“Dylan: Don’t Look Back” by Robert Sullivan

DontLookBackI was jogging on a December evening in 2012, just trudging the neighborhood after a day’s work in the city, a short bit of exercise before pitching in with dinner and homework and the (sometimes) nice moments of bedtime with the kids. Entirely unusual. But this one night, I was late to return downstairs after showering. It wasn’t because I was willfully deferring all of the idyllic family stuff, or even delaying it. But I donned the bathrobe, returned to the desk here in the bedroom and started to type. I was entering into what I have since termed “a Dylan Thomas jag.”

I don’t know why Thomas and his prose-poem holiday classic, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, hit me so profoundly at that point in time—that point in life. I had been aware of Thomas—had been reading him and enjoying him—since college, which in 2012 meant, like, 40 years.

Perhaps it was my advancing age, or the ages of my advancing kids. But in the Christmas season of 2012, A Child’s Christmas in Wales spoke to me (and I mean, on a nightly basis) in ways it hadn’t before. Principally, I enjoyed the fun of it, not so much the sentimentality of it. I hadn’t noticed that aspect enough, thinking of Thomas as “a poet.” His idyllic memoir really is a slightly earlier Gaelic-accented  version of Jean Shepherd’s marvelous reminiscences, particularly the ones in Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: and Other Disasters, also those in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, that made up A Christmas Story—the classic movie, the fine Broadway musical, the cottage industry.

But anyway: I got on this Thomas jag. I would listen to the author’s sonorous, tremendous reading of A Child’s Christmas—that basso voice of his—every night on the iPod. Twenty-two-or-three minutes, as I remember, after which I could be back home in time for dinner . . . Except that, as I say, I would shower, and then write for a half hour. I was thinking: I should put something together for the kids’ footlocker, something they can look at forty years from now and know what their mom and dad’s Christmases had been like.

So I wrote, with Thomas ringing in my ears, and then went down to dinner—and the Disney Channel.

Three days into this project, I scrolled through what I had written and I realized it was . . . ahh, umm . . .  just awful. Truly terrible. Abysmal. Really, really bad. And I mean it.

I threw it away; I literally did. I sent it to Trash on the computer and filed the single printout and all handwritten notes in the oval aluminum can here by my desk, the one with the Boston Globe front page (headline, “Yes!!”) from October 28, 2004, the morning after the Red Sox had won the World Series, pasted on its side. Writers always say they have done such things: “I tossed it out!” But it’s truly hard to do them; we rarely really do. In this instance, I did, because I could. I had been writing, as the Beatles once observed, for no one. Zero obligation, so I could throw in the towel.

What was the problem with the piece?

At bottom, it was a pastiche. It was a close cousin to those college humor magazine pieces we used to do, imitating Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Eliot or Pound. I, in thrall to Thomas, had fallen into his rhythms, language, all that—and not being Thomas, my version stunk. I’ve been in this business long enough to know stink. I forsook the words, and the effort.

Then I jogged a couple more nights in the neighborhood, and, as Christmas was still a week off, I thought to myself: The original idea wasn’t necessarily unworthy. Give Mr. Thomas his due (which I certainly hope I do, not only in the title but the first and final paragraphs), but then just write the darned thing. Write it to your kids, about your own time. You’re not from Wales, for goodness sake. You don’t sound like Richard Burton—or, for that matter, Dylan Thomas.

So I gave that a try. Some in my family professed to like the results that Christmas season two years ago (but then, they’re paid to). The results circulated a bit further to friends in New England, and now with the blessings of Bunker Hill Publishing, there is a book. Wonderfully, for me, Carole and Ib at Bunker Hill have allowed me to team again with my friend the illustrator Glenn Wolff; I treasure our collaborations like no others.

It’s is, finally, the thing I had in mind for the kids. That others might now read it seems a little funny, but I do hope they enjoy it. It’s not Thomas; and I mean that sincerely: It’s not Thomas. I’ve already learned that if it were trying to be Thomas, it would be nothing at all.

The critic Harold Bloom delivered lectures and wrote a book about what he termed the Anxiety of Influence. It concerned poets, principally, who stood upon the shoulders of giants who had come before: the profit to be gained from what had previously been written, the pain attendant. He got into Freud and the Kaballah and all that, but anyway: Mine was the briefest and merest experience with the Anxiety of Influence. I survived it.

What I finally took from Thomas, and I acknowledge it readily, was a shared loved of a particular holiday and of family, a woodsmoke ambiance, a way in and a way out, an apparent affinity for firemen and episodes involving firemen (don’t know what that’s about) and one joke I couldn’t resist pilfering (it’s the Leonardo gag, and it’s all his).

Also: The instruction to just write what you remember, as you remember it in the voice you have heard in your head since you were a little kid, thinking over the day as you fell asleep. It’s a strategy that sets you free.

One thought on ““Dylan: Don’t Look Back” by Robert Sullivan

  1. Very nice website, Bob. I’m sure the new book is going to sell well. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, Dennis Wurst, Barnes & Noble.

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