verifiable.
I began writing a journal entry to myself about my own life as I perceived it at the age of 9. It was in a small (maybe 5″ x 5″), square journal given to me by my mother. It had a plastic laminated cover that was mostly white. It had green-bordered edges. There was an image of a yellow, sparrow-like bird on the cover. It sat on a twig or branch of some tree. Inside I made drawings of Snoopy, the dog from the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, riding his doghouse as a WWII pilot chasing “The Red Baron”.
I wrote in it that at night I was listening to classical music on the radio before I went to sleep. I wrote about the San Antonio Spurs basketball team and about other sporting events. I wrote about what we did after school i.e. “built a fort … went caving.” I wrote in it that I had been watching different television shows and of how my sister and I were getting along. I wrote about being afraid to bring home a report card to my father with a grade of b minus in one of my math classes.
I wrote my first short story when I was 8. It was called, “The War of the Saturnanians and the Jupiteranians and other Space Stories” It was typewritten by Ms. Hutzler, my second grade teacher and the first teacher I had in Texas, in the United States. It had drawings that I made myself. I still have it.
The journal entries continued and I began to write about pubescence – about girls in school I had crushes on who rejected me (Jill Prather in the 6th grade) or who took an interest (Michele something-or-other … is it significant that I can’t remember her last name but can remember Jill’s?). I wrote about my teachers and friends whom I felt separate from, separate because of my appearance as an Indian kid.
I began writing more serious journal entries and poetry in the autumn of my 14th year. That year I became an American citizen by oath and against my will and that same year, my parents, after years of bickering and fighting became one of the first Indian families in the US and the first in my ancestry to divorce.
I wrote about loneliness and disaffection from the society in Texas where I lived. I was depressed. Writing helped me to feel less alone. But more than the writing – which I showed to no one, reading helped a great deal. Listening to Jazz was deeply influential to my writing.
I read “Music is My Mistress” (the autobiography of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington) that year. I also first read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was listening to Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Miles, Coltrane and other jazz musicians avidly. I had taken an interest in Russian literature in this time, too. In particular the work of Anton Chekhov – I can remember that at that time I read “The Bet” and it “changed my life”. I also read a great deal of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, whom I admired.
I wrote more and more short stories and poetry in the next ten years. In high school, I wrote stories and poems – which again I showed to no one, save a few friends, and by young adulthood to one or two lovers (though the use of that term for what we were then is laughable). I wrote a couple of stories for a class in high school – Mrs. Garner’s Honor’s English class. The first one was a fantasy story about an E.R. Burroughs’s Conan-like character who traveled into a mine shaft. The second was a rip-off of “Miracle on 34th Street,” save that it was stupider and less interesting – it was called totally unoriginal by Jessie Burstein, the most talented writer in my class, who had her own column in the school paper called, “Jabberwocky”. I heard the class comment on the story from outside the window. Mrs. Garner who was a great English teacher, told the class who the author of the story was though she promised the readings would be anonymous. Later, she told me she revealed me because she thought, “I could take it.”
In college I wrote about many things. I wrote a paper on the Kurds in Turkey (this was before the big American press blow-up). I wrote about Civil Disobedience and Constitutional Law. I wrote a short story about a guy named Joe who had the most boring job in the world because he was assigned to watch the world’s most accurate clock, to be sure it stayed accurate. Then one day it stops and time stops and alien creatures land and tell him they have been stopping time and visiting all along and that the clock is totally inaccurate but that we all don’t know it because time is a relative concept. Joe is flabbergasted and amazed. It was a stupid story with a bad ending.
I was deeply influenced at this time by the works of Howard Fast, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Lewis Carrol and other writers of the “fantastic.” I had been reading science fiction for years. I also began my first serious pursuit of the writings of Buddhists. Prior to this time I had been reading only casually works by Paul Reps and other translators.
After college I worked for a while in Austin, Texas and then made the decision that I needed to leave the United States.
I moved to Asia on a one way ticket and with $10 US on September 6th of 1990. For the next three years I wrote journals and stories. I wrote journal entries about my travels and changes in perspective. I learned Chinese and went back to India. I traveled in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and India. I wrote a great deal about language and about my withering and often depressed self. I felt free and alone for the first time in my life. I felt very alone and depressed.
When I returned to the US – again against my will – I went back home to Texas, took the Graduate Record Exams with my mother and then made a series of blunders – moved to Washington DC for four months, then to New Orleans for two years to study for my Graduate degree at Tulane, a “mistake” that cost me $40,000, which I haven’t yet paid back. I left New Orleans in December of 1993 in a driveaway car, with $1000 in cash and up to my ass in debt. I arrived in San Francisco on December 24th, 1993 – Christmas Eve.
I walked and walked and thought a great deal that night. There was a crescent moon over the Transamerica pyramid. I went back to a friend’s place where I was staying temporarily and wrote a list of goals for the time to come. This list included the first practical discussion of my desires to write. I made a list of items I wanted. A novel and a collection of short stories appeared on that list. I intended to use my time in San Francisco to create a body of work.
I worked for ten months at Genentech, Inc. with Dr. Don Francis on an AIDS vaccine project. I saved about $3000. I wrote three short stories in that time – all of which sucked because work was a distraction. One was called The Plan and was about a marathon dance contest. On January 9th of 1995, I met Jonas Salk at a meeting regarding the prophylactic AIDS vaccine project upon which I was working at Genentech. The next day I quit and moved to Ecuador. I arrived on January 15th and began writing what would become a novel and the journalistic experiment I would finish two years later. Jonas Salk died while I was in South America.
For four months I wrote journal entries, some poems and a handful of story ideas while in South America. I spent the time considering what I wanted to achieve. I moved back to the US (again) and sublet an apartment in Austin, Texas. I gave myself a test period, telling myself I would try to write for two months. I reasoned that if I spent the two months just hanging around Austin, enjoying myself and lounging then writing wasn’t for me. If however I actually spent the time writing then I would see into what it would grow. I stopped cutting my hair.
Those two months were the birth of the novel.
I moved back to San Francisco, couch-surfed homeless for ten months, entered the 1995 Anvil Press 3-Day Novel Writing Contest on Labor Day, placed in the top ten, continued writing and writing and writing and finished a skeleton of the novel by January. By February shit was pretty lame – I was broke and homeless.
My friends and family assisted me in getting a room in an apartment on Hayes Street. That was April of 1996. I set myself a deadline of January 15th, 1997, to finish the novel and the writing experiment. In August I was extremely depressed, writing a lot and feeling alone.
That month, I gifted a story I wrote called Eulogy, to my friend Missy as a birthday present. I read it aloud at a party at her house while having my hair, which had grown long by then, braided by you, an editor. You called and expressed interest in my work and between then and January you know the story: you edited fifteen of my works.
On January 17th, two years and two days after I began, I ended the novel, produced a copy and took it to Chronicle Books in San Francisco. It was a sunny Friday afternoon that I chronicled carefully. I walked the book to Chronicle and dropped it off. The receptionist was reticent to accept it because she said it should have been mailed. Then, after consultation by telephone to the inner sanctum, she finally took it.
It was rejected within ten days without being read. I have a confession from the person who signed the letter of rejection that the book was never read. I wrote a reply to the rejection, sealed it in the book and closed it up.
Over the next five months I turned thirty years old and produced the books “Mood”, “Truthful Conceits”, “Sucka Free” and “An Examiner’s Chronicle” – self published texts all: a novel, collection of short stories, of essays and journals.
On June 6th, I decided I would move to New York. During the time I spent in SF, South America, Austin and back in SF, I had created four novels, fifteen short stories, a collection of essays and hundreds of thousands of words in journal entries. I had made a body of work. Megan Sapperstein cut off most of my hair and then I shaved my head.
I moved to New York in summer – writing a novel called “Incognito” on the way across the country – and sending post cards to Sonny Mehta, the president of Knopf publishing as we traveled. I told him I would arrive in New York and deliver my novel to Random House publishing on September 1st. I arrived Sept. 1st and went to Random House. It was closed for Labor day.
I returned on September 2nd and delivered the book, which Mr. Mehta subsequently saw. He suggested I pass it to two other editors. I also gave him a copy of the novel “Incognito” which I wrote while traveling. The novel was a post-modernist collage of flyers and text and characters created in the spirit of “On the Road.” It was written by hand during the summer of the 50th anniversary of India’s independence and the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s travels with Cassady that became “On The Road.” Incognito is comprised of four journal-sized books and a Compact Disc which I made in Seattle – it is intended to be a disc of one of the characters of the novel singing and telling a story. It is 60 minutes long.
Once “Incognito” was returned by Knopf, I sent it back out on the road by passing it to a reader without my name in it, in a shoebox. “Incognito” is presumably still traveling from reader to reader.
Since that time I have heard nary a word from Random House about my book. The company has been bought by Bertelsmann. I never again heard whether my book was accepted or rejected. I have written three stories in New York City. The first two were called “Mahmoud Singh,” and “The Rubric of Philpot Dot Doc”. The most recent piece I have written is called “Close the Piano”.
I am alone in New York. … and that is the story of my writing career. … I have never written that down nor said it aloud before. Now I have a job I hate – in administration at The New School University in Manhattan. I can be reached at 212/ 229-5662 x286. Messages may be left for me at 212/ 229-5662 x286. Every word I have written here is true to the best of my knowledge.