If I were independently wealthy, I would be less for it, because the chase for money to pay for food, shelter, babies, and now small children has taken me from sharing with two women an eighty square foot octagonal house originally built in the early twentieth century in rural Florida to house a wealthy child’s doll collection, to a room in a massive and mostly unoccupied schoolhouse converted into a lakefront hotel by the tax evading gangster Al Capone, to an itinerant year-and-a-half in corporate hotel rooms from the Louisiana Bayou to Chicago where I peddled eighth-rate university educations by day and read Kenzaburo Oe and Don DeLillo at night.
Before all that, I was briefly a junior preacher (I wrote sermons on yellow legal pads overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway), then even more briefly a put-upon founding editor at a religious publishing outfit (I wrote solicitation letters to Irish people in a sterile office building in suburban northern Orlando, looking for someone to write a faith-based biography of Bono and U2, and eventually landed a university chaplain in Belfast, who went on to sell more copies of his book than I will probably ever sell of all of mine.) What was I looking for? In the immediate present, time, always time. In the ever-present “future,” some kind of romantic vision of the person I was not but might one day be. I was thinking Kerouac’s scroll and a subsequent ride cross-country ride on Ken Kesey’s bus; or Vonnegut’s butcher-paper-lined office at the University of Iowa, where sprouted Billy Pilgrim and the Nazis and a time-traveling race of aliens newly named the Trafalmadorians; or Barry Hannah bringing his handgun to his classes at the University of Alabama, blowing his trumpet at his students, shooting an arrow through the open window of the dean who cuckolded him. All these notions were new to me, because I was newly drunk on literature, never having read any of it (save a novel or two of half-understood Faulkner or Hawthorne or Hemingway in high school.) I knew nothing. I wrote two page stories in stolen four-hour blocks, sent them to the New Yorker, and waited patiently for a letter from David Remnick saying: “We recognize your genius, and oh how we have been waiting for it. Here is a check for five thousand dollars.”
This evening I tried to make a list of all the places I’ve written. I started with cities in Florida: Key Biscayne, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Port St. Lucie, Vero Beach, Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Ocala, Pensacola, Wauchula, Arcadia, Ft. Myers, Ft. Walton Beach, Wildwood, Winter Haven, Brandon, Tampa, Leesburg, Lutz, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Bradenton, Lakeland, Lake Mary, and Lake Wales. Then states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee—38 states in total, to spare you the list. There was a swath of summer in Eastern Europe with a Polish-born buddy, now an American citizen by way of Sicily, a Montreal ghetto, Yale, Wall Street, Johns Hopkins, and Columbus, Ohio, where we cemented our friendship at the Blue Danube restaurant on High Street by sketching a plan to trace the course of the Danube River from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. We paid for it by writing a grant proposing we write a book of competing and contradictory accounts of the trip, but all we wrote were drunken postcards to people we admired, which we were smart enough not to mail from the post offices where we went so far as to address them, in Brasov, Budapest, Bucharest.
These days I’m fairly anchored to a teaching exile in Toledo, Ohio, for nine months a year. I’ve bought an old house and built myself a proper office, but I can’t shake the urge to move around, which seems by now to be a prerequisite for finding the language. I favor two coffee shops separated by an often-icy interstate loop, and a Mexican restaurant where I occasionally compose in the company of a mariachi band, and a sports bar where a kind former student sometimes brings me extra sticks of celery to cut the bite of the spicy sauce that coats the chicken wings I must buy to earn my writing seat among the parties of giant factory workers wearing the colors of the Detroit Lions or the Cleveland Browns or, godforbid, the Pittsburgh Steelers. I finished the last pages of my first book in the Jimmy John’s Sub Shop on the south side, right across the street from the Panera Bread from which I could occasionally skim Internet if the wind and the weather cooperated in carrying the signal from there to here. I composed those pages while sitting down, listening on the sub shop speakers to the same song (“Let It Bleed”) I’d played on my headphones while completing the book’s earliest story in a way that used to work but now seems crazy: One floor at a time, first to nineteeth, three hundred draft words per floor, bottom to top, in the now-demolished stairwell of the old Ohio State University library tower.
The summer gets the best of my writing now, my desk in an orphanage in a remote mountain village in Ouest Province, Haiti, where I’ve been working off-and-on for several years now on a novel about American missionaries and a narrative nonfiction book about a child-kidnapping-for-ransom. My Haitian models and teachers, many of them children, regard me strangely. Sometimes one of the children will ask, “Why do you sit and type all day while everyone else is doing work?” At those times, I look up from whatever atrocity I’ve been reconstructing in prose—the dechoukaj uprising, the little girl lost like a leaf in the river into which she’d fallen, the cemetery down the mountain path that cracked open in the earthquake and the bodies fell out—and see the reason why it matters to move my writing desk away from an easy place and into the less-known world that won’t give up its secrets to the comfortable. In those times, it is my responsibility as a human being to put down my pen and paper or my laptop computer, and walk outside, and hammer a nail into a plank, or watch a soccer game or a cockfight, or talk with a farmer, help throw the trash onto the fire, so that the dangerous used-up things—medical needles, bacteria-filled food packaging left behind by American visitors, toilet paraphernalia—won’t injure someone desperate enough to dig them up from where they would have otherwise been buried and use them to deliver a new dose of medicine, lick the last morsel of nourishment someone else was too wasteful to value, patch a hole in the wall where some rain is getting in.