The Mickey Rourke Saga

Available from Dzanc Books in summer 2012

The Mickey Rourke Saga

 by Jennifer Spiegel

For Ian Jackman


This is all true, though it happened over a decade ago, a couple years after Nine Inch Nails came out with Pretty Hate Machine.  I was thinking, “Yes, I am a pretty hate machine.”  Whatever that meant.  It sounded fierce, ironic, like a bittersweet love-struck college-girl in the late eighties and early nineties.  I was coloring my hair back then:  jet black, almost blue.  I had an aesthetic, a code; it involved self-destruction and a sad kind of exotic, erotic, and alienated beauty.  Though I was unhappy all the time, life seemed heightened.  It was like I was on drugs, but I wasn’t.

This story begins in a Buick.

We’re not talking about a cool car.  Rather, it’s an inherited one.  The music makes the vehicle throb.  It crawls all over you like a violation, like it’s raping you.  I’m with a guy people call JestJest rhymes with blessed, with rest, with test.   Jest is nineteen, one year older than I.  He’s prematurely balding, so he’s got thin wisps of blonde hair over a skull of baby soft skin.  I’ve never touched his head, nor do I really want to, but that’s how I imagine it:  soft.  He has an aesthetic, as well.  Despite the fact we live in the desert, he never wears shorts.  This is weird because college students in Tucson, Arizona practically live in boxers and tees.  Pants are hated.  Everywhere Jest goes, he wears dress pants and dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up.  His hands are always in his pockets too—not in some perv way, but rather like a suave undercover spy or a slick millionaire.  He loves Sade because she’s so damn sensual and otherworldly; he keeps his dorm room lights off with candles burning.  He cooks his own meals in the dorm kitchen; he runs a full bar from under his sink.  Plus, he whispers.  His whispering makes me think he knows something I don’t, like maybe he’s in touch with God.

So, I’m with Jest in a Buick and the music is positively earsplitting.  This is all part of Operation Get Mickey.

Mickey Rourke, that is.

From my dorm room, I got a phone call about an hour ago, around nine p.m. on this November night in Tucson.  “Mickey’s downtown,” Jest whispered.  “They’re shooting a scene.  Get ready.  I’m picking you up.”

Jest understands desperation.  In a nutshell, this is his story:

Jest’s brother committed suicide when Jest was thirteen.  He discovered the body in the bathtub when he came home from school.  Wandering from the kitchen towards the back of the house and carrying one of those orange juice Popsicles that kids make with toothpicks and ice trays, he called out the names of his brother, his mother, his sister.  At the bathroom door, he stopped, noticing it was half-open, noticing the light was on.  He stood there, licking his orange juice Popsicle.  He knocked, calling out, “Phil?  You in there?  Phil?”  Pushing the door open, he discovered the body.

There were several long minutes of mad struggle as Jest tried to pull the lifeless body from the room temperature, blood-red water.  The dead body fell through his arms like a slippery fish, slapping the surface of the water and, Jest, a boy, clasped onto limbs, pulled on torso, and screamed out.  The anguish and the wetness and the heaviness and the horribleness overwhelmed him so thoroughly that he sunk to the side of the tub, his own clothes wet and pink, his own limbs gently skimming the surface of deceptively calm waters.  As the struggle to alter the past subsided, Jest’s fight gave way to weeping; he knew that this quieter, more thoughtful, sobbing would make an indelible mark on his person.

The streets are closed; police patrol.  We park near the courthouse.  Bright lights, cameras, crewmembers, and Don Johnson claim an entire intersection.  While we’re staking out the shoot, Mickey Rourke arrives on a Harley.

I gasp.  He looks like—like I don’t know what.  A biker.  A bad boy.  A problem child.  He’s dressed in leather; he’s got multiple earrings.  I see stubble.  I can’t keep my eyes off his jawbone, his minute waist.  My God, I think.  He looks like scum and I‘m deathly attracted to him.

Jest doesn’t turn to me while he talks, nor does he seem to move his lips.  It’s as if he were some kind of ventriloquist.  Film people do film things.  It’s all a great mystery to us.  Jest, staring ahead with his hands in his pockets, whispers, “Do it.”

I take a deep breath.  I’m wearing my special Operation Get Mickey outfit:  denim short shorts, a tight black top which creates the illusion of cleavage, and the leather jacket I’ve owned since high school.  Staring at Mickey and speaking a good octave lower than my normal voice, I croon, “I’m going to seduce him.  I’m going to make him beg, and then I’m going to tell him no.  That, Jest, is all.”  I squint my glam rock eyes in his direction.

“Okay,” he spins towards me, slowly.  “Go.”

Ten-fifteen at night.  The intersection is cluttered with equipment.  Spotlights crisscross the pavement.  I shadow Mickey, walking with him, preparing to approach, wondering if anyone will stop me.  He smirks.  He smokes.  He leans against things.  He poses, swaggers, wears his leather pants in a serious way.

I step forward.  Mickey lights up a cigg and turns in my direction.  I let my jacket fall open.  I summon all the magic an eighteen-year old girl possesses on a good day.  He takes a long, unhealthy, sexually-charged drag of his cigarette.  He casts it to the ground while holding his breath, and shifts his eyes to roll over the sideline crowd.  He glances my way.  He moves on to other spectators.  And then, then—as fate would have it—he returns to me, the way eyes naturally return to disaster.  He sees ruin, and I have him.  For a moment, it’s power, the kind of power I associate with Mickey Rourke:  it’s crushing.  We look at one another through scars, mascara tracks, red puckered lips, and filmic props.  Electric lights drown out stars.  We absorb each other on this street corner in a desert college town over a decade ago when I was capable of romantic, whimsical feats.  This is a possession, an out-of-body experience.  It’s mine.

Mickey Rourke and I have rock-your-world eye contact.  Mickey Rourke stares at me.

He walks forward and, even though I’m scared to death, I walk forward too.  No one stops me.  No one gets in my way.  Film crew, security guards, gaffers and best boys—these people are supposed to hold me back.  I arrive and I don’t know what to do.  I walk this distance between us, this blocked-off road.  I bury my hands in leather jacket pockets, finding and clutching a wadded-up napkin from Domino’s Pizza in the left.  I walk deliberately, strongly, confidently like this is a Milan fashion show.  Right in front of me, like a divinely rejected angel, Mickey Rourke stands, anticipating my very presence.

His raw sexuality is somewhat disarming, and I work to pull myself together.  I don’t know what to say, how to act.   I’m an honors student; I’m dark, sardonic, witty, a staff reporter for the school paper—Arts and Culture, my beat.  Okay, I’ll interview him—I’ll interview Mickey Rourke for the Arizona Daily WildcatOperation Get Mickey?  Oh, that’s still on, of course, but I have to talk to him first, find out what’s going on with that Nine and a Half Weeks shit.  Ask him if he’s psychotic or if it’s just a facade.

Let’s be very honest about all this playacting:  I’m a coward and I have no real way of approaching this man.

“Mr. Rourke,” I say, all breathy and sexy.  “You’re in town till December?”

He pretends to try to remember.  As if one could forget how long one’s supposed to be in Tucson.

To myself, I calculate our age difference.  “I’m a reporter,” I blurt out.

Bad move:  a sudden flash of disinterest spreads across Mickey Rourke’s face.  He seems to have met a few of these before.  I’ve blown it.  My God, I’ve blown my chance to have Mickey Rourke undress me so that I can say no to him!  Oh, if only I had said something else.  I’m a gymnast, a body double, a jazz singer, a voodoo princess.  I dance on tables.  I’m a good-time girl.  I play craps, poker, the xylophone.  But no.  “I’m a reporter.”

Mickey doesn’t let me get any further. “If I have time.”  He turns to a large, effeminate, flamboyant man standing next to him, saying, “This is the person you should talk to.  She’ll take care of you.”

She’s a he.  Well over six feet tall with a clean-shaven face and jowl-like cheeks, he’s a Christmas tree in a green sweater and white pants, a red scarf thrown dramatically around his neck.  He looks at me with big I’m your girl eyes.

I have that hideous, you’re-a-loser feeling.  “Hi.”

“Hi, Hon.”  He flips over a Kleenex box.  “Let me get your phone number.”  One uses Kleenex to blow one’s nose.  We complete the transaction.

Oh, but I’m not done.  Mickey stands nearby.  He speaks to someone with a clipboard.  Gently, like adults I’ve seen often do, I reach out and touch his shoulder.  With my eyes a-glow, I say, “It was a pleasure watching you.”

“Thanks.”  Mickey smiles at me.

It was a pleasure watching you???

I turn around and join Jest who’s waiting for me behind the sawhorses used for crowd-control.

Operation Get Mickey has its roots.

There’s this guy; let’s call him Keifer—or how about Trey?  A brooding megalomaniac type, he thoroughly convinced me upon arrival my freshman year (I’m a young sophomore) that he’s brilliant, he’s sexy, he’s capable of penetrating the heart of many of the world’s great mysteries, and he understands me like no other man ever has or ever will.

To prepare for essay exams, he’d write essays and memorize them word for word.  This impressed the hell out of me.  They were on things like Chinese history and the Russian humanities.

On a dare, he walked naked to the showers for a month in our co-ed dorm, using shampoo bottles as post-Edenic fig leaves.  Girls would sit and watch.  I did too.

He was into the problem of evil, the end of the Cold War, and the selling out of U2.  This struck me as especially profound.

He’d kiss my lips and it was like he was reading my palm.  Those are kisses you don’t forget.

Trey was a good reason to stay in school.  In short, I believed in this guy.

In 1986, before our history began, he saw Nine and a Half Weeks.  This was when Trey had longish hair and occasionally wore eyeliner.  “Mickey’s a god,” he declared decisively from then on.

I never even saw the movie—I wasn’t allowed to.

Trey fixed this—we rented it at Blockbuster and watched it on a Friday night in the spaghetti sauce-scented dorm TV room.  As we watched, Trey leaned forward the whole time, glued to the screen, whispering the score in my ear.  He talked me through it, explaining things, laying the groundwork for our own future devastation.  “Listen to what Mickey says,” Trey instructed, “and how he says it.”  Trey got excited as if we were at a football game.  “Watch his body language, note where he puts his hands.”  Mickey, looking trampled upon but lovely, became a sick model for Trey, who was—after all—just a smart boy with a good CD collection.

Trey did weird Mickey Rourke things.  He never tied me up; he never made me crawl.  He posed dramatically in dark places on campus—I distinctly remember watching him smoke outside the dorm at midnight, leaning over the rusty green rail, looking very lonely despite the fact I waited inside to take him into my arms and weave him into my being till our organs and sinews were indistinguishable.  I remember this.

Once, in my room, we made out/kissed apocalyptically/locked lips/mashed, and it involved food—just like Mickey and Kim Basinger did in the movie.  It wasn’t very sexy, though, because I only had a six-pack of Diet Coke and a bottle of papaya juice in my knee-high fridge.  We dumped soda and juice all over each other and kissed like we were in a Manhattan skyscraper and we were absolutely desperate for one another.  Unfortunately, he had just eaten a hot dog, and I could taste it on the roof of his mouth.  For months afterwards, I had ants.

Besides that, he regularly said enigmatic things that sounded slightly warped and twisted.  At night, he’d speak softly.  “I love you, but I know if I showed you the extent of my love, you’d run like hell.”

This would cause me to respond in kind with similarly enigmatic things that also sounded slightly warped and twisted.  Before slipping into my room for the night where a retainer for the teeth awaited, I’d whisper back, “Show me.  See if I run.”

Well, it ended rather badly after eight months of unbeatable melodrama.  I mean, who can maintain clever conversation for that long?  Who can be sexy every minute of every day?  We had homework to do, classes to take, college philanthropies and fun-runs in which to participate.  Much of our disintegration had to do with the inability to reconcile our creepy charade with rituals ranging from taking prerequisites to watching re-runs of “Cheers.”  When all was said and done, the Mickey Rourke routine proved to be rather, well, insubstantial.

Rourke was the other woman.

Had Trey and I bonded without eccentricity and false pretense, had we eaten pizza and frozen yogurt, had we held hands in movie theaters and played miniature golf, we may’ve been happy.  I’ll never know.  Certain trappings got in the way.

But I do know this:  a capricious rejection of Mickey Rourke will be a small victory for true love.  If I do it quickly and suddenly, like murder, its symbolic value will resonate over the course of my entire life.  I’ll be conquering flimsy erotic nonsense; then I’ll get on with things.  I’ll get on with love.

When Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson come to town to make their movie, it’s a god-sent.  And I believe in God.

Things happen at night.  For two weeks, Jest and I are nocturnal.  I had no clue Tucson is so active after dark.  Mickey doesn’t call, so Jest and I try to keep track of the film.  This nighttime world is like Blade Runner, like a John Sayles’ film, like a Lou Reed song.  We go downtown where tiny little cafes stay open till four a.m.  We hit empty bars where lone figures drink dry martinis.  We go to diners, the bus station, Hotel Congress, Café Quebec.  I drink Mexican coffee and wait for Mickey to show up.  I walk over railroad tracks to Dunkin’ Donuts where Jest buys me powdered sugar munchkins.

He says, “We’ll find him.  Tomorrow.”

My elbows propped on the Dunkin’ Donuts’ counter and my lips dusted in white, I say, “What makes you think so?”

Jest, whispering, only mumbles one word.  “Fate.”

Of course I believe him.

Jest finds out they’re shooting at the Tucson Convention Center.  Arriving around nine at night, we park in back.  Two trailers parallel a huge stage door.  One is for Don Johnson, the other for Mickey Rourke.

I’ve changed outfits.  This time I wear a dress.  Also made of denim:  acid-washed, backless, a dog-collar neck.

Jest is quiet.  Sitting in the front seat with the lights from the Convention Center bouncing off the Buick’s windshield, we stare at the trailers.

“I’m going in,” I say.

Jest puts his hands on the steering wheel, peering out.  “Show some leg.”

I open the car door and put a foot on the ground.  “Thanks.  I will.”

It’s important to know that, in all this, I never have a plan.  I walk to the trailer.  Its door is open, and chatter emanates from within.  Rourke’s name is written on the side.  I slowly climb the four steps to the entrance.

Sucking sharp air into my nostrils, I reach my fist inside and knock.

Scampering, shuffling, and arranging sounds emerge.  A voice says, “Come in.”

So I go.

I walk into Mickey Rourke’s trailer, ready to interview, seduce, and reject.  Billy Squier sings in my head.  I can do this; I can carry this off.

I head inside the trailer.  The Christmas Tree with the Kleenex box meets me before I get very far.  Over his shoulder, I see Mickey drinking Evian with a white towel hanging around his neck.  “Oh no you don’t,” Christmas Tree says.

“I thought I heard someone say, ‘Come in.’”  My eyes plead; my shoulders sink.

He looks at me with pity.  “You did.  Sorry, our mistake.”

I gulp and try to make it look coy.  “I just wanted to talk to Mr. Rourke.”

He checks me out.  I feel undone, see-through.  “Aren’t you the reporter?”

“Yeah?”  That haunting statement of truth.

He/she shakes his/her head.  “Hon,” he pauses.  “We’ll call you.  Okay?”

I back up.  I step onto the stairs.  “I’m sorry.  Really.  I’m sorry.”

And that’s that.

Rejected by a sex symbol, I return to Jest in the Buick.  The whole thing took five minutes max.  Jest puts his hand on mine.  We sit like that for ten minutes.

Jest breaks the silence.  “I need to do something.  When I leave, I want you to slide over and start the ignition, okay?”

I’m a little emotional, having been discarded by Mickey Rourke on top of the travesty that is my life.  “Fine,” I say.  Not only has Trey forsaken me, but so has Mickey Rourke.

Jest gets out; I slide over.  When the motor’s running, I lower the windows and blast the radio.  I flip through stations, vacillating between Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Modern English.

I figure Jest is getting me an autograph.  I figure we’ll have to settle for our range of possibilities.  I guess we’ll have to get real.

I sing “Come On, Eileen” at the top of my lungs, accepting harsh reality.  I hit the steering wheel and shake my fake black hair all over the place.

Then I see him.

Jest, running like he’s in Chariots of Fire, like he’s Indiana Jones and there’s a boulder chasing him, like he’s trying to outrun a raging Dorothy-in-Kansas tornado, dashes for the car.  I swear to God, the guy, dress pants and all, can really run.  I watch him, not completely grasping the situation.  He opens the car door, hops in, slams it, breathes heavily, and gasps, “Drive!”

A two-second delay ensues.  My mind isn’t digesting the events.  Something is in his arms.  Jest shouts, “Drive!”

I shift the car and do just that.  Though I have to slowly brake over a few Convention Center speed bumps, I race away.  Jest has, in his hands, a leather bomber jacket.  I look at Jest; I look at the road; I look at the jacket.  “What’s going on?”

Jest breathes heavily.  “I got you something.”

Again, I look at Jest, at the road, at the jacket.  “What do you mean?”

“I got you this, so you’re not empty-handed.”

It takes a minute; I’m extraordinarily dense.  “You stole that?” I furrow my brow.  “You stole that jacket?”  I was once a girl scout; I went to private Christian schools.

He holds it up.  “It’s Mickey’s Harley Davidson jacket in the movie.”  I look at it out of the corner of my eyes.  First of all, it smells like leather, like warm bovine.  I can almost taste the open highway in my mouth.  Second, it’s got presence.  It’s beaten-up black and orange in color.  The words Harley Davidson are written on the front, on the sleeve, and sprawled across the back.  A deck of cards revealing a full house fans out over the right breast.  Under the full house, a skull with R.I.P. and the word Evolution are written.  A pack of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter are in its pockets.  I feel like I’m Dennis Hopper and I’m riding a motorcycle to Venice Beach.

“You stole a prop?”  I’m utterly confused.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind,” he nods.

I look in the rearview mirror.  No one’s behind us.  I gave Mickey my phone number.  I am suspect number one.  Pulling into a university parking lot, I tremble.

With lowered heads, we walk past the front desk to my dorm room.  Jest carries Mickey’s jacket.  Inside, he sits on my pink bedspread.  James Dean, Depeche Mode, and Gunther Gable Williams from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus look down on us from their smug places on my wall.

I cross my arms over my chest and pace.  I’ve got stolen merchandise in my room and I left my phone number with the victim.  “I’m calling my dad.”

My father picks up after three rings.  I tell him what happened.

“You’re an accomplice,” he declares, sternly.  “Probably to a felony.”  His volume rises.  “Where’s the damn jacket right now?”  He’s really angry.  “Where’d you put it?”

“It’s here.”  I whimper.  I’m near tears.  “In my room.”

“And you gave that joker your phone number?” he shouts into the phone.

“Yeah,” I admit.

“I don’t believe you—I don’t believe you did this.  And that ‘Jest’ character—doesn’t that idiot have a real name?  You give him the jacket.  You make him take it.  You tell him to return it.  Tell him to go back and return what he stole.  Do you understand?  I don’t want you keeping stolen property in your room.  Do you understand me?”

I sniffle.  “Yeah.”

When I get off the phone, I push Mickey Rourke’s Harley Davidson jacket into Jest’s arms.  I tell him I can’t keep it.  I tell him I can’t keep stolen property.

Later, he lets me know how it was, how the film medic took it back unknowingly, how Jest made it look like an oversight, something missed in the scuffle.

Two years pass.

Trey lives off-campus.  We rarely see each other, but I think of him often.

I don’t like to hang out with Jest anymore because he scares me, but occasionally we’ll have Mickey Rourke Film Festivals in my room.  We’ll rent Wild Orchid and Desperate Hours, I’ll make microwave popcorn, and Jest will sneak in beer.  We’re serious critics of Mickey’s performances; we understand method acting and Mickey’s many, many moods.

Right before graduation, Jest takes me to Mina’s Red Pepper Kitchen for lemongrass chicken and Pad Thai.

“I have something for you back at my apartment,” Jest whispers over coconut-scented drops of soup.  Jest, too, has left the dorm; we are separated, all of us.

“What?”  I ask, picturing his apartment.  He has silly black sheets he stole from Sears and a shrine to foreign-born women.

“It’s a surprise.”

“I hate surprises.”  My tone is dry and indifferent; by twenty, I’m morose and apathetic.

“You’ll like this one.”

I have grown to hate Jest.  That voice triggers something ruthless in me.  If there’s a reason for war, it’s that voice.  It makes me want to point my finger at him and assault him with enemy words.  When I hear him speak, I know magic is just a sleight of hand.

Back at his apartment, I sit on his bed, the one with the stolen sheets.  “Well?”

“Will you do something for me?” he asks.

“What?”  I jiggle my leg up and down.

“I want to blindfold you,” he whispers.

He’s serious.  He’s completely serious.

“Why?” I ask.

“It’ll add to the surprise.”

“Okay.”  I pause.  “Blindfold me.”   One wonders why I allow it.  Besides unrelenting curiosity, it’s part of being a girl:  at some point in your life, a man’s going to want to blindfold you and, rather than risk false accusations, you’ll let him do it.

“Stand up,” he demands.  It’s part of a plan he’s concocted in the wee hours of the night.  I can tell.  I see it in his face.

I stand up.

“Turn around.”  His tone hasn’t changed, but I sense strategy.

I turn around.  I hear him move behind me.  A tie swings in front of my face, bringing darkness, and he carefully arranges it over my eyes, smoothing the silk over the bridge of my nose.  He presses my eyelids lightly, making sure that my blindfold is comfortable.  “Is that too tight?”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“I want you to be comfortable.”

“I know you do, Jest.”

I hear sounds like jars opening and flames flickering.  Jest passes things under my nose.  “Smell this.”

“What is it?” I ask, hiding fear.

“Just smell it.”

I do.  Flowers not in season.

I hear the sizzle of a match and know he’s passing it by my face.  “Don’t move.”

“What are you doing, Jest?” I whisper.

He doesn’t answer me.

I feel a chill against my skin, metal on my arm.  He traces a cold wire along my shoulder.  “Raise your arms,” he says.

“Like this?”  I lift them above my head, the way kids do when they can’t stop coughing.

“No.  Straight out.”

“Like Jesus on the Cross?”


The cold wire moves over my wrist, past my elbow, across my shoulders, and down the other arm till it touches my fingertip and disappears.

“Do you know what that was?” he asks.



“I can’t.”


“A hanger,” I moan, feigning detachment.  My mind is reeling.

“You’re right.”  He presses leather against my skin.  “And this?”

“It’s leather,” I answer.

Jest drapes his surprise over my shoulders and I feel heavy leather cover me.

“You’re a madman, Jest.”

“Let me take off your blinders,” he declares.

Jest unties me in front of a mirror.  I’m wearing Mickey Rourke’s Harley Davidson jacket.  “Why did you do this?”  I address his image in the mirror.

“You can forget Mickey,” he says, standing behind me while we look at ourselves.  “But I want you to remember me.”

And this is our final hoax; this is how we say goodbye.  We use props and call it quits.

Over ten years have passed, and the Statute of Limitations has expired.  I keep the jacket in a closet, dragging it out sporadically at parties, bridal showers.  My dad likes to wear it for pictures.  He poses like he’s the Fonz.

Years ago, I went back to my natural hair color, a forgettable brown.  Divorced and childless, I’m still at a loss when it comes to the company of men.

Jest and I barely keep in touch, but I know he’s in the Peace Corps.  When he writes, he tells me about the llama jerky he makes in Bolivia while the people wait for revolution.  I’m not sure whether or not he continues to wear dress pants.  He’s still trying to save his brother’s life.

Trey is lost.  I don’t know what happened to him.

Three years ago, though, we met in a hotel room near LAX when our business meetings converged.  The room smelled like maple syrup and the carpet was a disturbing shade of gray.  We met and, this time, Mickey was neither here nor there.  We were alone.  Undressing one another and approaching each other’s naked bodies, we searched for that old passion, that melancholic obsession that used to make us feel so alive.  We stopped having sex right in the middle, because it seemed ridiculous, as if we were strangers and not strangers at the same time.  Instead of the excitement of unfamiliarity or the comfort of the beloved, we found only disgust and drudgery.  When we parted, we kissed like cousins.  I haven’t seen him since.

I rent Mickey Rourke films rather than seeing them in movie theaters, not wanting to pay for a ticket.  I can’t figure out that plastic surgery business either.  He’s like an old friend, like Jest—someone I care for but really don’t want to talk to.


This, too, is true:   Like Kim Basinger in the movie, I would crawl for love.  I would get down on my hands and knees and inch across hardwood floors.  I would suffer rug burn.  I would crawl and crawl.  I would crawl for miles.  I would humble myself and let any candle flame, any fire, graze my cheek, if love were truly at stake.


Jennifer Spiegel‘s stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nimrod, Harpur Palate, The Seattle Review, and others. The above story originally appeared in Nimrod and will be included in Spiegel’s forthcoming collection, The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc 2012).

Writers on the Writing Life: Steven Gillis

Cover of Steven Gillis's 2010 novel out from Black Lawrence Press

I miss teaching.  If I could find the time in my days, I would return in a heartbeat to Eastern Michigan University.  Not that this is possible with all the other irons my fire is heating, and with my wife’s threat to leave me if I take on one more freaking thing!  And true, too, even when I had my gig as a writing professor, I was operating outside the norm; able to pick the time I taught and the one class I would teach a semester to upper level writing students.  I didnt have to commit to a full-time course load, didnt have to participate in the administrative bullshit that can suck the soul right out of an already stressed writer working a heavy teaching schedule while trying to squeeze out time to actually do their own writing.

Most of my writer friends who have gigs as professors or lecturers at a University find the job has a combination of cool and cruel to it.  They enjoy being able to spend their working hours invested in the near and dear of literature and writing, but the grind of the long hours and trying to impart their knowledge to students who – most at least – wont ever demonstrate any appreciable skills as “real”  writers has an exhausting effect.  You can’t teach writing.  I have heard that phrase tossed about so many times that before I began to teach I almost believed it.    The fact of the matter is the claim simply isnt true.   You can teach writing.  You can’t give someone talent.  But you can teach someone the process of writing and improve what skills they have.  And isnt this what teaching is all about?  Not to make rock stars out of the tone deaf, but to share what you know and help those who sincerely want to improve.  The best experiences I had as a teacher were working with my less gifted students who nonetheless truly wanted to learn how to write.

As I have now been a writer going on – Christ – 40 years, I also found what I love most about teaching is the ability to explain the process and get students to understand there’s no such thing as a muse, what there is to writing is a blue collar roll up your sleeves and just do it attitude that Nike be damned existed well before the running shoe.
When I first started writing, I had the passion but was otherwise clueless about the process.  Leaving talent out of the equation for the moment, it is most often the lack of experience that undermines a well intended would-be writer.  When a young writer has a bad day, their immediate reaction is to question their abilities, to think they must suck and what the hell what the hell what the HELL!! It is only after staying the course as a writer that we begin to learn that the process doesn’t ever change, that having a rough day – or week or month – doesnt mean one cant write it means you are a writer experiencing the inescapable torture.   The only thing important is doing the work.  Daily.  Where I used to go crazy with insecurity, I am now totally calm about the process, know a rough day is still a productive day, that the key is just working the page.

This is what I tried to convey to my students, how writing is a freakin discipline, that you have to work hard.  There is never – and I mean never – a day when I finish writing that I am not completely physically and mentally exhausted.  If anyone has the misfortune of trying to deal with me in the hour after I finish my writing day, well lets just say its not pretty.  Writing is hard.  It takes a focus like none other.  You cant write if you are distracted, the application of one’s efforts have to be total. And you can’t write if you aren’t willing to commit.

An older and quite successful writer once told me it takes 10 years of writing shit before one even begins to know what they are doing.  Well, as much as I didnt want to believe this at the start of my career, I can surely attest to this now.  So, how to convey this to a classroom full of young and eager students who think they are top dog and ready to  publish.  What I did in my class, which cut against the grain and shocked the hell out my students each and every new semester, was to tell them instead of writing 5 stories during our term together, we were going to write one story each and rewrite it at least 5 times.
“WHAT?”  was the response.  “Rewrite?  What the hell is that?”  They all just wanted to crank and move on to something new.   I held my ground.  Class after class.  And class after class, always, within 3 weeks these students who had never rewritten a story before, had never put themselves back into a work, began to groove on the idea of actually reworking a story.  At the end of every semester, always, these initially dubious students thanked me for showing them what is the essence of all good writing – the rewrite.

That the art to writing is in the rewriting is, for me, a given – now.  Along with understanding the process of writing, these two rules are invaluable.  (The third rule would be to read read read and READ.  The fourth to drink, but I digress.)    Everything in life evolves and changes, requires a rewrite and a knowledge of what is going on.  Relationships change, how we keep our love life going.  I have been married 17 years and  the totality of my relationship with my wife has evolved in 1,000 different ways since we were 17 years younger.  What is the same about me is no doubt my extremes have become more understandable – at least to me if not my wife – my settling into the routine of what I need to achieve in my personal and professional life.  Everything is a process.    Everyday a writer must apply his/herself to the challenge and run the risk of writing shit, of exhausting one’s self physically and emotionally and intellectually.  The same as we do with any worthwhile relationship.  What is essential to whatever it is we want to do is hanging tough.  With writing – and in life – the process doesnt necessarily get easier but it becomes more readily understood the longer we stay the course. An old dog of a writer knows how to get through bad days, knows not to panic in the face of a rough stretch.  As said, in this way the experience one gathers as they commit to the process of writing is much the same as the process of maturing in our everyday life. Understand the effort, know not every day will be a success.  Be aware that not everything goes smoothly and most things require a rewrite.  This is what I’ve come to learn and is the best advise I can give.

Steven Gillis is the author of Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, Temporary People, and, most recently The Consequence of Skating (October 2010). His stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals, and his books have been finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University and founded 826michigan in 2003.  Steve is the co-founder of Dzanc Books along with Dan Wickett.  All proceeds from Steve’s writing go to help support Dzanc Books. Contact: