Friday, October 9, 2015

Austin Bunn's "Plans for Work"

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Austin Bunn, author of The Brink (Harper Perennial), praises the method of a famous man.

When I was in college—and living in a two bedroom apartment with my two best friends, which meant I actually paid rent for (and slept in) the “landing” of the spiral staircase—I kept a Xeroxed sheet of paper above my desk. It was a list of potential projects the writer James Agee had made in his application for a Guggenheim grant, in 1937. He’d already spent months in Hale County Alabama, with the photographer Walker Evans, documenting the privation of sharecropping families for what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

This list is brilliant, under-baked, absurd—Agee didn’t get the grant—but the spirit of it, the range and curiosity and intention, was relentless. A story about homosexuality in football. A new type of sex book. A true account of a jazz band. An account and analysis of a cruise: "high"-class people. Conjectures of how to get "art" back on a plane of organic human necessity, parallel to religious art or the art of primitive hunters. (So many, in fact, came to be, though not by Agee.)
Father figure: James Agee

James Agee—journalist, novelist, film critic, spy—was a literary father figure for me, the kind who shows up at holidays, changes your life and then vanishes. He’d started out at magazines, Time and Fortune, and became proof that you could rescue yourself from sentence-manufacturing jobs at the glossies (where, after college, I supported myself as a “researcher/fact-checker/numbskull”). He ended up writing film reviews for The Nation, just like I dreamed of doing when my answer to adults about my professional ambitions was “cultural critic.” This torrent of his interests, so intimate, offered a model of just how far you could go or broadly you could see the world. (Though perhaps not a way of bagging a Guggenheim.)

So I copied it. And for years, I’ve kept running catalogues of “Plans for Work” in my journals, if only to remind me of where I’m at, what remains, but also where I thought I’d be going. I’ve never been a monomaniac about my work—I know certain writers counsel having one project to focus on and another project you cheat on that project with. I’ve always been more polyamorous, I suppose, and the “Plans for Work” lets you see your creative life from above, tunneling out before you, even if you never transit through.

Recently, exhuming boxes from my sister’s garage, where everything in our family seemingly ends up, I found one of my oldest journals from college, the one with near-translucent pages the thickness of moth wing, where I mused with mandatory calligraphy pens. Some elements have been lost to time —mercifully, “balloon story”?—but others staggered me, since apparently I’ve been thinking about these things for years and forgotten, only to have them resurface in my prose subconsciously. A story about a “molecule of heaven”—one I imagined somehow two decades ago—nears completion. A script about a natural element that achieves consciousness —a dream I had—still seems to me to be a fairly decent idea.

And finally, others remind me of just how far I’ve grown. At the top of the list, for years, was to be a soon-to-be-vastly-underrated play, entitled “my last ten days,” about a blocked, young, tortured artist who tells his friends and family he will be suiciding and then proceeds to turn every (final) interaction into his last works of art. I could see the final, climactic rip of canvas. I could hear the tears. What I know now is that I was not the playwright but protagonist, seeking so deeply the material of life, the depth of meaning death might bring. “Plans for Work” does this for us—it is less about the projects themselves, but the capture of what we are thinking about, what concerns us, how we can know ourselves better in the things we want but will never do.

I ended up driving down to Hale County, Alabama, to see what Agee saw, some fifty years later. At 22, I’d won a grant (thank you James!) to take photographs on my beloved, half-understood 2¼ format camera and promptly drove over the light meter my second day there. The photographs I took, and I was never very good, seem to be taken during an unceasing twilight: silvery waves of kudzu, a moonscape of corrugated tin. Finally, I met someone who knew someone who knew one of the daughters of the families Agee had lived with. She was dying of cancer in a hospital in Tuscaloosa. I went to meet her, perhaps to take her photograph, and she stared at me, confused and unblinking, her mouth gaping open while someone who knew someone tenderly patted her hair. I went back to my hotel room and knew “my last ten days” was a crock of shit. It stops appearing on my “Plans for Work.” I started a new journal down there. The first page, my Plans for Work, begins with Rilke: “there is no part that does not see you. You must change your life.”