“The Long Haul” is dedicated to exploring the paths writers have taken, and the choices they’ve made, the indignities and frustrations as well as the joys and rewards of the writing life. What follows is the second essay in the series, this one from Rumpus Books Editor Andrew Altschul.***
With all due respect to Mark Twain, I’ve spent eight summers in San Francisco, and for coldness and misery none of them holds a candle to the winter I spent in Stone Ridge, NY. That was the winter my post-adolescent fantasies of literary glory, academic esteem, international jetsetting, and Rolodexes full of stunning, sophisticated women died a slow, hypothermic death, buried under 130 inches of combined snowfall, the worst upstate winter in fifty years. That was the winter I came close to alcoholism, closer still to clinical depression, not at all close to finishing a publishable novel. That was the winter—how the memory still burns!—I lost a minimum-wage job I really needed for playing the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey.”
It was the end of 2000. I was thirty-one years old and had just moved back to the U.S. after two years in Latin America—first in Peru, then in Mexico—and everything I owned fit comfortably into a handful of boxes in the back of my shitty Ford Probe. I had a few dozen books, a backpack full of clothes, and my dog, Jack, a five-year-old mutt I’d gotten in graduate school and had dragged around Southern California and then down to San Miguel de Allende and back again—a four-day drive during which she endured dilapidated motels, punk rock played too loud on the car stereo, a freezing K.O.A. campground somewhere in Tennessee where I hope never to return, and my regular fits of violent self-pity. Peru had been a dream-come-true—until it wasn’t; Mexico had been a bust from the start. Before that, I’d tossed away a carefree life in San Diego as if it were the cellophane on a cigarette pack, for reasons I hadn’t yet fully figured out.
Where the hell was I now?
Stone Ridge is two hours north of New York City, secreted away somewhere between New Paltz and Kingston. The joke about New York being a large state with the city at one end, Buffalo at the other, and Alabama in the middle, starts to make sense right around Stone Ridge, where the summer homes of a few Manhattanites face off with small farms and shotgun shacks, where creeks babble through backyards, where the only intersection sports a dentist’s office, one restaurant (closed October to April), and a rickety building that bore the name of a hotel (long defunct) but housed only a small, grimy bar with blown Bud and Coors signs in the windows and the same three motorcycles parked outside year-round. If you blink while driving through Stone Ridge, you’ll find yourself in other, smaller towns with names like Kerhonkson or Cairo (pronounced “Care-O”), where churches and second-hand stores sit next to cornfields and the man who sells you cigarettes at the gas station reminds you of the movie Deliverance. In summer, they give tours of some of the quaint old colonial homes in Stone Ridge. But this wasn’t summer.
What was I doing here? Good question.
I suppose it was a process of elimination. I’d worn my way through a stack of possible lives since leaving grad school. I’d lived in eight apartments since 1995, setting up my futon and desk in each, spending a few months writing every morning and doing whatever I had to do in the afternoons and evenings to make rent, until the restlessness cropped up again and I made arrangements to sell everything and start over. I’d been an editor for a third-rate music magazine, a composition teacher, an ESL teacher, a translator, a bartender for one night, a layabout, a gringo discoteca-prowler, a reluctant salesman for a Mexican city guidebook. I had a grand total of two short-story publications, a novel-length MFA thesis that I’d continued revising despite knowing it was shit, a bit of teaching experience under my belt—but no wind in my sails, only the fast-ebbing tide of the twenty-something bravado that had seen me through grad school and the fading possibility of doing something more promising (Can you say, “law school”?), with my life. And the dog.
My last remaining friend from high-school lived with his wife in Kerhonkson. They had a friend who had a friend who owned a small house in Stone Ridge she never used. When I wrote from Mexico to say I couldn’t cut it down there; that the job I’d been promised was a bust; that in nine months I hadn’t made a single friend or been on a date; that I spent six hours a day writing and the rest watching the unbearable melodrama of the Bush v. Gore election aftermath; that I couldn’t go back to San Diego, just couldn’t stomach that feeling of surrender—my friend, Mike, bless his heart, said: “I’ve got a great idea.”
What I hadn’t said was that I felt lost. I felt like no one at all—like someone who had been someone, with friends, an apartment near the beach, a girlfriend, regular enough work, but who had not been satisfied with any of those things and so discarded them and became no one. I wanted to come home, but I had systematically made sure I had no home to come back to. I had erased myself.
“I’ve got a great idea,” Mike said. So I came.
I moved into the house on the day after Christmas. It was small but comfortable enough, sparsely furnished, on maybe a quarter acre. Through bare trees I could see the houses on either side—though I never saw anyone going in or out—and a motionless brown field across the road. I was not allowed to use the master bedroom, so I set up my desk in the tiny second bedroom and slept in an attic-like room up a dozen stairs from the kitchen, with slanted ceilings too low to stand up and a mattress on the floor. That weekend Mike helped me drive a dozen stakes into the backyard to fence off a small area for Jack to run in. The house was quiet and clean, with room enough for one person (and one dog) to live. That first night I lay awake under the sloped ceiling and marveled at the country silence, and also at the way one life could be replaced by another radically different life with whiplash speed. Something in me had always been drawn to that idea, a romantic belief in the necessity of changing your context, gaining experience, carpe-ing every diem, never getting too comfortable or attached. I took satisfaction in that idea now, but that night I also started to hear the yawning silence that is that idea’s unmistakable counterpoint.
I probably don’t need to say that I was also broke.
Then the snow came.
A couple days after I moved into the house we got about two feet, the low steel sky divulging every last flake as if too exhausted to hold it anymore. When it started I ran outside with the dog, who’d never seen snow, and frolicked for half an hour, but by nightfall I was looking out the window in disbelief as it just kept coming. My car was disappearing, the field across the road was disappearing, the house was groaning like an old man under the weight of it. I held a mug of tea and shivered, as though the freezing temperatures had snuck inside—later I realized they had snuck inside, as the house’s ancient oil-burning furnace had conked out. So I found a flashlight, went out to the garage and lifted the trapdoor down to a very dark, cobwebby cellar, shuffled across the dirt floor and bumped my head on the low beams and tripped over roots and an old metal bedframe and god knows what else looking for the furnace. I gave myself a first-class case of the creeps—it was The Blair Witch Project down there, only colder—and when I did find the heater it must have been the power of prayer that got it started again. The furnace would shut down every three or four days that winter; sometimes, if it happened late at night, I’d just wrap myself and the dog in sleeping bags and blankets and wait it out until morning.
I woke up to one of those crystalline winter days when the sky is painfully blue and sunshine clamors off the snow and lifts the heart with its bright clarity. The field across the road gleamed like polished bone and the dog hopped joyfully through the backyard, burying her face in the high powder and sneezing and getting herself good and covered before racing inside to stand next to me and shake herself off. I made a cup of strong coffee and sat down at my desk and looked out at the still world, every branch and twig with its high white crest, and thought, This isn’t so bad. I got to work.
I’d started writing a new novel during my last days in Peru, plugging away at it all through Mexico. My plan was to finish a draft by the summer. I was discovering something new in my voice: an energy that was unfamiliar and addictive; it was that energy, the language itself, that was drawing me forward, opening the story to me slowly but steadily, showing me where to go. E. L. Doctorow says writing a novel is like driving at night—you can only see a short distance ahead, but you can make the whole trip that way—and often I felt like I had the high-beams on and around each curve they were revealing something surprising and inevitable, a world of humor and emotion and complexity I couldn’t have found on my own. For the first time I wasn’t distracting myself with daydreams of a big advance, prizes, standing-room-only readings full of stunning, sophisticated women. I was just writing.
I spent those first days establishing a routine, two long sessions of writing separated by lunch and a walk with the dog. I liked to take her to the junior high school half a mile down the road, unclip her leash and let her race around the athletic fields, churning up snow behind her. It was so quiet out there, windless and bright, and I’d stand in the middle of the field and blow into my hands and the physical pleasure of the stern landscape would struggle against my sense of total isolation, of standing somewhere out on the edge of the world. I thought about all the people I knew—other writers, teachers, friends in California, in Peru—and how none of them had any idea where I was right now, in which country, how they couldn’t have imagined me here in this distant, snowy place. Only Mike knew, but I hadn’t seen him since he’d moved me in, and in fact I would see him only two or three times that winter, and never again at the house—his wife didn’t much care for me; his cats definitely didn’t care for my dog; he was having marital difficulties I could sense only vaguely. In short, the world and everyone in it was continuing on with its own troubles and preoccupations, and if I felt alone out there in icy Stone Ridge it was an aloneness of my own assiduous making, and alone was how I would have to ride it out.
There was the matter of an income to attend to. Writing unpublished novels while wearing pajamas does not pay well, so I started making calls and sending emails in search of work. Before leaving Mexico I’d emailed several colleges in the Hudson Valley about part-time gigs teaching composition or, ideally, creative writing. A few had sent encouraging replies, asking me to get in touch once I’d arrived. Now, however, the news was not good. SUNY New Paltz was fully staffed for the spring semester. Bard College didn’t reply. The department chair at Vassar claimed to be impressed by my MFA and teaching experience, but the classes never materialized. As New Year’s approached all I’d managed to rustle up was one Intro to Literature class at Ulster Community College, a mile from my house, that would pay $1,700 for the semester. To put it in Mexican slang: I was fucked.
WDST is a storied FM station that used to broadcast out of an old house on the main street of Woodstock, about half an hour north of Stone Ridge. It grew up as a classic rock/hippie station, but in the ‘90s it had switched formats to “alternative rock,” and I’d been tuning it in since arriving in New York, mostly so that my own voice wasn’t the only one I heard for days at a time. During college I’d worked at an alternative rock station in Providence, and somehow, miraculously, I had my air-check tapes with me in Stone Ridge. When I called the station on a Monday morning, the music director was suspiciously enthusiastic. The next day I was sitting in his office while he listened to my tapes. Friday night, I was on the air.
Here was the catch: In the eight or nine years since I’d been a jock, the industry had gone through an epochal technological upgrade. Where once you’d had walls of CDs and vinyl in the on-air booth, and a DJ planned out the hour’s music based on carefully plotted song rotations, figured in commercials and promos and a certain amount of patter, then ran the board to make all these things happen in the right order—a delicate, down-to-the-second science that nevertheless left a fair amount of room for creativity and personality, not to mention some carnivalesque, seat-of-the-pants improv—now professional radio stations are essentially automated, run by a computer that has every song loaded into its hard-drive, every ad spot and promo pre-recorded, and an entire week’s playlist can be scheduled in advance by the program director with the tap of a few keys. A DJ sits in front of the computer, and colored blocks representing songs, ads, station IDs, scroll slowly up the screen; every ten minutes or so, a block appears that says something like “DJ BACKSELL/LEGAL/FRONTSELL 0:20,” which means you are supposed to open the microphone as a song ends and say what that song was, then give the station’s legal ID including frequency, call letters, and geographic location, then introduce the next song, and you’re to do it in precisely twenty seconds. Then you are to close the microphone and, for all the computer cares, read a magazine or balance your checkbook until the next DJ block appears in the queue. What was once a complicated board with a dozen or so inputs, switches, pots, and meters, has been reduced to two buttons: DJ ON and DJ OFF.
One of the clear advantages of automation, from a station manager’s point of view, is that even DJ blocks can be recorded and loaded into the computer in advance; so when there is no particular need for time-sensitive patter like news or weather—say, during the graveyard shifts on weekends—an entire show can be pre-recorded days in advance, and at 5pm on Friday they can lock up the station and come back on Monday morning and the listeners will never know the difference.
Unless, of course, the computer goes on the fritz, which WDST’s had done just before Christmas, leaving them in the difficult position of needing to find jocks who were willing to “babysit” the computer from midnight to six a.m. on the weekends, in the dead of winter, during the holidays.
Enter a barely published, nearly bankrupt, socially defunct writer newly arrived in Stone Ridge.
At first it was a blast—not just to be back in a DJ booth, surrounded by music, my voice going out over a 50-mile radius, but to be out of the house on a weekend night. In college I’d developed an alter-ego on the air—Andrew Foster, a brash, self-aggrandizing jock who made snarky jokes about the music and used a knowing, intimate voice to, in essence, flirt with listeners. Andrew Foster was much smoother and more confident than my actual personality, and as I brought him back now I felt some of the smothering mood of isolation and smallness start to lift. Even as snow piled up in the Hudson Valley, and I floated alone in the dark bubble of the pre-dawn radio station, I was energized by the sense of connection, however illusory, to the thousands of people who might be tuned in. Even as I sat leafing through The New Yorker or watching CNN—the Supreme Court had decided Bush v. Gore, the country resigned itself to four probably harmless years in the hands of a trust-fund numbskull—waiting for the next DJ block to float up the screen, I felt competent, in command. I’d been asked to do a job I enjoyed and I was doing it well. Someone needed me.
Plus, they were paying me something like $8.00 an hour which, at around $100 for a weekend’s shifts, equaled what I was earning at the community college.
At six in the morning, I’d make my way home through the slush and black ice, take the dog for a walk, and sleep most of the day away. I’d wake up and try to write for a while in the afternoon, but as darkness came around 4:00 and there were several hours to kill before I needed to head to the station, I had to fight off a wave of melancholy that confused me with its persistence, a warm, sticky torpor that seeped into my chest and arms and made them so heavy I could only lie on the couch and wait for some urgent necessity—to eat, to use the bathroom—to pull me off of it. Sometimes I’d lie there for two hours before realizing I hadn’t turned on any lights. Or that the furnace had shut itself off again.
The snow kept coming. The night before New Year’s we got another two feet, and I woke up to find that a massive bank of snow had slid off the roof of the garage and smashed the windshield of my car. The weather warmed up for a few days, long enough for the snow to start melting, then temperatures dropped again, freezing the fields into skateable lakes of ice, turning the windy country roads into luge tracks. My lips chapped painfully, my cuticles split open and bled, the edges of my hands cross-hatched with razor-thin cuts. The view from my desk was barred with icicles the size of baseball bats. Still I sat down every morning, plugging away at a novel that had more energy than direction, that was resisting my efforts to move it toward an ending. The later sections of a novel can be a morass of uncertainty—plotlines zig-zagging out of control, threads refusing to be tied, juggled balls bouncing willy nilly, whatever useless writing metaphor you prefer, they all start to break down as the pressure builds to bring it all home. I was getting frustrated, and in my frustration I started knocking off a little earlier each day, opening the door a little wider for the malaise and self-recrimination that had set up permanent camp on the stoop of that little house.
My sense of isolation, of the world neither knowing nor caring if I got out of bed in the morning, was turning into something more malign: a feeling that things were actively working against me, some karmic plot afoot to punish me for the ridiculous decisions I’d made. On one of many mornings shoveling the driveway, I aggravated an old back injury and spent the next week unable to stand up straight, sleeping on my back on the cold floor. Walking the dog one afternoon, I developed an intense pain in a front tooth—a visit to the town’s elderly dentist revealed a large cavity, which he insisted on filling without anesthesia, his gnarled hand shaking as it brought the drill closer to my mouth. The filling never quite took, and every time I went out in the cold the exposed root punished me with a pain that felt as if a fork were being driven into the roof of my mouth. The furnace seemed to give out every day now, and my first bill from the oil company amounted to a staggering $350. The insurance company fixed my windshield, but the deductible was $250. I stood holding the bill at the kitchen counter, watching yet another afternoon dissolve into flurries, and remembered that only two years earlier I’d been living at the beach. A year and a half earlier, I’d celebrated my thirtieth birthday with a parillada in my garden in Cuzco, Peru, an all-day, all-night bash packed with friends from Peru, the U.S., Canada, England, Holland, Switzerland. It had been easy, then, to think I had it made—the writing was going well, my desk looked out on the Andes, my small income from the magazine in San Diego amounted to a fortune by Peruvian standards, I went out dancing almost every night and never had trouble finding company. And one morning I’d woken up and thought, I don’t want this anymore, and started making arrangements to leave. Now I stared into the snowy gloom, my heart lifting and quickly sinking every time a pair of headlights passed the house, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I’d been thinking.
The shifts at the radio station were all I had to look forward to, and every time it snowed I worried my car wouldn’t make it to Woodstock. The weekly shifts were an obligation—I was expected there, I had a purpose. And every time I opened the microphone I knew I would be heard—by someone, somewhere, maybe a lot of people. Once or twice per show, the phone would ring and someone would request a song. “I’ll try to get that on the air for you,” I’d say, though the computer almost never allowed for DJ picks.
“You staying awake over there?” the caller might ask, the sound of a bar or a house party in the background. “You having a good weekend?”
“Having a blast!” I’d reply in the voice of Andrew Foster, a guy who had a good time everywhere he went. “You all should come down here.”
“Cool. Take it easy,” the caller said. “Try to play that song for me.”
The phone at the Stone Ridge house rang even less frequently. My parents called once in a while, their voices baffled, even annoyed at this latest inexplicable decision of mine. My ex, the one I’d left when I moved to Peru, called to see how I was; we were determined to stay friends, but the complications of our break-up were unresolved. Neither of us brought it up, but it sat on the line between us and we hung up quicker than we’d meant to. Another ex called to talk about her marriage difficulties—after six years with her husband, the man she’d left me for, she wasn’t sure she could keep going. Every time I hung up the phone I braced myself for the wave of loneliness that smashed into me, made somehow more intense by the bright sun’s reflection off the frozen fields. It occurred to me how little separates the words “isolation” and “desolation,” and that they share the common root: sol.
So I did what immature, wannabe writers have done for generations. I started to drink.
A friend in L.A. had sent me a bottle of fine bourbon for New Year’s. I’d had a celebratory drink, then put it on a shelf to save for happier occasions. But now I started having a drink every night, then two, then the occasional shot in the afternoon. Soon I was hauling a big glass around the house with me, refilling it several times a night. The fine bourbon went quickly, followed by a fifth of Jack Daniels, then a liter of Jim Beam. Every time I poured a drink I felt stupid—such a silly trope of the suffering artist, such an unoriginal way to self-destruct. In grad school it’s fashionable enough to drink until you’re falling down, to declare Raymond Carver your personal savior, raise your glass like Mickey Rourke in Barfly and toast “to all my frieeeends…!” After that, though, it’s just pathetic, and as I slumped farther into the couch each night I added “stupidity” and “cliché” to my growing list of self-recriminations.
But for at least a few hours each night it would hold back the dread and emptiness. I’d pour a drink and read until the words started to swim, check my email half a dozen times to see if some unexpected news had arrived that might change everything. As it got later, though, the tide would come in, the bourbon’s stalwart defense would falter, and sadness would wash up all around me. I’d turn off the lights and put on Radiohead’s Kid A—an unbelievably dumb album to listen to if you’re on the verge of depression. “Everything… everything… in its right place,” Thom Yorke sang, and I pulled my knees to my chest and stared out at moonlight refracting through ice, the silver emptiness of a world that took no notice of me. By midnight I’d be huddled on the shag carpet next to the dog, squeezing myself into a ball and repeating “I have nothing… I have nothing…” gasping through tears less in self-pity than in astonishment. The most amazing thing, the coup de grâce which I slayed myself with nightly, was that I’d done exactly what I set out to do. I’d achieved my goal. It was really something.
Somehow I continued to function. The class at the community college started, and then, the next day, the chair at Marist College called to say one of their instructors had not shown up to his first class and could I take it over. Twice a week, I made the 50-minute drive across the Mid-Hudson Bridge to Poughkeepsie, zooming along a hundred feet above the grim, frozen river. The drive loosened me up, the broad north-south view along the Hudson helped me to breathe easier—I cranked the heat and rolled down the windows and for a few minutes I felt like a part of the world again, like someone who hadn’t written himself out of the script completely.
In the late afternoon, I’d speed back to Stone Ridge, where my dog waited patiently for her walk, and we’d set out for the junior high in fading light. We stayed out later and later, steam rising off the dog as she sprinted around the field, a scarf wrapped around the lower half of my face to keep my bad tooth from igniting. The temperature rarely got above freezing, and when night fell it quickly dropped toward zero—but I pulled my heavy coat tight and jumped up and down and halfheartedly chased the dog through the snow, sliding crazily on the ice and falling on my ass. Anything to forestall the moment when I’d have to go back to the house.
There was a small, unheated room behind the kitchen, a storage area that had been built onto the back of the house, separated by a thick, weather-sealed door. The washer and dryer were in there, and the first time I did my laundry I was surprised at how edgy I felt in that room, almost frightened, the way a child is frightened by the bedroom closet. But I wasn’t looking at the room, I was in it, and something about that gave me the creeps. I folded my clothes quickly and got out.
As January wore into February, I found it harder to go into that room, whether to do laundry or retrieve something from one of the boxes I’d stashed back there. Eventually, I had trouble even looking at the door, queasy nervousness stealing over me anytime I even glanced at it. I tried to laugh at myself but I couldn’t shake it. I checked the lock four or five times a night—but it wasn’t a fear of someone coming through the door. It was the thought of myself entering the room that was so unsettling, that shot panic into my lungs.
I did laundry infrequently. I moved my boxes into the house, dashing in and out of the back room, slamming the door behind me and gasping for breath. The door was at the bottom of the stairs that led to my bedroom, and each morning I rushed down the last steps and threw myself past the door and into the kitchen, as though something back there with the garden utensils might reach out a bony hand and yank me into the room. Soon I was holding my breath every time I passed the door. I knew this was obsessive-compulsive behavior, but I couldn’t get a handle on my surging fear of the back room.
One night, drunk, I was blasting Nirvana’s In Utero, playing air drums in the living room, when I happened to turn my head and catch sight of the door—and in a rush I understood why it terrified me so. I thought of Kurt Cobain, laid out in his garage with a needle and a shotgun. I thought of Plath and Sexton, of Hemingway, of John Berryman hurling himself off a bridge over the frozen Mississippi. What stood out when I pictured them was how alone they all were.
I turned off the music and sat staring at the storeroom door. I asked myself if I was suicidal. I didn’t know. Are you suicidal? I asked, shaking myself by the imaginary lapels and asking the question long and hard.
No, the answer finally came back. Not yet.
It wasn’t rock bottom. Not yet. I wasn’t suicidal, but for the first time I thought I understood how someone could be. I thought I knew how it might come to seem endless—the loneliness, the disconnection—and how if someone felt sure it would never stop, if someone became convinced nothing could change it, then it might start to seem like a rational decision. To someone.
Routine helped, the need to show up for my classes, the need to get to the radio station at night. And writing. I was still waiting for a breakthrough, still typing out new material each morning, deleting much of it in the afternoon, trying to think my way deeper into the novel’s language, its structure, its DNA, to achieve communion with the narrative so that it might show me how it wanted to end. In workshops, I’d always been a critic of mysticism, always scoffed at romantic ideas about inspiration and the muse and stories “writing themselves”—but as I struggled with the last chapters I saw why, for so many writers, such talk is comforting. The idea that there’s some other force participating in the process, some other consciousness that might be less confused or helpless than you are, that might redeem this stack of pages from the mediocrity to which you’ve doomed it. That you’re not alone.
But you are alone. That was the unavoidable truth that faced me every morning in that cold kitchen, across that frozen field. I was alone, and I’d made damned sure I was alone. For a long time now, I’d been making decisions that separated me from friends, colleagues, partners. In graduate school, I’d taken a summer grant and rented a cabin on a tree farm in Montana’s Nine Mile Valley, where I wrote much of my atrocious thesis—the nearest neighbor was half a mile away and it was easy to think the dog and I were the only living creatures in the valley. I’d left San Diego, and then Peru—places I was comfortable, surrounded by friends, always busy—to go to Mexico, where I knew no one; and when that didn’t work out I’d come to Stone Ridge. What was it about me that sought out aloneness? Why was I compelled to keep erasing myself?
By March the isolation had gotten so intense that I borrowed money for a plane ticket and flew to L.A. for five days to visit a friend. I walked around Santa Monica and squinted up at the palm trees, hiked and camped in Death Valley, went to happy hours full of tan, talkative people my age. When my friend was driving me to the airport at the end of the visit, I slid low in the seat and leaned my head against the window and bit my lip. When I hadn’t said anything for some time, he asked what was wrong.
“I think I’ve ruined my life,” I said.
On a Saturday night in March, I took a phone call at the radio station. “You play some fuckin Beasties, man?” said the caller, who sounded like he’d had a few too many. There were voices behind him, and I could vaguely hear the song that was broadcasting right then.
“Hey, I’ll try to do that for you,” I said. “Keep listening.”
“No, I’m serious, man—we gotta hear some Beastie Boys! Be a good guy, okay? Tonight’s been pretty lame.”
I laughed to myself, then for the hell of it looked into AudioVault—the database of available songs. There were always gaps in the broadcast queue—a few seconds here or there when the DJ had talked short, or a song’s long fadeout triggered an early segue. Over the course of a show these would accumulate until, with a little ingenuity, you could move things around and cram an extra song into the queue.
“Let me guess,” I said to the caller, teasing him Andrew-Foster style. “You wanna ‘Fight for Your Right’ to party?”
“Nah, fuck that,” he said. “Something else.” There were only two other Beasties songs in the computer. I looked at the thermometer mounted outside the studio window. It was eleven degrees, and the wind was blowing snow across the road in pinkish S-curves.
“You guys cold?” I asked.
“Fuckin A,” he said. “I’m only staying at this party cause I don’t want to go outside.”
“I hear you,” Andrew Foster said. “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”
It took him a second, but he got it. I heard him calling out to his friends—“He’s gonna play some Beasties, man!” Low, ragged cheers. I hung up, sent the song to the queue, turned up the speakers, and sat back. Somewhere in Ulster County, a handful of drunken yokels knew where I was. They heard my voice. In some minuscule, meaningless way, I’d made their night better.
I’d forgotten all about it by Monday afternoon, when WDST’s program director called. “Don’t bother coming in this weekend,” he said. “We’re not going to need you anymore.”
I was incredulous. “Are you kidding me?” I said. I told him there had been extra time in the queue, that I’d had an actual request in the middle of the night. “What’s it doing in the computer if it’s such a crime to play it?” I asked.
None of that mattered. “How do we know what you’re going to do next?” he said. He’d been hired recently to improve the station’s ratings. It hadn’t been lost on the jocks that many of the bands we loved had started to disappear from rotation, while there was a conspicuous increase in songs by the Gin Blossoms and Sister Hazel. “Jesus, Andrew, the Beastie Boys?” he said, as though I’d played a death-metal track by Charles Manson. “We can’t take that kind of chance.”
That was it, then. My one source of recreation, my one connection to the world outside my house severed. No more weekend nights at the station, no more dawn drives through Ulster’s icy landscape. No more Andrew Foster.
That was rock bottom.
This is the part of the story where I should tell you about how it all turned around. How I woke up one morning and the sun was shining and the ice was melting, springtime coming to my frozen soul. How, with the year’s first tender buds, I looked out my window and had an epiphany—about life, about writing, about Radiohead—and I flung the windows wide and embraced the world again. How I buckled down and finished that novel, and then sold it. I should say it was the darkest moment of my life as a writer—maybe of my life, period—and that once I’d survived it things started to break my way. I should say we all need to face that metaphorical winter, that we need to be tested—that you, too, can pass the test.
But it doesn’t really happen that way except in the movies and in feelgood memoirs. The writing life, life in general, is much more random than that—we can look back and remember the time we almost gave up and tell a story about perseverance and faith and how one day things changed. But that would just be a story.
One day, a long time later, I realized that I was less unhappy than I’d been. I couldn’t say why, but I felt a little less lost. Page by page, I was creeping up on the end of the novel, which arrived not on the wings of inspiration but as the result of steady work, a lot of revision, and a healthy sense of desperation. I started driving to Kerhonkson once in a while to hang out with Mike, and discovered that watching a Friday night baseball game could be just as much fun as spinning Toad the Wet Sprocket on WDST. I went to visit my sister in Boston, called a few friends out west. Little by little I became human again, though it took longer than I wished and there were many nights when I still wondered if the choices I’d made had ruined my life.
When I think about it now, I think I made those choices knowing full well what the consequences would be. That somehow I knew I needed to take myself off the map, to erase myself, if I was going to find in myself what I needed to become the writer—and the person—I hoped to be. I’d had a comfortable, middle-class life, gone to good schools, had friends, a supportive family. I’d had my advantages, and because of that I’d been able to do everything by the book, and some part of me felt that this conventional American lifestyle needed to be tempered with something more unpredictable, something closer to the bone. Montana, Mexico, Stone Ridge – I think I put myself in situations of extreme solitude, exile, defamiliarization because I knew I needed to toughen up. If I was going to do this for real, pass up all the easy opportunities for comfort and security that present themselves to a privileged American male, I was going to have to brace myself somehow, figure out what it meant to be alone.
Because there will always be other opportunities. There will always be easier, or more lucrative careers, careers held in high esteem by parents, peers, and partners. There are too many MFA students in the world, but there are even more law students. I don’t think I’m some kind of hero for choosing to be a writer instead of a doctor, or a social worker—on the contrary, I often think I screwed it all up, choosing something selfish over something that truly, measurably helps people on a daily basis. So many options, I think, and I chose to spend half of every day in pajamas, alone, making things up. What a waste.
But it’s what I chose. And to get there, I knew I had to walk away from other things, and keep walking away. Process of elimination: one by one taking away the other options, grinding down to the necessity where it was me and the computer and no Plan B. There was no moment of truth that winter, no divine intervention, just a slow, uneven progression from grim to slightly less grim, a refusal to despair—or, more accurately, an understanding that it didn’t matter if I despaired, no one cared, I’d still have to wake up the next day and sit at the desk. Or not. I’d painted myself into a corner and would just have to work myself out of it. I think that’s what I was trying to do to myself—erasure, a kind of violence, a kind of education.
That was part of it, anyway.
As I write this ten years later, I’m alone in a cabin in the woods. The San Jacinto mountains of Southern California rise up on every side, and hundred-foot sugar pines throw a lattice of shadows over the wrap-around deck. There’s no cell-phone reception, no Internet; it’s unbelievably quiet, except in the mornings when the chatter of birds is like an explosion. The dog is still with me—fifteen years old and still kicking, though she’d much rather sleep in a patch of sunshine than do laps around a field or hike the trails—and I’ve just started work on a new novel. It’s hell, a real mess, resisting every great idea I had for it. At night I read over what I’ve done that day and wonder if I’ll ever be good enough to write this book. Maybe I’m not a real writer, I think. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes.
My ex, the one with the husband, sent me a mix tape that winter, including Son Volt’s song “Out of the Picture”: “Somewhere along the way, the clock runs out,” it goes. “Sooner or later, you’re out of the picture.” I used to listen to it in Stone Ridge and bawl uncontrollably. It still chokes me up sometimes to listen to it, but I brought it with me to this cabin. At some level I’m still doing it to myself.
Things got better after that winter, though not always in the ways I expected. I finished that novel, The Sunrise Highway, the following summer. It never got published, but it did get me a Stegner Fellowship, and so a year later I crammed everything into the car again, dog included, and headed for San Francisco, feeling sure that things were going to be better, easier, more exciting, at the next station. Well, sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t. I got a few stories published, won a couple of prizes, found an agent. I started a new novel and spent four years slamming my head against walls, trying to figure out how to write it. Lady Lazarus was published in 2008, just as its publisher, Harcourt, was imploding. I stayed on to teach at Stanford for four years, and then got a tenure-track position at another school, and then sold a second novel. And I’m engaged to a stunning, sophisticated woman—another writer, off on her own solitary journey at the moment. Lots of things have gone right in my life, but there’s still a moment each night when loneliness creeps up. I open a beer and sit on the deck with the dog, watch the mountain sky darken, and struggle against dread, that old sense that no one in the world knows where I am or what I’m doing.
Like it or not, it’s that sense of isolation—even in a crowded room—that’s often the price of being a writer. It’s also part of the reason for being a writer: to write your way out of it, to find a way to communicate. To make contact. Even when you’ve published books, when you stand in front of a classroom every day, you never conquer that feeling. It always comes back. What I was trying to do all those years was to get used to it, to get to the point where I could live with it, even to learn to feed off it. Because it’s not going away.