The story that came to be known as "Kittensbum Jesus" started as a hitch-hiking experience with Ryan Kramer somewhere in the backwoods of Washington state circa one decade ago. Shortly thereafter, the experience distilled itself into a poem. Here it is: The poem that launched a thousand emails and edits.
While flying on a plane some years ago, some years in fact after writing Backwoods Veda: A Poem for Ryan Kramer, I decided to write a random letter to a guy named Steve Almond, a writer whose article I had just read in the sky magazine. This was how a poem started to turn into a story.
Hi Steve, do you mind if I call you that? Look, I'm on an airplane right now, Southwest Airlines, to be specific, so in short, I have some time on my hands, so I suppose there's no call for brevity, in long.
I don't often flip through the pages; draw a line through those words, I can't find that tool on my keyboard; I don't often READ the pages in an airplane magazine. I don't often find I can. I guess you could say I feel about most magazine content (whether in the air or on terra firma) about how I do about... this sentence isn't working. You know when you get up in the morning after you had a little - no, a lot -too much to drink the night before. Hell, it's not that bad I guess. I just don't exactly look forward to it, reading most magazines.
It's like something's trying to tell a story, and your website is the conduit. It's not that your piece in... oh, what the hell is this magazine called? - Spirit, Southwest Airlines and Airtran - ... it's not that it saved my life or anything. It's not that it's the best thing I've ever read or anything like that... It's just that it was nice to read something sane - something that wasn't trying to sell me anything - something that felt genuine, honest. And you're right about cell phones, and especially smart phones, for the record. They are the devil. I !@#$ing hate them, and I don't use expletives in writing lightly.
Sorry, we've been going through a little turbulence and I think that made my writing that way. You know, the story is, where do you begin? Jesus, maybe my writing is just getting this way. This is how it is now, this is my voice. Hello, voice. I've been looking for you. Now that I've found you, where do I trade you in for a better one? Couldn't you have sent me something a little more Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald even? I'd take Faulkner or Conrad in a heartbeat. No, Salinger. Please oh please just let me be more like Salinger.
Getting back to your article, and sorry about the digressions. I told you, I have all kinds of time on my hands, because i'm on this flight and all, and this madman flight attendant and all these phony (okay, that's just plagiarism). Getting back to your article, look, I don't know what to say but I just wanted to write you. I don't think I want to ask you for anything (although I could! Boy, could I ever. You see, my first thought was 'hey, if a good writer, I mean a decent guy like this Steve Almond, if he'll publish in these mags maybe I should look into it... I mean, he's pretty good, not bad at all, and maybe every once in a while somebody reads one of these damned magazines, and that might make it worth it, but really, at least I wonder how much it pays, and does he have a contact)... I thought about that, but when I started writing, this is what came out, and it's not like that at all. And I'm not trying to play some middle-school reverse psychology or anything, I just don't feel like that's what I want to say any more. Although, feel free to include a professional contact in your response, I'm post-BD-broke. You know, I'm kind of like a trustfunder without a trustfund. I mean, my folks would bail me out and all, but I do get most of my food from the dumpster... but that's another story.
I really agree with you, though, about people not connecting any more... Even my own girlfriend - she just got a smart phone a couple years ago, right after we started dating, and I swear she changed. When it's really bad I call her Phoneface... but I spend all this time (like right now, don't worry, she's not here) on my computer, so she calls me computerface, so I guess it's like the pot calling the kettle black. But you know.
I'll tell you the worst with me. I'm mad about emails. I'll send one to anyone. See? I mean, I've never met you, but here I am telling you my whole life story. It's absurd. There's gotta be someone else on this plane that I could do this with - shoot the shit, josh around, chit chat, make small talk. Actually, it's a pretty empty flight (Thank God), and I have a row to myself. Do you get the feeling that we just don't like each other any more? Humans, I mean.
I get the feeling you're in your thirties, early forties maybe at the most. No offense one way or another, I don't have a clue. But you feel a little older than me to me - I'm 29. The big three zero is coming right up. But I gotta tell you, I feel like it's a little bit worse even than you realize. I can't begin to try to explain what it's been like to be me, to grow up like this, in this "generation". You know, I don't even feel like I can call it that. That's what it's like. It's like everything has already been said, and everything is already cliche, or canned, or passe - whatever that means. I don't know, we don't even say it any more because people did that too much already, and now we need a new word for it. And that's what it's like.
It's not that it's hopeless or anything, or so bad. I'm not trying to say that. It's just, something feels like it's missing. I don't get the impression this is really how we're supposed to live. I had a hunch last summer in Seattle - everybody walking around with white ear buds in and white cords coming out of their ears, all looking off vaguely into the distance like they were looking through whatever was in front of them, and talking to the air in front of them - I had a hunch, and kind of a sickly feeling like we're all putting ourselves in virtual realities to drown out the ugliness of the one we've created... And that's not that bad, that's not the sickly part. I mean, that much feels natural or normal to me. The sad part is that I think we're just doing it because it's a hell of a lot easier than doing anything else. I mean, I can tell you. I don't think I'm better than anyone, or anything like that - just a hell of a lot luckier than most people. But I gotta tell you, I feel like somehow, somewhere, I saw through the veil, and realized there's really a world out there, and that we're really alive, and that all the rules, the norms, the customs, the laws, the cops, the doctors, everything, all of it, is not bigger than I am - that I can do what I want, that I'm free, that I can write a damned fool insane email to a complete stranger, or use a damn flip phone, or still hitchhike or whatever. And it's not like I'm always doing that, and I know, blah blah blah I'm just the same as everybody else and doing all the same things and yada yada yada - but I'm telling you: I look around at everybody, and I get the sinking feeling they don't know that they're free, and they don't know what they're missing. I can't get that Ezra Pound poem out of my head:
THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It feels lonely right now. And to make matters worse, I have so much invested in this - 45 minutes at least - in this letter, and I haven't hit the save button. There is no save button. It's not even a damn word processor. It's just a message box, 1,000 characters max, and I fear I am nearing the end, or that I've hit it already. How can you stand up to the likes of Salinger, if we don't even have a typewriter?
Please don't think I'm crazy, or feel like I'm a crazed fan who is obsessed with you or something - it's not like that. I just don't know who to tell this all to right now, and I think for some reason, I gotta tell it to you. Isn't it crazy we would even think something like that now a days? Isn't it crazy the things we think.
I want to tell you that it's been my experience that time moves different somehow when you step outside of it. And there are people living there, too - outside of this "time". I want to tell you about this one guy. My friend and I met him in Washington trying to hitch a ride from Seattle to Portland. We were just bored and wanted to feel something, you know? Maybe we were going from Bellingham to Seattle, I don't remember, and I don't feel like googling it - I'll just go on.
We were on an exit ramp for a road headed East to Yakima. We were trying to go South. It seemed an alright spot to catch a ride, gas station, easy pull off, decent amount of traffic. My friend and I took to standing on eachother's shoulders and hitching that way to pass the time, because, to us, it was hilarious that anyone could not pick up a guy standing ten feet tall with a big old grin and four thumbs up. Who am I kidding, we only had two thumbs up - we're not that good. Anyway, nobody picked us up, and it got dark.
Fella come up out of the woods lookin scraggly as all hell. You know the type - a total bum. He had dirty curly long hair, beard, sweatshirt, dirty jeans. You could see from a mile away he was a dirty bum. My friend and I, we were just postcollege kids looking for a rouse. You know how it is. "See the world, go hitchhiking like ol Jack Kerouac used to, ride a train" and whatnot. So here he comes up and I'm thinking, "great, this guy's gonna come hitch right next to us and completely ruin our chances of getting a ride aint nobody gonna pick up a dirty bum like that or even stop near one." It was getting late, and I didn't want to sleep there in the dense pacific northwest woods pushin through blackberry brambles and alder stands trying to find a tent site in the dark. But I wasn't about to ASK the guy to leave, just glare at him a little.
Well, he started striking up a conversation like you were talking about in your article. I was trying to brush him off politely, but he wasn't taking the hint. He let us know when I confided that "yes, if we DON'T get picked up SOON, we WILL have to sleep in the DAMNED bushes" - he let us know that we could post up at his camp just over yonder, couple a fire rings some flat spots for sleepin got some nice stumps for sittin on. All the time, he was holding this little pet carrier thing - but not like an airplane crate, something softer and more humane - clutching it close to his chest. Then he let us in on the big secret - he's got a litter of kittens, too, and if we wanted to come camp with him, well we could just help ourselves to as much kitten lovin as we wanted.
By the time he took the hint that we wouldn't camp with him in a million years, it was dark sure enough. We bought a couple 40s to make us feel better, and tried to drink them, then went to bed. We got up in the morning feeling pretty unenthusiastic about hitchhiking and "seeing the world" and so forth, but we didn't have much of an option now. We both took morning shits in the gas station toilet at the price of a banana, and went back to it.
You wouldn't believe how many people pass you hitchhiking. People with big damn cars full of nothing, and trucks you could sit in the back of so they'd never even have to talk to you. Old VW hippy vans that make a peace sign at you as they drive by - things you wouldn't believe. It was getting on toward noon, and we'd been out there hours. It felt like we'd never get a ride. Ol kramer - that's my buddy, was starting to call friends in Portland (I guess that's where we were headed) to try and catch a ride for us - a big nono, that, using cell phones when hitching... damages your credibility as a bum.
We were getting pretty down, and sure as sugar up comes Bum Number One with the bag of kittens. Still here eh?! He chimes enthusiastically, as if it's just the best place in the world to be - side of a highway. We confirm the obvious, and let on that maybe we'd rather be somewhere else, and doesn't he think he's maybe making it harder for all of us to get a ride, being all together as 3 instead of two smaller teams? It was like that was the first it donned on him we were having trouble getting out of there. His eyes were kind, and he made me feel like a bad person being so mean to him. I mean, he had kind eye wrinkles, and you could tell he was a damned good person. That's all I have to say about it. I still wanted him gone. He was hurting our chances.
He left us sure enough and headed over to the gas station "probably to buy a 40, or some maddog 2020" I told myself. Kramer needed to go to the bathroom and he walked over that way a little after, too, leaving me alone on the overpass with my thumb out, and it may as well have been up my ass I was scowling and in such a bad mood by then.
Well, all of a sudden here comes Kramer running up. Grab yer bags boy, we're outta here! I'm jogging behind him all awkward with the big backpack clunking on me and catching drifts of thestory. "Yea bud! The old bum with the kittens! Sure enough, he hooked it up!" We get to a beat up old red truck, and toss our packs in the bed. Over in the front seat, our kitten bum is joshin it up with the driver who I'd reckon has approximately half his teeth, and only looks less bum than bum number one because he's driving and apparently paying for gas, though I'll not ask how.
Kittensbum smiles at us and waves us off, and Kramer nudges me - we're in the cab with toothlessbum - so I wave halfheartedly back - still not realizing that he just flagged down a ride, and instead of taking it himself, he gave it to us. You see, he knows how to talk to people - because I'm telling you - he lives outside of this world of veils I'm talking about. He lives outside of time and this fear bubble we've got. Hell, I don't know what to call it. But this guy we're riding with, I'll tell you this much. I wouldn't have talked to him, and he wouldn't have talked to me, without this kittensbum as a conduit. But that guy, that kittensbum, he just slapped us both together slapped the bumper and waved goodbye, and now here we are. I wonder how long he'd been waiting for a ride, or if he keeps track at all.
Toothlessbum tells us about fishing in the great northwest woods, and having his appendix burst in a fishing cabin and not having any phones or nothing and nobody finding him for two days and he couldn't move at all, just rolled around on the floor and waited to die, but then he didn't die, and that's the worst pain he's ever felt. But my mind was lost, I don't remember anything else he said.
I just remember thinking that that Kittensbum has gotta be Jesus Christ incarnate. And I can't really figure out why, I mean, I'm not going to try and explain some hacked phony prep school metaphor. I hate that Old Man and the Sea Santiago with the mast across his back is jesus on the cross crap; I think Hemigway'd probably punch someone in the face for that, or at least write about it, I don't know if he was a violent type or not in reality. But anyway, that Kittensbum was Jesus sure as sugar, and he delivered me from a whole slew of ungodly suppositions and prejudices that whoever you are reading this better pony up and realize I'm not the only one, we're all a bunch of damned dirty infidels walking around afraid to talk to one another because we think we're all crooks and thieves and especially guys who can't make a dime are the worst of the bunch, and you know you wouldn't ask them the time of day if a man with a suit on were standing next to him, so don't act like you're better than that. This is how we are now, and it's a shame.
Anwyway, I guess that went on a little bit longer than I expected, but it's true, and it really did happen, and I don't know why but I felt like telling you. I can't say why. I tore your contact info out of the magazine before I decided to log on and start typing. The ripped piece of paper reads
made me feel something else:
Maybe that's why. I'm starting to think this 1,000 words might be a bluff, but I feel a little better now, so I guess I'll get going... Take it easy... I think you're on the right path, I really do.
Years after my Letter to Steve Almond, I scrapped together this distillation of the Kittensbum Jesus story to try to submit to an online travel journal. I was super excited that the editor was interested in the story, and for the first time I decided to pursue the idea of publishing my work for free.
What ensued was a wild back and forth with an editor that kept me up at nights, and made me doubt the very essence of what it might mean to be a writer.
(Disclaimer: I won't be disclosing the name of the journal or editor - I don't have any interest in criticizing anyone. In fact, I don't think anyone was wrong. But the disagreement over what this story SHOULD or SHOULD NOT say to a wide audience was incredibly fascinating to me, and something I'd like to share. It's almost as interesting as the story itself, in my humble opinion.)
We were on an exit ramp for a road headed East to Yakima, trying to go South. It seemed an alright spot to catch a ride: gas station, easy pull off, decent amount of traffic. Kramer and I took to standing on each other's shoulders and hitching that way to pass the time, because, to us, it was hilarious that anyone could not pick up a guy standing ten feet tall with two big grins and four thumbs up. Who am I kidding, we only had two thumbs up - we're not that good. Anyway, nobody picked us up, and it got dark.
Fella come up out of the woods lookin scraggly as all hell. You know the type - a total bum. He had dirty curly long hair, beard, sweatshirt, dirty jeans. You could see from a mile away he was a dirty old bum. Kramer and I, we were just postcollege kids looking for a rouse. You know how it is. "See the world, go hitchhiking, ride a train" and whatnot. So here he comes and I'm thinking, "great, this guy's gonna come hitch right next to us and completely ruin our chances of getting a ride; aint nobody gonna pick up a dirty bum like that or even stop near one." It was getting late, and I didn't want to sleep there in the dense pacific northwest woods, pushin’ through blackberry brambles and alder stands trying to find a tent site in the dark. But I wasn't about to ASK the guy to leave. So I just glared at him a little, and hoped he’d get the message.
He started striking up conversation with me, and I was trying to brush him off politely, but he wasn't taking the hint. When I confided that "yes, if we DON'T get picked up SOON, we WILL have to sleep in the DAMNED bushes" - he let us know that we could post up at his “camp just over yonder, couple a fire rings some flat spots for sleepin’, got some nice stumps for sittin’ on.” All the time, he was holding this little pet carrier thing, clutching it close to his chest. Suddenly, he let us in on the big secret - moving in closely and confidentially and showing us the contents of the carrier. “Got a litter of kittens, too,” he told us, and if we wanted to come camp with him, well we could just help ourselves to as much kitten lovin’ as we wanted.
By the time he took the hint that we wouldn't camp with him in a million years, it was dark sure enough. We bought a couple 40s to make ourselves feel better, and tried to drink them, then went to bed. We got up in the morning feeling pretty unenthusiastic about hitchhiking and "seeing the world" and so forth, but we didn't have much of an option now. We both took morning shits in the gas station toilet at the price of a banana, and went back to it.
You wouldn't believe how many people pass you hitchhiking. People with big damn cars full of nothing, and trucks you could sit in the back of so they'd never even have to talk to you. Old VW hippy vans that make a peace sign at you as they drive by - things you wouldn't believe. It was getting on toward noon, and we'd been out there hours. It felt like we'd never get a ride. Ol’ Kramer was starting to call friends in Portland (I guess that's where we were headed) to try and catch a ride for us. I bristled silently; everybody knows that using cell phones when hitching is a big no no; damages your credibility as a bum.
We were getting pretty down, and feeling like things just couldn’t get worse, when up comes that old bum with the bag of kittens. “Still here, eh?!” He calls out enthusiastically, as if it's just the best place in the world to be - side of a highway. We confirm the obvious, and let on that maybe we'd rather be somewhere else, and doesn't he think he's maybe making it harder for all of us to get a ride, being all together as 3 instead of two smaller teams? It was like that was the first it donned on him we were having trouble getting out of there. His eyes were kind, and he made me feel like a bad person being so mean to him. I mean, he had kind eye wrinkles, and you could tell he was a damned good person. That's all I have to say about it. I still wanted him gone. He was hurting our chances.
I guess he finally got it, because he left us sure enough and headed over to the gas station "probably to buy a 40, or some Mad Dog 2020" I told myself. Kramer needed to go to the bathroom so he walked over that way, too; leaving me alone on the overpass with my thumb out. It may as well have been up my ass I was scowling and in such a bad mood by then, there wasn’t no way we were getting a ride me looking like I was.
I was just starting to feel sorry for myself when all of a sudden, here comes Kramer running up like a madman. “Grab yer bags boy, we're outta here!” I'm jogging behind him all awkward with the big backpack clunking on me, catching drifts of the story. "Yea bud! The old bum with the kittens! Sure enough, he hooked it up!" We get to a beat-up old red truck, and toss our packs in the bed. Over in the front seat, our kitten bum is joshin it up with the driver who I'd reckon has approximately one third of his teeth, and only looks less bum than our old friend Kittensbum insofar as he's driving, and apparently paying for gas - though I dared not ask how.
Kittensbum smiles and waves us off, and Kramer ribs me - so I wave halfheartedly back. I’m still not quite realizing that he just flagged down a ride, and instead of taking it himself, he gave it to us. Then, finally, it dons on me what happened. And I start feeling real damn bad.
You see, ol Kittensbum, he’s a guy knows how to talk to people. I guess he kind of lives outside of this world of veils we middle-classers spend most our lives in. He lives outside of time and this fear bubble we've got. Hell, I don't know what to call it. But this guy we're riding with, I'll tell you this much. I wouldn't have talked to him, and he wouldn't have talked to me, without this Kittensbum as a conduit. We both would have been dead scared of a little human interaction. But that Kittensbum, he just did in about 24 minutes what we couldn’t achieve in 24 hours, and slapped us both together, slapped the bumper, and waved goodbye. And now here we are. I wonder how long he'd been waiting for a ride, or if he keeps track at all.
As the rickety old truck bumps down the road, Toothlessbum tells us about fishing in the great northwest woods, and having his appendix burst in a fishing cabin and not having any phones or nothing and nobody finding him for two days and he couldn't move at all, just rolled around on the floor and waited to die, but then he didn't die, and that's the worst pain he's ever felt. But my mind was lost, I don't remember anything else he said.
I just remember thinking that that Kittensbum has gotta be Jesus Christ incarnate. And I can't really figure out why. I mean, I'm not going to try and explain some hacked phony prep school metaphor. I hate that Old Man and the Sea Santiago with the mast across his back is jesus on the cross crap; I think Hemigway'd probably punch someone in the face for that, or at least write about it, I don't know if he was a violent type or not in reality. But anyway, that Kittensbum was Jesus sure as sugar, and he delivered me from a whole slew of ungodly suppositions and prejudices that whoever you are reading this better pony up and admit that you were having, too. I'm not the only one, we're all a bunch of damned dirty infidels walking around afraid to talk to one another because we think we're all crooks and thieves; and especially guys who can't make a dime are the worst of the bunch, and you know you wouldn't ask them the time of day if a man with a suit on were standing next to him, so don't act like you're better than that. This is just how we are now, and it's a shame.
And I guess I felt pretty bad masquerading around like a bum that way, hitching rides, catching trains, all college educated and able to get jobs and no excuse and all. But I don’t feel bad about it at all, really. I wanted to know what that was like, I wanted to see who I’d meet, I wanted to learn what they had to teach me. And I think I did learn what ol Kittensbum had to teach; at least as well as anything else I learned in K-12 and the great beyond. I’d like to think a whole lot better, too.
I see that event now with mystical clarity. Kittensbum was Jesus; the kittens were man; and the bag he held them in, Earth. Kramer and I, we were two screaming hell-bound comets, heading straight for the depths of the sun of pure enlightenment. And ol Toothlessbum, who had endured untellable pain in his backwoods shack, three days unable to move until his wife's brother found him and took him to the hospital, who had three teeth on a good day, and haunted the fish of the backwoods Washington waterways, do you remember him?
He was gravity, and our Jesus conjured him to speed us along our course. And as he pulled us into the blinding light of truth, and we melted in the glory of our wandering mystic travel - that Holy Spirit faded into the distance of time and space. In the end, we are left with nothing but our memories of Him.
I finally got up the gumption to submit the Kittensbum piece to a literary journal. And they were interested. But they not only wanted it for free, they also wanted it in a way that felt counter to the point of the story to me. Here is a very unprofessional email that I wrote in response to an edit that didn't go the direction I had hoped for it to. Looking back, I am embarrassed and proud in equal parts. I treated the editor pretty unfairly, and that is a shame. But what I discovered in the writing of this email was a stark understanding of the significance of the Kittensbum story - which was absolutely invaluable - and a resolve not to fuck it up, no matter what anyone thought.
Man, this probably won't make me the most popular of your writers, but I don't know that I can abide much - if any - of the changes.
All the bad grammar and tense fuckups and shitty halfwelldone apostrophes here but not there-- all of that, it's intentional. It's how people talk in real life. It's honest, it's realistic. When people tell a story, they tell it like this... "So... funny thing. this guy, I mean, it was four o clock on a tuesday. and this guy - you couldn't even believe it, he's all wearing raggedy clothes and looking like hell, there I was, on a tuesday afternoon, and this fella comes up to me like it's sunday morning asking "what church am I planning to go to this afternoon", and I'm thinking to myself, is this guy drunk or stoned or what?""
If we make the narrator follow literary conventions, we make him sound like a narrator, not a human. Which certainly wasn't my intention. And all the ol' this and ol' that and sometimes i'm gonna drop a g, but sometimes not, sometimes I'm gonna use big fancy words like I'm some smart liberal educated college grad... all that's intentional. The whole point is this well-to-do kid is playing dress up, he's masquerading, he's pretending to be something he's not... and that creeps into his speech, his vernacular, the way he talks, the shit that comes out of his mouth. You know? Vernacular and shit that comes out his mouth mean the same thing, but the way you say it says something about who's talking. And I don't want this narrator to talk like a book, I want him to talk like a full of shit kid who's ashamed of his affluence and wants to be something he's not, and he's trying and pretending, but try as he might, he just can't quite abide dropping every single damn g, or dumbing down all the speech, because it's dressup, it's not real, it's not who he is. I don't know - it's not sloppy, it's intentional.
Same goes for sentence construction a few times where you corrected sloppy real human talk to try to sound like strunk and white took a crack at it. The first sentence itself. I guess you got to ask, which makes you want to keep reading... Forget which is right, which is better, which is proper english. Which makes you want to read on and on and on... "Fella come up out of the woods lookin' scraggly as all hell." or "Fella came up out of the woods." I mean, forget the rest of the entire article. Which sentence do you like better? And later on, same P, which sentence do you like better... If these two sentences slipped out of a human's mouth at you, which human would you feel was more repugnant, more crass, more dirty, more full of shit, perhaps, if you knew he was the son of well-to-do parents. "From a mile away, you could see..." Or, "You could see from a mile away"? In fact, forget which one you like better - that's not the real question. The question is, which one could you hear a real human actually saying? Which is how people actually talk?
"Turned out Kerouacing around and seeing the world wasn’t all that much fun. At least not at that moment, we didn’t think so." That's just the kind of garbage that would slip out of a real human's mouth. It has real human messups, real human grammar, real written all over it.
I don't know, I don't feel so strongly about any one or two or three of these edits. I do appreciate how lightly you went with the pen. I'm not accusing you of being a high school english teacher here unable to see beyond dotting t's and crossing i's. I see that you're trying to preserve the general tone. It just happens that I think the systematic correction of the grammar across the board makes it a worse article - not better.
"His eyes were kind, and it made me feel like a bad for person being so mean to him. I mean, he had kind eye wrinkles, and you could tell he was a damned good person. That's all I have to say about that. I was ashamed, but I still wanted him gone. He was hurting our chances." I don't know, can we cut that up and chop it up the way you did? I mean, doesn't that just SCREAM "oh, hey, I've read my share of Salinger, and it turns out I really like the guy, but, by the way, I'm gonna go on pretending I'm just like one of these uneducated bum types who didn't have the opportunities I had"? Doesn't it? It's halfway to plagiarism it's so Salinger. I think that's important. I think it's important to show how unoriginal this phony hack is, and yet, just like all Salinger's protagonists, how innocent, how childish, how immature.
I'm not saying the piece is perfect and uneditable... For example "shrugged shoddy shoulders,", when you cut out "shoddy shoulders" you were absolutely correct. That makes the article much worse, almost unbearable even, having that alliteration crammed down your throat that way. Or is it assonance? You know what, I don't know, and I don't care. But it doesn't matter. I agree with you - 100%. That was a gross, vulgar, pathetic (in a way), sort of an attempt to SOUND like something... rather than to just BE something... and even though the point of the story is that this kid is constantly trying to do just that -- SOUND like something -- in this case, it is not the kid trying to sound like... it's (sadly) me.
A much bigger issue for me than all that other stuff is the deletion of the three paragraphs.
Look, I'm not sure what all to say except that this isn't just a story about Kittensbum. Otherwise, why have the narrator at all? In fact, the story's not about Kittensbum at all. It's about high school, it's about writing, it's about intellectualism, the literary intelligentsia, opting out, self-loathing, white guilt, the suburbs, the burbs, the godforsaken burbs. If that's not obvious, that perhaps is the piece's biggest shortcoming. Why the fuck is this kid trying to go Kerouacing around? Kerouac? That's 50 some odd years ago AKA half a century. What's wrong with this kid? He can't accept who he is, can't come to terms with himself, feels guilty about all the opportunities he's had but never asked for, that others have not had but wished they did. Of course he likes Salinger (first P you want to cut has mention of Prep School - clear and obvious allusion to Salinger)... Catcher in the Rye is about a dropout who thinks everything is phoney. What do you do when you think everything is phoney? You drop out, and go Kerouacing around. I mean, this stuff should be obvious and just screaming off the page. Is it not? Really?
By cutting the three graphs you want cut, we turn this into a story about Kittensbum. Is it really that interesting? Seriously? Look, you cut out the crap about this story being about Kittensbum being jesus and the painstaking spelling out of that over the top high school style literary reductionism - you cut all that, and that's precisely what you turn the story into. That's what it is. It's a story about this Kittensbum where we're all supposed to sit around some stuffy ass highschool classroom scratching our heads with some pontificating professor who read too many internet forums or cliffnotes or whatever or maybe just what the AP exam tells them the story is about telling all the students what the story is about. meanwhile, all the students are like "really? I don't see Jesus in there... just a scraggly old bum... why can't these bastards just ever let the story be about what it's about - not these grand metaphors, but just real life."
You leave in these three paragraphs, then, the story's not about that. The story's about this kid trying to have some grand revelation, but the grand revelation is, Tat Tvam Asi. That art thou. He's the literary scholar of his own stupid story. And why? Why? Why is he trying to find some grand meaning in his meaningless story? Dng ding ding - you got it, for the same reason he's out gallivanting around the PNW in the first place. His comfortable middle class suburban life, up til now, has been about absolutely nothing. He's looking for SOMETHING.
He's playing the same game. Just like he's pretending to be something he's not by hoboing around on the interstate. The point is, the grand reveal and the thing that makes it a story worth telling, is that the kid is trying to find some sort of meaning in life, and he's failing. He's not quite there. He's trying to make this story about nothing into something. Trying to turn it into some sort of big huge grand experience where humans change and big things happen and lifechanging events shake the world like when hemingway talks about the world shaking only three times or whatever piss he spouts out in For Whom the Bell Tolls when people fuck. But that's not what life is about for this kid - never has been - because that's not how life is in the suburbs. In the suburbs you're insulated from everything. Nothing ever shakes. The ground never moves. You never change, never realize, never have a great awakening. If you did, you wouldn't be out "Kerouacing" around looking for some great lifechanging experience in the first place. You'd just be being yourself. You aren't being yourself because you're looking for something else in the skin of someone else. And you're looking for it because everything you've ever read or seen in a movie or heard about on TV is a lie, and there is no catharsis, and no climax, and no point to the story. There's only confusion, pretense, and the half-hearted attempts and forays we make into actually experiencing something meaningful in life, before we retreat, eventually and inevitably, back into our own comfortable whitebread skin.
I mean, if that doesn't come across in the story, then maybe that's a problem. But, I'd like to think that for someone who has experienced this sort of thing, it's there. I'd like to think they get it, they feel it. And in the end, that's who I wrote it for. I don't fully know that I can do the intended audience a disservice by turning the story into something it was not in the first place.
One final note: I am of the understanding that, since the Kickstarter failed, there will be no pay for this article. Is that correct? I often capitulate more with editors when there's pay involved, because, then, it's not art or beauty or poetry. It's just a job. And in any job, you have a boss who you have to listen to and do what they want even if you disagree with them. That's just life, and all of us have to make a living.
Also, just a question, will this be in print, or digital?
Thanks so much,
There was one final back and forth. The editor's text is plain, mine is bold and italic. Looking through this, it's hard not to judge myself. I'm so obviously worked up, so obviously out of line. And yet, something about it makes the corners of my lips curl to a smile. Maybe it's just the pure honesty. Maybe it's standing up for something I think is worth standing up for. I don't know if I'm right or wrong, looking back. I'll leave it up to you to decide.
I've read through your second draft. At the risk of making you tear your hair out--this version is now so homogenized that it's lost its original charm. The original version had a drive and an urgency. This one reads too much like an apology letter to your mom.
This I agree with.
Using a conversational vernacular is not, in itself wrong. What was lacking in the original version was a clear sense that you knew that you were appropriating that language as a linguistic disguise. Here's an issue. Saying it that way, or thinking of it that away - that's too premeditated to be likely, or (in fact) accurate. None of us, my friends, or myself, had any notion or intention of DISGUISING ourselves. We were DISCOVERING ourselves. You don't have a clue who you are all the way through college if you're male middle class and white because all you have to define yourself with are society's yawns at your plainness and admonitions for having too much privilege. You look yourself in the mirror and you say "well, I'm not so evil. Not such a bad guy. And besides, I didn't ask for this. So, then, who am I?" And if you care at all about the answer to that question, you try hard to find it out. Not out of malice but due to naiveté--due to the fact that you were unaware that the how of your actions were offensive because you were too absorbed in the righteousness of your why. Again, I think righteousness is too strong a word. I don't want to cut this young traveler infinite slack, but I do think he is, essentially, innocent. No-one can be blamed for his own original ignorance, because ignorance is, by definition, the thing he has not learned. Now, ignorance by choice and by flat refutation of facts and an inability to question one's values, that can be blameworthy... but original ignorance simply because life never provided you an opportunity to get to know one thing or another - that's blameless.
Appropriating hick-speak is this an acceptable term? If so, there are deeper problems in the literary world than I supposed. I find the intellectualization of a dialect, and subsequent invocation of a racist slur to describe that dialect pretty distasteful. If we are going to dress up these notions of poverty tourism in a lot of high-falluting academic lingo and theory, we better not throw slurs around. For example, "hick speak" is to poor white people as "___" speak is to poor black people. I don't think either of us wants to fill in the blank. I point this out only to point out a certain cultural bias towards admonishing the narrator in this story for taking on that language, for wearing the mask, for trying (so help him) to be something he is not. Yes, I understand the one month foray into poverty is incredibly problematic. And yet, I do want to force the reader to wonder, is it not (perhaps) more problematic to cloister oneself in a university library and write about equality and poverty tourism and other vices, without ever actually meeting someone or experiencing something outside of one's own tiny privileged white bread world in the first place?is ethically dubious because to do so is an expression of political power, and also uses language to subtly blame the poor for their own lack of options. It's also playing at class. Think Madonna or Gwyneth suddenly developing posh British accents, irritating the entire world. Being a chameleon can be a form of self defense, but it's also a social pretense. This last point I completely agree with, and I would like to highlight it. Going into the NW woods to check out poverty is a self-defense mechanism after years and years of getting beat up for being more privileged than everyone else in the world. Now, I understand that THAT sentiment is fraught, too. I get it. That's the kind of thinking that leads to "reverse racism" arguments, and I don't abide those. That said, we have to grant to people - even to privileged people - an acceptability of despairing over what they are, what they aren't, what they literally cannot ever experience due to factors they were born into. In that way, it is the most humanizing thing, the most universal. All of us are born into skin we did not ask for, and all of us have to deal with the ups and downs that come from that skin. We can not simply pretend that some skins have no downs. They are different downs from other skins, but they are still downs. You rob a skin of its downs, you rob it of the experience of being a human.
So to fix: go back to the original version, and then reveal yourself as the first surprise twist. Agreed. The opening line sets your voice up as belonging to a rural poor white, "fella" being sufficiently vernacular to establish the tone as conversational and rural I still think to achieve this affect, we should stick with "come up out of the woods" instead of "came..." The thing is, if you really want to sell this twist, you have to allow the twist to be itself. "Come up" is how the narrator said it, thought it, lived it. If we start editing that narrator/character to be in line with proper grammar when we want him to, and not in line when we don't want him to, I worry we run the risk of cheapening his authenticity.. So when you later identified yourself as a college kid bumming around, I was startled. That's the moment where you should state something along the lines of "yeah, I wasn't raised talking like this but I was trying on roles, searching for something that sounded real and, at the time, I thought I had everyone fooled--maybe even you." (You don't need to use this, I'm just suggesting a way to let readers know that you're aware that you're playing a game with yourself. I see what you're driving at here. I think I can make that work. It will have to be subtle though, in my opinion. Not a lot less subtle than the original writing. I don't want it to look like it's in highlights with a post-it note saying "see surprise twist here", and an arrow pointing to it.
There is no need for you to apologize for being white, middle class, and male unless you are these things, you cannot know that. There's no more legitimacy in you telling me how to feel in my skin than in me telling you. To say a thing like that is to discount my experiences. It is almost to suggest "no, you've only dreamed that all the world hates/envies/dislikes you... that's not real". It's to pretend I haven't heard the same tired refrains my whole life, to pretend that any problem (racism included) is only a one-way street. I don't think this story can be apologetics either way - it can't apologize for being male middle class and white, but at the same time, it can't apologize for apologizing. . The tension here is that you're looking to less-fortunate others to define your meaning, when you should be looking into the reasons why people like Kittensbum and Toothlessbum are destitute in the first place again, I don't know that I agree with this. Looking into the reasons for poverty is ONE good thing to do with one's time. Another is to try to experience poverty oneself. Look, I've had this debate with my dad for a decade and a half, so I've given it a lot of thought. It's super great and entirely PC to go to a nice school, and study the diaspora, civil rights, the bureau of indian affairs, whatever you want. Right? And then what, you become an expert - but do you ever go there? And if you do, if you go to poor black communities in Chicago, or go to the res, do you go in your own skin, or do you risk being called a fake, a sham, a quack, a racist, an opportunist by doing your best to go in the skin of the people you visit? Do your best to get an authentic view of what life is like for them, to live the way they would live. Are you cringing at the word "authentic"? Because I am. And I think that, in itself, is emblematic of the problem I am driving at. A desire for authenticity is somehow conceived of as inherently exploitative. And yet, what's the alternative? Text books and lectures - but no real experience in life itself. When you want to try on that life without actually living it, there's something else going on underneath, a set of psychological feints and emotional displacements best left to you to figure out on your own. I agree that there's something else going on underneath, and we can get as Freudy as you like (though I don't think it would be very helpful) about what those are. I think this is an important place to note: I didn't (the protagonist didn't) WANT to try on that life without actually living it. 100% the opposite. He took every measure he possibly could to ACTUALLY live it. There are certain things you cannot extricate from yourself - your parents, your skin color, your history, your vernacular. But everything else, material possessions, creature comforts, financial assets, you can (and he did). My point is, the protagonist was fully aware of the pitfalls in his attempt to live this way. He knew about his security blanket, he knew about his past. And yet, he wasn't comfortable going through life without at least trying to meet this part of the world, without trying to understand it, without trying to get to know it well enough to empathize with it. And I'm not claiming to be the Buddha, but if you were told to read Siddhartha in High School, and you did, and you studied the life of Gautama, and you're male middle class and white, I don't know what other conclusion you can draw, or what other course you can take, if you earnestly want to experience suffering.
Then proceed as before, until you get to your ending. The revised version is better but still needs work. May I ask to reflect a little bit more on the unfolding narrative form that is the journey of self-discovery, and consider why you're so intent on finding a spiritual lesson herein Yes, i think this is a good idea... This is the reason I've so thoroughly and painstakingly tried to elucidate my thoughts in this email - I want to be sure we're on the same page on what to think about the protagonist, what he learned, what he is guilty of or not? I don't want to draw your conclusions, but hope that you might be able to interrogate yourself a bit more deeply. Perhaps you'll take these thoughts as evidence that I am not. Perhaps I am not. But perhaps an accurate accounting, a most thorough interrogation, will show that in the end, none of us is guilty of anything but being ourselves, selves the universe conspired to turn us into, selves we go around trying to understand, to correct, to ease one day into the grave with only a modicum of guilt, shame, and embarrassment about who we were, and the things we have done.
I realize this is a lot to absorb, but the bones are good, and it will eventually get there.
P.S. I feel compelled to end on this note. I've traveled to a buttload of Spanish speaking countries, and speak mostly fluently, myself. Mostly, I have spent time in Chile and Argentina - both of whom have very distinct dialects, and neither of whom particularly like one another. While there, I get constant shit from my friends who live there for my rigidness in my accent, my slang, etc. "Hueyon, they tell me, hable asi como Chilenopo!" or, if I have been in Chile too long, they tell me "Che, boludo, porque hablas tan Chileno? Josha mato!" My point is, when we go to a fully different country, nobody chastises us for our attempt at full immersion, for appropriation of vernacular (so to speak). It is expected, even desired, of the visitor. It is not fraught, not overlyproblematic. It just is nice - it shows an earnestness from the traveler in his attempt to actually get to know the place he travels to.
All of our cultural baggage and sordid histories aside, why should we not bring the same mindset into our travels within our own country? Isn't it a bit prudish of us not to? If we pay too much respect to the lines that divide us, when will we ever step over those lines, embrace, and begin to erase them?