Thank Your Teachers: A Tribute to Dave Fish

It was my freshman year of college when I met Dave. He was in the graduate program at hippy haven SUNY New Paltz teaching Freshman Comp 101.  I landed in his class by mere fate or maybe some sort of secret lottery system I’m not sure of, but either way I was there.

Dave was going to show us what the Beat Generation meant to the world of literature and I was eager and ready having known for years who Allen Ginsberg was, his sad bearded face adorned a Rolling Stone that showed up some years before after his death on my parent’s coffee table. I read the article and was amazed that one man could do so much with poetry.

The novel that was assigned to us that class was Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece On the Road. I had no idea what was about to happen to me. I knew that I had been assigned many books to read in English classes, most of which were either good enough to finish or important enough to get through. My favorites up until that point were Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. I thought I was just a huge Steinbeck fan, little did I know how little I knew.

I read On the Road in one day. My eyes couldn’t stop darting around the pages and I needed more. I couldn’t wait to get to class every day to see what everyone else thought, to see what Dave had to say, to see what the narratives that were extracted smelled and felt like. I was, in part, obsessed, because I learned, Kerouac was more than just a writer, he was a rule breaker, a punk rocker, the beginning of the “hippy” movement and possibly the end and beginning of something bigger generationally in America.

Being immersed in the heart of the dragon every day, surrounded by neo hippy socialites and pot smoking sandal wearing patchouli addicts made me see why Jack drank himself to stupidity and eventually death. By the time the class had ended I not only had read other books by Jack, but a biography as well. I knew Jack like I knew myself, in and out, and was seriously pained to see how misconstrued his messages had become, the consumerism of it all, the lost art of jazz, true prose exploding like roman candles across the sky.

But Dave, he understood. He knew what Jack meant! He was explaining it daily and in terms I had never thought of. “Mississippi Gene is Buddha!” Dave yelled and my pen hit the paper to make a note. My brain was melting. “You don’t need to write this down”, I thought. “Jesus! This is life shit!”

Standing in the Shawangunk Mountains late one afternoon, the sun starting to disappear behind the peaks, the chilly air starting to casually stroll in, my stomach reminding me to go back to campus and hit the dining hall, and I realized what it was I wanted to do. Of course, I always knew it, but I needed this moment for it to become concrete.

I wrote my first book when I was in first grade. I was on the news. It was a Christmas book, but more Stephen King and Tim Burton than your typical Christmas story. Although I had no idea what macabre was I was certainly already dabbling in it.

In the book, Santa had been impersonated by the Devil, who went around killing children, then made toys from their bones and gave the toys as presents to other children.

It’s fucked, I know.

And the worst part is, they don’t catch the devil in the end. The lead detective, a woman named Kristy, is unable to solve the crime. The ending was either intentionally left open for a sequel or more importantly, was a precursor to the way I saw all literature, further backed and corroborated by the Beat Generation more than a decade later.

Even at an early age I always wondered why there had to be a well-defined good guy and bad guy in every story. Real life never works this way. Sometimes you’re the good guy and sometimes you’re the bad guy.

Sometimes you learn a bunch of stuff and change your ways and sometimes you learn a bunch of stuff and don’t change a damn thing. If life is never so cut and dry why should literature be?

Art imitates life. I have always considered writing an art before it is entertainment. Good art makes for good entertainment, but good entertainment isn’t necessarily art.

In New Paltz, under the distinct tutelage of Dave fish, I was shown that other people thought this way and I wasn’t alone. My thoughts were suddenly vindicated, it was a relief and a burden all at once. I couldn’t give up and I wouldn’t.

In order to break the rules I had to first learn them and I did, imitating Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Baraka, Corso, Snyder, and others. I spent so much time writing that I forgot to go to math class, business class, science class, and pretty much every other class. I helped start a poetry group and an on campus magazine that centered on poetry as art. I eventually dropped out of school completely and moved to the city of Syracuse to become the next Jack Kerouac.

I became a waiter instead.

I did go back and eventually graduate college with a degree in writing and since have pressed forward as the struggling writer that I have always wanted to be. But you can’t live out your dreams without a lot of people standing behind you encouraging you and aiding you along the way.

You never know where your inspiration can come from as a writer or as any individual ready to move forward and progress. What I may not have understood at the time but certainly do now is that my progress had to embrace the complete weirdness that I know resides inside me. But it’s hard to let that out.

You’re growing a second head that if you let it out people are going to look at you differently. I needed someone to tell me that it was acceptable and that others had done it before, to cultivate the plant of weirdness that has already rooted in the soul was actually a good thing. Let them think you’re weird, because, well, you are. Weird is unique. Unique is art. Art is entertainment.

The reason I’m a weird writer isn’t Dave’s fault. That burden probably falls on my parents. But the enrichment of my weirdness that led me to become a writer?

That one’s on you, Dave.

Tiger Tiger Words, Y’all

Writing is a lot like golf. Every sentence is stroke, every paragraph a hole, and every word an adjustment to your swing.  All a writer tries to do is string together one good shot after the next.  If you can par the course, you did pretty good.  I usually settle for less than 20 over, in both writing and on the course.  I can’t putt.  I can get to the green, but it takes too long to get to the hole.  All my last sentences in each paragraph are badly written.

I had a dream a few nights ago that I was sitting in a tavern.  I was in the White Horse Tavern at Hudson and 11th.  I was sitting at a back table with my dad, drinking pints and desperately explaining that I was a writer, that I was going to make it work, that I would stop at nothing to get a book, or several, published.  In an effort to help my dad understand writing I used this golf analogy, thinking that it would strike him in such a way that he would understand where I was coming from, his love of golf translated into my love of typing words on a screen.  I said I wanted to become the “Tiger, Tiger Woods Y’all” of writing.  His response was a typical T. White style joke that makes you laugh because you can’t believe you didn’t think of it first.  He just leaned in over his amber colored pint and said, “Tiger, Tiger WORDS Y’all!”

I woke up laughing.  But, it got me thinking.  “I gotta get moving!”  And I started writing again on more of a regular basis.  It’s just like golf really when you start to break it down.  If you don’t play golf often, your swing suffers.  If you only practice putting, your drive suffers.  If you never practice your irons, your mid range game suffers.  It’s all about rounding out your practice everyday, it’s about stretching and flexing those muscles as often as you can, so when you take a swing you’re not sore.  And when you’re ready to string a series of shots together, you can do just that, easily parring a hole in front of an audience.

All forms of writing need to be practiced on a regular basis in order to get better and have any success.  This includes reading, something that I fall in and out of love with often.  I have been much better about it lately, making myself intrigued again by rereading some of my favorite books of all time including The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac and Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan.  These authors and plenty of others have inspired me once and I’m positive they will again and again.  Reading is an exercise too and should be made part of my daily routine.  Although it’s much easier to pick up a delicious craft brew and pour it down my neck than to sit in a well lit area and choke down Goethe.

It is much more than just writing and hoping the words compile in paper form and end up on book shelf.  It is entrepreneurship, motivation, hustle, and drive.  I’m finally learning that becoming a writer takes more than “reading and writing well” just as I found out that golf is a lot more than getting a small white, dimpled ball into a hole that’s really far away.  It’s about practice, playing the game with the right people, and working hard every day.  It’s about maintaining a clear and simple path while juggling all the other mind boggles that life throws at you.  But if you are determined and guided, anything you truly want can be achieved.