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It's Nelly's World

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

alec vanderboom

Writing hurts. (Sometimes reading does, too, but that’s a story for another time.) It’s not the same agony as laying pipe nine hours a day, or waitressing—another of the paths not taken because impossible for someone of my impatient, unkind temperament—but at this very moment I am undertaking the kind of work that causes an unrelenting internal sweat. Or an anxiety akin to disrobing in a public locker room, where you wish you hadn’t neglected to shave, or maybe to have worked out just a little bit harder in the gym.

Yet it’s all I can do, for better or for worse, having left the ranks of the conventionally employed in another era, one to which it would impossible to return from so long a remove. So here is where I must stay, to tote this particular bale.

It can be so fraught I need to fake myself out, or provide some egress from the claustrophobic workshop inside my brain where the overly long sentences are fabricated—a place to rest the eye away from the page, or dishes to suddenly get up and do, mid-sentence; a coffee shop or park bench or (as now) a fireplace full of ever-moving flames into which to stare periodically. A glass full of tinkling ice cubes and eighty proof to assist in making conversation with the blank page. Sixteen years ago, my writing helpmeet was the world’s most perfect bar, on the corner of First and Bloomfield. It provided that ambience of aloneness in a public place ideal for the setting down of words, and the candy-colored light from the jukebox illuminated the beginning scrawls of what would become (though I might have been paralyzed had I known where it was heading) my first book.

When it appeared in hard covers, four years later, it was winter. Two days before the annual bike show at the newly built Javits Center. I took two cartons of the untried book and sat down at a table there, where the now-familiar humiliation of selling myself first sent almost electrical shocks through my system. Actually, I’ve never gotten used to the feeling of being invisible, or worse, of being a lanyard or a pair of sunglasses picked up, examined, and replaced before the would-be buyer moved on, without a word. People will stop in front of you, look from your face to the cover of your child, I mean your book, and back again, and speechlessly say: I don’t really care. Sometimes they will pick one up, turn it over to read the back of the jacket, look at you for an instant—Are you the help? Are you even human?—and then put it back while simultaneously spying something better across the aisle, and hastening toward it.

But that January weekend, seventy-five people out of many hundreds took out their wallets before leaving with a copy of my book under their arms.

What you secretly expect when your first book is published is for the heavens to break open before you, or at least for everything to change. And when it doesn’t, you feel abandoned. By the world. I’ve since seen that look of stunned disappointment on many first-time authors’ faces to know: it is always like this.

What I didn’t know then, and only realize now, is that the personal letters and cards and gifts and seemingly urgent phone calls that started arriving, a dozen a week, were better, and more validating, than parting clouds and angelic choirs. Silence there might have been from officialdom, but people’s snapshots of their own motorcycles, people’s stories of how riding had transported them, were the only reviews that mattered.

How I wish now for a Fabian’s Brauhaus in which to sit by the door and write, haltingly, in a notebook; or a New York Public Library with a real card catalog, a pneumatic tube to deliver my wishes to some vast unknowable underworld from which the arrival of the anticipated volume would be announced on a lit number board that must have represented the ultimate in 1920s technology. Or for the science reading room, where in three days I could read pretty much everything that had been written on the subject of bikes; no more, that. There is too much new, sophisticated, huge, both in the machines themselves and in what has been thought and written about them.

But I know I will never find the right place in which to write. Because writing itself will never feel quite right. It will always be squirm-inducing, uncomfortable, an itch in some place that can never quite be reached.

My desire to replicate the experience of being where I started something once--when I fear, deep down, that I might not be able to pull the finished-book rabbit out of my hat again--is an act of forgetting. I remember it as easy: a Weiss beer in a tall glass, a few mysterious strangers, me and a notebook. And hope.

But it was just as bad as this, I know. It always is.

Less than the vanished history of the place where I first began that journey, I realize, is that I wish for the whole big anciently creaking mystery of it all—the first book.

What reappears of that time, though, is only the pain. The fear and misery of starting anew (except that now this is overridden by a new fear in addition, that the age of the book may well be past; that what you do in such bloody terror is for naught, because few can or will buy the expensive and outmoded delivery system of type on paper). I’m still looking for the place that will allow me to fake myself out, to momentarily escape the anxiety of influence—the shadow of books past, both my own and all the other ones, the great ones that loom large over the enterprise.

One possibility, the cafe down the road that was half empty during the day, the one with the couch facing a big window, is now closed. At night I lack the freedom to go to a bar of any sort, ideally Hobokenishly depopulated or not. But I forgot to mention one thing: that the pain is shot through with sudden bursts of joy, much like the subject itself. On any ride, there is the moment when the sun hanging low directly ahead momentarily blinds you, leaving you to a gasped prayer; or you follow the turning car ahead of you—and discover that it is turning onto the one-way ramp the wrong way. But then a few miles later you find yourself alone on a road that climbs and turns and suddenly delivers a view over a mountain lake in the late fall. A few miles after that you’re wishing your electric vest had a “high” or “highest” position on the switch, but you’re still glad you came. It’s like that. A happy pain I would not trade for any other. And one that I couldn’t now, even if I wished.

Gelatin silver print by Fawn Potash