When I was eight years old, in 1928, an incredible event occurred on the back wall outside the Academy motion picture theater in Waukegan, Illinois. An advertising broadside, some thirty feet long and twenty feet high, dramatized Black-stone the Magician in half a dozen miraculous poses: sawing a lady in half; tied to an Arabian cannon that exploded, taking him with it; dancing a live handkerchief in midair; causing a birdcage with a live canary to vanish between his fingers; causing an elephant to. . . well, you get the idea. I must have stood there for hours, frozen with awe. I knew then that someday I must become a magician.
That’s what happened, didn’t it? I’m not a science fiction, fantasy, magic-realism writer of fairy tales and surrealist poems. Quicker Than the Eye may well be the best title I have ever conjured for a new collection. I pretend to do one thing, cause you to blink, and in the instant seize twenty bright silks out of a bottomless hat.
does he do that? may well be asked. I really can’t say. I don’t write these stories, they write me. Which causes me to live with a boundless enthusiasm for writing and life that some misinterpret as optimism.
Nonsense. I am merely a practitioner of optimal behavior, which means behave yourself; listen to your Muses, get your work done, and enjoy the sense that you just might live forever.
I don’t have to wait for inspiration. It jolts me every morning. Just before dawn, when I would prefer to sleep in, the damned stuff speaks between my ears with my Theater of Morning voices. Yes, yes, I know, that sounds awfully artsy, and no, no, I am not preaching some sort of Psychic Summons. The voices exist because I stashed them there every day for a lifetime by reading, writing, and living. They accumulated and began to speak soon after high school.
In other words, I do not greet each day with a glad cry but am forced out of bed by these whispering nags, drag myself to the typewriter, and am soon awake and alive as the notion/fancy/concept quits my ears, runs down my elbows and out my fingers. Two hours later, a new story is done that, all night, hid asleep behind my medulla oblongata.
That, don’t you agree, is not optimism. It’s behavior. Optimal.
I dare not oppose these morning voices. If I did, they would ransack my conscience all day. Besides, I am as out of control as a car off a cliff. What began as a numbed frenzy before breakfast, ends with elation at noon lunch.
How did I find these metaphors? Let me count the ways:
You discover your wife is pregnant with your first child soon to be born, so you name the embryonic presence “Sascha” and converse with this increasingly bright fetus that evolves into a story that you love but no one wants. So here it is.
You wonder whatever happened to Dorian Gray’s portrait. Your second thoughts grow to an outsize horror by nightfall. You upchuck this hairball into your typewriter.
Some of these stories “happened” to me. “Quicker Than the Eye” was part of a magic show I attended where, with dismay, I saw someone much like myself being made a fool of onstage.
“No News, or What Killed the Dog?” was a Victrola record I played all day every day when I was five, until the neighbors offered to break me or the record, choose.
“That Woman on the Lawn” was first a poem that then turned into a story about my mother as a young and needful woman; a topic we care to discuss only with euphemisms.
“Another Fine Mess” resulted from my writing “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair.