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Creativity and Strength on the Anniversary of Barbara’s Passing

Art takes endurance, and it springs from love

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My wife, Barbara, who passed away a year ago on Sept. 3, was a fan of Truman Capote, who might have been almost as famous for his partying in high society and his quips as he was for his writing.

Barbara used to talk about some of Capote’s hilarious put-downs.

If I am remembering Barbara correctly, Capote, who had written In Cold Blood, which was viewed by many as the first of the so-called nonfiction novels, said that he was “glad that he could be of some help” or some service to Norman Mailer, who won the Pulitzer for The Executioner’s Song, one of his own forays into the “nonfiction novel.”

In spite of his great success with In Cold Blood, Capote did not write much after that.  Nor, for that matter, did he write too many books before it.

Mailer was more prolific.  I can recall hearing him interviewed on the radio by KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt around 2007, near the end of Mailer’s life.

Always colorful and pugilistic, Mailer said that he felt like an aging heavyweight fighter, a common trope for him.  In spite of his octogenarian status at the time, he said, if I may paraphrase, that he was willing to endure the punishment, and he wanted to write another 1,000-page novel.  He had already written a few, including The Executioner’s Song and Harlot’s Ghost, as well as several other long novels.

In June 1996, when I was just starting my first novel, I met Barbara, who would become my angel and Muse, at a UCLA writing class.

As I have noted before, Barbara read my first chapter of fiction in that class.

At that time, I was quite ill and on the verge of my first psychotic break.  Yet I was happy to be in that class, and it showed.

Barbara used to tell me that, when I walked into that class, with my “cute, little grin” and my “merry eyes,” I “cheered her up right away.” And she “fell in love with me at first sight.”

As for me, when I saw Barbara, I could tell right away that she was an angel and that she was adorable, but I did not know just how angelic or just how adorable she was.

I would soon find out.

I had made a reference in my opening chapter of fiction, a scene that takes place in a batting cage, to George Plimpton, the late, great experiential journalist, who had sparred with Archie Moore, played football with the Detroit Lions and baseball with the Yankees, and written about those adventures.

Barbara approached me in class after she read my first chapter and told me that she had been reading a book by Plimpton, in which there was a chapter, where Norman Mailer, like a carnival strongman, tried to slam a metal ball to the top of a pole at a party out in Long Island.  

She asked me if I would like to read that book and that chapter, and I said yes.

Barbara brought that book to class the following week and lent me the text, written by Plimpton, who was one of my heroes.

I read the chapter about Mailer, soon to be another hero of mine.  If memory serves, Plimpton described how Mailer flailed away at that metal ball and could not quite get it to reach the top of the pole.

Critics often missed, sometimes willfully, the irony, the winking, even the over-the-top nature of some of Mailer’s provocative statements and actions, including his writing The Gospel According to the Son in the first person.

He was a brilliant writer and a character, not unlike Capote, who was Barbara’s favorite postwar novelist.

And the truth is that, in spite of their rivalry, Mailer had great respect for Capote, as he told the crowd at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Naked and the Dead.

Barbara and I would end up going to see Mailer speak on three different occasions in the Los Angeles area, and the first time was at that event in 1998.

When asked on that occasion by Michael Silverblatt if a writer had to be a tough guy, Mailer cracked a smile, as he bobbed and weaved from his seat on the stage.  Then he said, in a gesture of kindness and generosity, “Truman Capote was tough.  Jimmy Jones was a tough kid.”

But before that event in 1998, indeed before Barbara and I started dating, I had to return Barbara’s Plimpton book after I missed the last day of that UCLA class in 1996.

What was I going to do?

What I did not realize at that time was that Barbara had charmingly written her address next to the title page, inside the front cover of the book.

Because I failed to note Barbara’s address, I called up the teacher of our class, who checked with Barbara.

I soon was given Barbara’s phone number; and I, who lived in Venice at the time, drove out to Glendale, a town I did not know, to return the book.

Barbara and I then went for a stroll over to Brand Boulevard, the main north-south artery in Glendale, where she introduced me to Porto’s, a Cuban bakery and institution that served meat pies, potato balls and other savories at reasonable prices.

It was set up as a cafeteria, with a long line of customers and almost as many servers behind the counter, who called out our numbers that we had plucked from a dispenser.

“Now, everything is good here,” said Barbara, who gazed into my eyes.

She could see that I was taken with the place.

Even if I did not fully realize it at the time, I was also taken with her, as she was with me.

That day at Porto’s, I had a turkey sandwich, along with meat pies and potato balls.  And afterwards, we strolled back to Barbara’s condo, where she perched herself in a window seat, like a little pixie.

We had a lively chat, after which I drove home to Venice.

As would often be the case with Barbara and me, I had a sense, a cheerful premonition or intuition of a sort, in which I thought, in this case, that I would receive a message from Barbara on my answering machine.  And I had a sense of what she might say.

When I got home to Venice, an hour’s drive or so, Barbara had indeed left me a message, and she told me that I had been the perfect gentleman and conversationalist.  Then she added, in what might have been a hint of clairvoyance on both of our parts, “Now, don’t worry.  I’m not ready to propose.”

I can still picture Barbara at her condo on that first date, looking like an elf or sprite, like Puck or Ariel, high up on her window seat, in the heavens, as it were, delighted to be talking to me.

As I noted earlier, the problem for me at that time, in 1996, was that I was very ill, deeply depressed and in the early stages of psychosis.

Barbara and I would have two other dates that year, before my mother got ill, with a brain infection.

Not long after my mother recovered, I, who had been on the verge of a psychotic break for months, ended up in the USC psychiatric ward.

But before I was hospitalized, I finished what would become Strikeout at Hell Gate.  I tried to adhere to Barbara’s advice of writing three pages a day.

Even though I was suicidal, and even though I could barely read during late 1996 and early 1997, I did honor Barbara’s dictum and was able to crank out my first novel.

There is no question, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, that a writer cannot do his or her best work when he or she is not well.

This is all the more the case when a writer is severely depressed, psychotic and suicidal from decades of trauma, because those ailments, when most acute, can strip away a writer’s ability to read.  And a writer has to be able to read in order to hear the music in language, in order to hone his or her auditory aesthetic.

A recent New York Times obituary for Marquez’s widow and Muse, Mercedes Barcha, told the famous story of how she “pawned her hair dryer and the couple’s blender” to pay for the postage so that she could send her husband’s manuscript of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his Argentine editor.

When I read about Barcha’s extraordinary act of devotion for her husband, I was reminded of Barbara’s countless acts of devotion to me.

After I recuperated from my first psychotic break, I came back to Los Angeles on Memorial Day weekend in 1997.

Soon thereafter, I got a job at L.A. Weekly as a proofreader and then I started to date Barbara in earnest.

The timing was right in the summer of 1997.

On our first Christmas or Chanukah together later that year, Barbara, who was already my Muse, though we were not yet married, pawned, not her hair dryer or a blender, but her late husband’s guitars, so that she could afford to buy me a fancy camera.

She did so, because I dressed like a beach bum in torn jeans and T-shirts, and she thought that I could not afford to buy anything other than the disposable cameras that I used back then.

In fact, the reason why I always used disposable cameras at that time was because I had and still have poor fine motor skills, mostly due to childhood trauma.  And I wanted a camera that was easy to use.

As I have noted before, Barbara’s gift to me transpired like an O. Henry story, filled with irony, doubly or triply so, not only because I could in fact afford a nice camera, but also because I later misplaced the camera Barbara bought me and never found it in the mess of my apartment in Venice.  I probably would not have known how to use it anyway.

Barbara and I had a good laugh about this some time later.

Of course, in hawking those guitars, Barbara showed how much she loved me.  It truly was an act of devotion and generosity, right out of The Gift of the Magi.

A few months ago, I finished our opus, which I began in 1996 when I met Barbara.  

I wrote 500 pages in the past year, and I have never really stopped re-writing the entire opus, a set of eight, very long novels.  I have come to realize that I have needed to put in a few more signposts for readers, who may not be familiar with Jewish mysticism.  And I have kept the chapters relatively short, as per the advice of Barbara, who got me over the finish line when I reached 5,000 pages on Sept. 2 last year, the day before she passed away.

Like Mercedes Barcha with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barbara gave me and still “gives me everything and more,” as Bob Dylan sang in From a Buick 6.

Of course, Dylan has had many Muses, as did Norman Mailer, who, if I am remembering correctly, once compared writing a short story to a one-night stand, whereas writing a novel, in his view, was like a marriage.

As was his wont, Mailer said that ironically, in over-the-top fashion.  He liked being a provocateur.

And he knew, as did Capote and Marquez, that if you are going to write anything worthwhile, it is going to take time, years, sometimes even decades.

I have in the past cited Robert Louis Stevenson, who once said that writing a novel takes “moral and physical endurance… and the courage of Ajax.”

I have never agreed that it takes the courage of Ajax, but I do believe that there is a spiritual, as well as a moral and physical, dimension to the endurance.

Creating a work of art clearly takes a fierce, inner strength.  But it also takes love.  In fact, love is the source of that strength, of the imaginative, cognitive and aesthetic power.

As Barbara used to say, love is the most powerful thing of all.  And God is love.

Think of the excruciating strength and love of Michelangelo, who rested on his back on a scaffold for more than a decade to paint the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

And how else could Isaac Luria or Rabbi Simeon have spent perhaps two decades in a cave, writing the Zohar, the most authoritative tome of the Kabbalah, were it not for devotion to God.

We can be sure that Michelangelo had a Muse, as did Isaac Luria or Rabbi Simeon, as well as Capote and Mailer, who had multiple.

I have one, my Barbara, and I will be eating some meat pies and potato balls at Porto’s today in your honor, my love.

I will take a rest afterwards.  And I hope to see you in my dreams, where we can talk, among other subjects, about Mailer and Capote, about that Plimpton book you lent me after you read my first chapter.

That is what I propose.  It will be as if we are getting married again.

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