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Reflections of a working writer, a university screenwriting professor, and the editor of Oregon Literary Review.

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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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The Writing Life...
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Wednesday, May 14, 2003  
Dinner Parties & Pig Roasts
[from a memoir in progress]
Soon I felt like I was living two lives. My comfortable life was hanging out with Tom, Bob and their friends, both black and white, partying and singing in an atmosphere almost international in its variety of people. But every few weeks I also was expected to accompany Dee to a party at her mother's, stuffy and ostentatious affairs that were so white and Republican that black help often was hired to deliver the drinks and hors d'oeuvres. I began to think of these affairs as "plantation parties." I hated them and sometimes got drunk enough to show it. On the worst occasion, or at least the one that upset my mother-in-law most, she caught me in the kitchen toasting Johnson with the black help in the middle of her fancy party for Goldwater supporters.

What worried me most was that Dee would turn into her mother. Life became more bearable once I got back into school, since now I had an excuse to excuse myself from her mother's parties by claiming I needed to stay home and study. On the other hand, the booze was plentiful and free at these affairs. Sometimes I went just to get snockered.

After we'd known the Andersons and Crows for about a year, we got invited to their periodic pig roast, still the most spectacular party I've ever attended. It wasn't the roasted pig, chicken and ribs, or the live jazz, or the freely flowing liquor that made this event so special but the warm ambiance created by so many people of so many backgrounds, all gathered in one place at the same time and getting along fabulously. The pig roast demonstrated the possibility of racial harmony in the land.

Soon enough Watts would challenge this assumption in Los Angeles, but at the time the dream felt real.

Remembering Baumholder, where the bars had become segregated of their own accord, as if by fiat from the people, it was extraordinary to be a part of such an atmosphere. I was so impressed that I wrote an early short story about the experience - and learned a lesson I've never forgotten in writing it.

The story is called Presenting the Annual Interracial Pig Roast. It appeared in the Spring, 1971, issue of Prism International and later was selected to the Roll of Honor in Best American Short Stories 1972. The story is about a young man who discovers his own in-bred, culturally taught racism while attending a pig roast very much like the one thrown by the Andersons and Crows.

The story moves between a pig roast and a black bar in Baumholder, Germany, where as a soldier the main character finds himself in a racial minority for the first time and feels fear from it. Here the action moves from the pig roast back in time to the bar by moving into italics, then back to the pig roast again:

There were tables near the bar and Roy headed that way, weaving his path slowly through the black crowd, he had never seen so many black men in one place at one time. The juke box was at full volume, Brownie McGhee wailing Walk On! as Sonny Terry echoed with harp. In front of the box a half-dozen black GIs, none in uniform, were dancing without partners, with themselves. The club was packed but Roy saw no other whites in the crowd, the German whores not counting, and this scared him. Crooks, on the other hand, was not bothered; he went ahead to the bar and when he found Roy hesitating near the entrance, Crooks called, Come on, man! Roy followed quickly then, a twitch of fear in his gut. He had heard the stories about knifings, knifings right here in Baumholder's own Bop City Club, about the continuous race war in which a black knife slipped without resistance into a white crowd. He progressed carefully and when he reached the back of the yard he spotted an empty stool at the end of the bar and went for it.

Tom and Bob were not literary people. When they read the story, they were shocked because they didn't believe I was a racist, and the story told them that I was. They also were shocked because I had used their real first names in the story (as well as Crooks', a mistake I never made again). In my naiveté, I thought I was honoring them. It took several months before they got over the story and gave me the benefit of the doubt.

But I learned how easily non-literary people can misunderstand literary fiction, seeing only surface meanings and missing the deeper truths conveyed by metaphor and subtext. At the time I think I hoped that becoming a writer in some way would bring me closer to my non-literary friends, that they would appreciate reading about experiences we shared and the interpretations I made of them.

After this experience, I stopped sharing my stories with those who did not read literary fiction on their own. I began to see writing as a more private, even secretive, act than I had first imagined it. But I also was challenged to write and tell stories in a way that they would work on both levels at once, providing a satisfying surface meaning that did not challenge or confuse the more complex levels of the story.

A literary work that accomplishes both at once is the play The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt. On the surface, the story is a murder mystery, a gripping whodunit about the mysterious killings of nurses in an insane asylum. But below this swiftly paced detective story is a serious and sober reflection about the moral responsibility of scientists in the modern world. Here was a model of what I wanted to accomplish as a writer, telling stories that worked on two levels at once, a gripping narrative on the surface, below it a reflection of serious material.

In Southern California, I had yet to learn my craft. In fact, I still hadn't made a commitment to writing seriously. At UCLA I took literature classes, not creative writing classes, and when I applied to graduate school, it was to Ph.D. programs. My senior year at college I decided to specialize in American Literature and perhaps write my thesis on Herman Melville, particularly on his novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, a book I thought was misunderstood and very under-appreciated.

My first choice for graduate school was the University of Oregon. My folks were living in Medford now, a half day's drive away, and Oregon was in the Pacific Northwest, in what Crooks called "God's country." I jumped the gun, telling the Andersons and Crows we were moving to Oregon even before I got accepted by the university. I couldn't get out of Southern California quickly enough, and the more distance between me and Dee's mother, the better. When I didn't hear about my application's status by the time I graduated from UCLA, I got nervous. Real nervous.

I must have been drunk when I sent off a telegram to the head of the English Department at the University of Oregon. Sober, I don't think I would have had the balls. I told him I had another offer for graduate school, which was a lie, but that his department was my first choice, which was true. I was in a quandary what to do. If he made an immediate decision about my application, it would help.

I received a telegram the next day, accepting me for graduate studies at the University of Oregon and offering me a Teaching Assistantship in the Department of English. God's country, here I come!

5/14/2003 06:41:00 AM | 0 comments

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