1. I Tackle the Water Project and It Squirts Out of My Grasp
So here I am, a middle-aged English professor, trying to write a book about water. It makes sense in a way – I teach non-fiction writing – and in a way it doesn’t, but it’s too late now to change my mind. I proposed this as my sabbatical project and now I’ve got to at least try to do it.
Right now I’m in Prince Edward Island, Canada, which everyone refers to as P.E.I. The locals, whose names are all Scottish or Irish or French (unlike mine which is Chinese), think my last name must be a joke because surely nobody’s name could be the same as the name of the island. And I don’t look all that Chinese, because I’m only half, the other half being white. If I looked totally Chinese would they react differently? I don’t know. I go into the liquor store, the cashier sees my credit card and gives me a certain look that I recognize after fifteen summers of going there. “That’s my name, really, it’s not a joke,” I say. “Do you live here?” she says, incredulous. “Only in the summers. I have a cottage here.” I try to give it the island pronunciation: “cotteej.” She gets a good laugh out of my name – or is it my pronunciation? I want islanders to not think of me as an obnoxious American, those two attributes being nearly synonymous. She tells the guy behind me in line, “This guy’s last name is spelled P-E-I!” He thinks it’s pretty funny too. “How do you get your mail?” she says. “Don’t they get mixed up? Does it actually get there?”
My writing life up till now has mostly been about writing novels and not getting them published. I’ve written seven novels, not counting a couple of duds, but only the first one got published. The fact that I wrote the other six, despite chronic failure to get them in print, says I must really like writing these things. They’re all about Love and Loss, or so I tell people for a short answer, but they aren’t all the same book. The long answer goes more like: love, sex, growing up, courtship, marriage, family, divorce, aging, loss, death. In other words, the usual subjects. Like all writers, I mine my obsessions, and by definition obsessions don’t change; their manifestation does, from book to book. The goal really is to let them transform into such different guises that even I don’t know, at first, that the story I’m writing is in some deep sense the one I’m always writing.
Or anyhow that’s how I hope it works. Of course, the only plot I know is boy falls in love with girl and boy loses girl. Then maybe boy gets a second chance with girl – I know this isn’t how life really works, but I’m a sucker for my own stories and I always fall for my characters, especially the ones that are really annoying to the reader. My favorite variation: girl is the protagonist, instead of boy, which is the case in the one book that did get published (Family Resemblances). It fits with where I happen (by sheer luck) to teach, at Simmons College in Boston, where all the undergrads are women. I don’t have a daughter of my own, and I always wanted one, so this goes part of the way toward solving my lack-of-daughter problem. Other variation: one of the two has an affair with someone, which maybe causes boy losing girl, or vice versa. Only the basic plot of Western fiction for the last hundred and fifty years, going back to Chekhov, as I often tell my students. Variation three, I get avant-garde and the character lives two lives in parallel instead of just one, or tries to. This is really just the adultery story with a parallel world as frosting. Then there’s what I call the prophetic strain, which I’ve learned I should not indulge in. Sometimes I try to write about the spirit world, shamanism, life after death, a future after civ. as we know it collapses and so on, but I’ve learned that this comes with considerable risk that the reader will think “This is the silliest damn thing I’ve ever read.” Or that I might think this myself when I read it over a few months later, just before I delete it from my manuscript. The fact is, I spend a fair amount of my time writing a story about whether or not my characters will get in bed with someone and with whom and if they do, will they feel good about it or not, and will love change their life and solve their various middle-class problems. I’m not saying I’m the only person who writes this or even that there’s anything wrong with it; people read this story a lot. For some reason, though, that I’ve never figured out, even though people like to read this, publishers don’t seem to want to publish my version of it.
Nevertheless, I’ve been subsidized my whole writing life by various colleges and universities, who have paid me to teach writing even though no one wants to pay me to do writing. Some way or other, I’ve made it to full professor on the strength of my mighty pile of unpublished manuscripts – okay, I have published some stories and some articles, I even got into Best American Short Stories once, and there was that novel, yes, I have some leg to stand on, but I also have been lucky. They even go so far as to give me sabbaticals. For the current one, I proposed this worthy-sounding Big Idea that I’m going to write this new book which is not, for once, a never-to-be-published novel about Love and Loss, but about getting something to drink – not what’s at the liquor store, that would be too interesting – but about the boring stuff that liquor is better than: water.
Why the hell, you might wonder, am I trying to write about water?
It’s probably because I went to grad school in California, in Palo Alto, and saw this thing up in the hills called the Pulgas Water Temple, a junior Pantheon they put up at the place where the water pours out of the end of the aqueduct and into the reservoir. That penetrated my Midwestern brain: water matters this much out here. Also, I got this now not-so-inspired idea because I taught in San Diego for four years, where in my very first job I was the totally unqualified director of a writing program at UCSD. That got me used to taking on stuff I had no business doing, but still, I’ve outdone myself with this water project. In San Diego it hit me that I and a million other people were living in a desert where maybe three thousand could live if there weren’t water piped in from elsewhere, and that seemed like a pretty precarious way of arranging things. Ever since the whole terrorism thing really went over the top, I’ve had this fantasy: terrorists bomb the aqueducts supplying Southern California. Then what? I can only come up with one possibility: everyone gets in their car and starts driving. If you turned off the spigot, what could people do but evacuate? All right, they’d drink the swimming pool first, while they were packing the car. Then they’d split. But where the hell would they go? I don’t have the answer to any of this.
Sitting in my writing shed in P.E.I., I think Wot the fock did I get myself into, saying I was going to write about water? It’s like one of my favorite stories told by my late favorite colleague, Charlie L’Homme. One day a student – a boy, this is at some other college – comes to Charlie to have a conference about his next Freshman English essay and says to him, “Mr. L’Homme, I’m going to write on the police.”
“Hm. The police,” Charlie says. Long pause, Charlie makes a subtly but hilariously skeptical face, which you know the kid didn’t pick up on. Charlie could have been a character actor if he hadn’t been a prof. “What about the police?” he says.
This hasn’t crossed the student’s mind. The kid is stumped, he goes away, no word from him for several days. Then he comes to Charlie’s office, very excited, and announces, “Mr. L’Homme, I’ve got it! I’m going to write on the moon!”
Charlie: “Mr. So-and-So, be my guest.” And now I find out I’m just about exactly as smart as that student of Charlie’s. Basically, I went to the Dean’s office and announced “I’m going to write about water!” But the college, not being as smart as Charlie, didn’t ask the follow-up question. Now I’m stuck with my own incredibly vague assignment and though I definitely know how to put words onto paper, this is just as bad as writing on the moon. And here I am supposedly a writing teacher, who knows how to give a writing assignment. Why did they give me a sabbatical? I’m surprised they didn’t offer me early retirement.
But they didn’t, not yet anyway, and it’s too late to take the sabbatical back. I sit in my writing-shed-workshop and don’t have Clue the First about what to do. There is my research subject, as the Dean once pointed out to me, sitting in a bottle right next to me – water – and all I can think of to do with it is drink it and later, pee behind my shed, amid the spruce trees. It’s quicker than going back to the house, and why put pee through the septic system when peeing straight onto the spruce-needle-covered former anthill behind my shed seems to work just fine? It doesn’t smell, so far as I can tell. Yet. This of course, like everything, is a water-related subject (why do people excrete into the water supply?) but it’s precisely the kind of thing I’m not going to write about. I’m not a civil engineer, for Christ’s sake. I went to a Harvard School of Public Health conference about water and heard the most astounding presentation about outhouses, well, composting toilets. Like how you should divert urine, which is an excellent fertilizer, much better fertilizer than our more solid output, into a “soakaway pit” – I always think the words “soakaway pit” when I pee on the ex-anthill – and some guy got up and said, “I’ve spent a lot of time working on composting toilets and I’ve always found that the ideal pH is pretty low, but you’re talking about over 10, could you comment on that?” “Well,” the presenter says, “what I’m talking about is not strictly speaking a composting toilet, it’s more of a . . .” I raised my eyes imploringly to the heavens, or the ceiling of the lecture hall. I’m an English professor! A novelist! I’m not going to write about the pH of the pile of crap under a Guatemalan outhouse!
What to do, what to do. I sit and contemplate the shed, my favorite spot on earth. It was built by Bob MacDonald [note Irish/Scottish island name], who lives down the road and can do anything involving wood, electrical wiring, plumbing, electronics, or internal combustion. Before he “retired,” so called, he was the head of maintenance for Canadian Broadcasting Co. on P.E.I.; now he keeps about thirty houses in the immediate vicinity running. At one point, I had this summer fantasy that I would apprentice myself to Bob and then eventually become Mr. Indispensable, probably giving myself way too much credit, but of course I didn’t, and I’m not. The shed has no interior walls, so you can see the boards and 2×4’s it’s made of, the whole gorgeous construction of it is out in the open. I especially appreciate the workmanship because I helped Bob build another shed like my own. I’m not a total wannabe. It’s unusually hot for the island. I pour more from my water jar into my Irving gas station coffee cup and think to myself I’d be better off following Bob around doing household maintenance projects than trying to write this impossible book.
Sitting behind me on the shed floor are two boxes of books I brought up from Cambridge (I fit the professor mold so well I live in Cambridge and drive a Volvo) and distinctly don’t want to read. There’s one I’m halfway through and don’t want to finish, called Water: the fate of our most precious resource, by one Marq de Villiers, another admirable Canadian like Bob. This book seems to stand for everything I can’t do. Number one, this guy de Villiers knows 800 times more than I ever will about the subject, and number two, his book has already been written. So right there, what’s the point? And number three, I don’t want to finish the book because it’s too depressing. When I read about how the Aral Sea, which used to be the fourth largest lake in the goddamn world, has dried up and nearly all that’s left is salt and sand, the remains of ships’ hulls, dead cattle, and toxic dust that causes cancer and liver disease, I think no way, I can’t write about stuff like this. I can’t even think about it for very long. But it doesn’t stop there. Dams create disastrous problems downstream. Irrigation increases the salinity of agricultural land to the point where it can’t grow crops. People are depleting underground aquifers all over the world, knowing the groundwater will run out one day, having no idea what Plan B is but keeping on with “water mining” anyway. Overstressed freshwater aquifers near the seashore are being infiltrated by seawater, ruining them forever as sources of drinking water. Mexico City has settled three or four meters because so much water has been pumped out of the ground under it. And that’s, like, only half the book. It’s got a blurb on the front from the Washington Post : “De Villiers successfully portrays the water crisis as one of the central challenges facing civilization in the new century.” Truth in advertising. He does, all right. But who can face it? Once you find out how we’re totally screwed because there are just too many of us, and all these irreversible bad decisions are being made and billions of people are probably going to suffer and die because of all the stupid things the human race has already done and is doing right now . . . like, why finish the book? And definitely, why rewrite the book, of all things? As the man said, liquor is quicker.
I’m actually starting to feel a little bit guilty about this. I’m a pretty damn good teacher, according to my evaluations (I ought to be, after thirty-plus years of it, they must be paying me for something), and I could probably do somebody some good in the classroom during the coming school year. Instead it looks like I’m going to read a boxful of depressing books like this de Villiers thing, and then what? Even if I did write another book about “the central challenge facing civilization,” or “a wake-up call for concerned citizens” as it says on the back cover, courtesy of Publishers Weekly – so what? Reams of said wake-up call have already been written. Exactly how much effect has it had? Does anybody ever mention this water crisis to me? No. I always bring it up first and most people say “Who knew?” So if all the books like this that are already on the shelves haven’t made a dent, how the hell am I going to? Besides which, as noted, the Prophetic Pei who writes about the collapse of Western Civ. already has a track record, which is: don’t go there.
Despite my wisecracks, I believe that as an artist I’m the real thing. I’m a writer, but not a professional writer; my profession, my career is teaching. I have no leverage in the publishing world, no talent for getting editors to believe that a book of mine will sell. So I’m in no position to publish wake-up calls to my fellow citizens and try to change the course of history. Or of water. If there’s anything I’ve figured out, it’s that water doesn’t like to let people dictate its course. In the end, it goes the way it wants, not the way anyone tells it to. And I’m beginning to think, sitting in my shed, that this project is turning out exactly the same.