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  Dan Barden: Obsession, the Purest Motivation

I started my novel about John Wayne during The Persian Gulf War. I wrote the first chapter out of the purest motivation a writer can have: obsession. I'd spent most of my life obsessed with John Wayne in one way or another--his movies, his face, the kind of car he drove, his relationship to my father, his friends, his opinions. At the time I started the book, I was particularly obsessed with The Searchers, a movie directed by John Ford, which I had always thought the most powerful picture I'd ever seen. When I finished the first chapter, which had a lot to do with my love for that movie, I was at an artist's colony in Virginia. I had stayed up one night in my studio, putting aside the coverage of The Persian Gulf War and my loneliness and my fear, and assembled the story from many pieces of writing about my life and how it interfaced with John Wayne's life. In spite of the war, in spite of my isolation in a studio at the far end of the estate, on the darkest night I had seen since I moved to New York City four years earlier, I remember myself as supremely happy. I was more purely creative than I had ever been.

A few days later, a woman asked me to read with her at an informal gathering of the colony fellows around the fireplace. Artist's colonies are famous for these kinds of events, just as they're famous for marriage-breaking affairs. I had been working on a brutalizing second draft of my first novel which I didn't dare show anyone, but my shiny new John Wayne story was at hand--only twelve pages long--and so I agreed to warm up the crowd for her.

Although I'm mostly a gregarious person, the thirty or so people who sat down before the fireplace to listen to the reading didn't know much about me. It was my first trip to an artist's colony, and I felt a little behind. I'd been out of writing school less than a year, and I had no publications to speak of. I was doing the "silence, exile, and cunning" thing with all my might, and I imagine that I was also sprinkling it with a dose of my tall, dark, and thuggish act. And so when I arrived at the reading, it was with the cheerful sense that no one would know what I was about to unleash on them. I suppose that the woman who had invited me imagined that I would read some manly story about my father or my relations with women or my inability to get at the truth of my feelings. And, actually, she wouldn't have been far off.

As a teenager, my first impulses toward fiction were confessional impulses. Before I actually started writing stories, I started showing young women my journals, which I kept with an air of unmitigated self-importance (these days, just the idea of a journal embarrasses me). I liked the feeling of power I got when I turned myself inside out like that, when I could show a girl what was beyond my masculinity: sensitivity, sexual ambivalence, and fear. Writing stories began as an extension of the same impulse, but stories gave me more latitude for invention. I could imply secrets about myself that I didn't possess. I could construct an interior life from the lives of others. I could lie in the service of truth.

And so as I sat before the fireplace and prepared to read the first chapter of what would become my John Wayne novel, I had the sense that I was about to tell my audience something that they wouldn't soon forget. I had a story about John Wayne, and my father and myself. It displayed a sort of theology for our family in which John Wayne was a heroic figure and a real presence which we could endorse or set ourselves against but we could not ignore. Beyond that, the story began to imply that my own problems as a teenager had something to do with my father's association with the Duke, that somehow the influence of that particular dream figure on my family had resulted in the problems that I would battle during my adolescence and into my adulthood.

The audience followed me like they were watching a suicide which they were incapable to prevent. You can always tell when people are listening, and these people were listening. They wanted to know what was true, they wanted to know what would happen next. They wanted to know if John Wayne was really bald, or a drunk, or a queer. They wanted to know how much of what I was saying was true of myself. I had them, I had them by the balls.

As I felt the wave of their interest wash over me, I became more bold. And as if an angel were granting me his grace, I felt boldest at just those places in the story where I needed it the most. It hadn't been my intention nor my heart's deepest desire to degrade John Wayne, nor tear him down from his pedestal. I was at an artist's colony, after all. Most of the liberally artsy folks at this place didn't believe that the long dead reactionary Duke belonged on a pedestal anyway. Although they couldn't pretend that they weren't interested in what I was saying, they would never endorse the man in conversation, as an actor or as cultural icon. The rest of the country had already done that. In the world, as in my family, it's difficult to be indifferent to a figure like John Wayne. But my purpose wasn't to flatter their presumption any more than I had to in order to suck them into my purpose for the story: I wanted nothing less than to redeem John Wayne before their eyes.

That his face and body, his voice and character could have meant so much to the mid-twentieth century is not a trivial thing, nor is it best left consigned to Entertainment Tonight and hagiographers. It's a job that needs a poet who feels so deeply within himself the contradictions of his subject that he has a good chance of coming through the other side, of transcending his subject.

And so I decided, right then and there, that I had to write a novel about John Wayne. The idea was horrible in its simplicity. I had wanted to write a book about John Wayne because it had seemed to me the most expedient way to write a book about the world. Einstein called the notion that individuals are separate from the universe "an optical delusion," and if that's so, John Wayne represented for me the wealth of all that I was deluded about.

I wanted to write about the retreat toward what I feared most, and what I feared most had always been embodied by the figure of John Wayne. I wanted to write about who I am, which is another way of saying that I want to write about who I never wanted to be. Writing about yourself is very hard, it's like trying to bite your teeth with your teeth. Writing about anything other than yourself is impossible and a waste of time to even try. Every writer should be lucky enough to have one piece of the world that belongs to him so completely that it can also belong to everyone else.
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Copyright © 1997 Dan Barden.