Writing on a park bench in Prague in 1996 every day for two months until I’d finished a novel that wouldn’t be published, looking up at the dog-walkers and pensioners and tourists and police officers and parents with strollers and street guitarists and gypsies and land speculators and cheesemongers, living off meager savings from a bunch of temp jobs, staying at a hostel that kicked everyone out between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., reading books that changed my 22-year-old life—Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable, Midnight’s Children, Oscar & Lucinda, London Fields, Humboldt’s Gift, Journey to the End of the Night—thinking about the women who slept in the bunk beds next to mine, going to the Hare Krishna-run Govinda’s for its mendicant-friendly and flavorful food, wandering through Wenceslas Square, wandering the surrounding hills, not buying a Kafka t-shirt, not knowing the American ex-pat community, figuring all writers at all times had been alone and in exile, sometimes sad, sometimes ecstatic, always convinced on shaky evidence that they were doing the right thing.
Writing another to-be-unpublished novel before and after my day job in San Francisco, knowing very few people who cared about literature, making plans, making excuses, thinking that life was elsewhere, drinking and not drinking, exercising and not exercising, maintaining relationships and not maintaining relationships, misremembering what I’d learned in college, wondering why people got married, wondering if I should keep writing by myself or join a community of writers for something like solidarity and support and the life-giving power of collective illusions, laid low by the literary rejections I kept soliciting, reading instructional books—Underworld, Middlemarch, Lolita—thinking about the women I saw on the bus and in bars and in parks, thinking harder that life was elsewhere.
In graduate school in the Midwest with deadlines, amazed at the signs of monoculture (blonde on blonde) and diversity (13 ways of solving the basic problems) everywhere, writing a book that became publishable, having doomed one-night-stands, having doomed relationships, having serious conversations that didn’t translate to the outside world, worried about the future and so wrapping it in a gauzy film of fulfillment and fantasy, dyeing my hair Vampire Red before it faded to a sunset pink (“You must be very comfortable with your masculinity,” someone said), taking acid that should have been ecstasy, envying and pitying outsider artists, envying and pitying everyone.
Publishing a book, but is that all there is?, publishing another book, but is that all there is?, chasing teaching jobs, catching teaching jobs, regretting teaching jobs, reading inspiring books—The Tale of Genji, In Search of Lost Time, Immortality—and distracting books—La Brava, Rum Punch—and books in the limelight that shouldn’t have been in the limelight—? and ? and ?—writing a novel that began at a sprint and ended at a crawl, writing short stories that would become a book, accepting that literature wouldn’t save the day or cast a shadow in a world where seriousness, translatable or not, had lost currency, which wasn’t an old age feeling creeping into middle age but an honest observation, just ask anyone, and “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” losing its wry paradoxical appeal and becoming a mantra, and wonder and the mundane having another kind of appeal, going to this festival and that festival because festivals were everywhere, and the world seemed more broken than ever, and people more broken than ever, and stories mattered more than ever, and every day in spite of the news (oh boy) you had to get up and get out of bed and drag a comb across your head (oh boy).
Click here to buy Josh Emmons's collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales.