I woke up this morning thinking intensely of my
friend Thom Jones (and the other night I actually dreamed I was writing like
him) so after I made my tea, I sat at the computer, intending to write to him
because I hadn’t heard from him in a while.
That’s when I discovered—via his Facebook page, of all places—that he
died on Friday 10/14. I was travelling
all weekend and not was not online much to check emails or Facebook. So my
first reaction on learning that he’d died was shock—that such a driving force
of goodness and intelligence could just disappear (although, given that both
Thom and I believe in reincarnation, we know that his mind/soul lives on and
will delight us again in some other form); then there is the guilt that so many
months have passed without my reaching out to check in; then there is the
sorrow that life is indeed very short and very impermanent.
Thom and I met through my role as an editor at
various literary magazines in New York City and also through our mutual friend
Alice Turner, who died two years ago. Thom
and I shared a love of books (but not so much of having to write them), a love
of dogs (which should be listed first), and complicated brain chemistries and
life histories that left us both prone to intense depressions. And thus prone
to be writers. He was, in so many ways,
my de facto psychopharmacologist (back in the days when I took meds) and my de facto
shrink. A number of times, especially during the “get me off this planet”
years, he probably saved my life. His humor was one of a kind. Truly. You’d have to read his stories to know what I
mean. There was no writer like Thom
Jones and this is why still, to this day, zillions of aspiring writers try to
write like Thom Jones. But miss the mark. Because you can’t be authentic by
trying to imitate someone else.
Thom’s world view encompassed so much—light and
dark, good and evil, truth; always Truth. Thom saw and described the world as
only a depressive, genius, and sometimes off-kilter person can: as both
beautiful and terrible. Poignant and banal; supremely intelligent and
idiotic. Thom understood and accepted that such dichotomies exist. That you
can’t have one without the other. (We
had many conversations about duality). And that, in the end, Beauty always
wins. So it’s no wonder that Thom was one of the first authors to write—full force,
no-holds-barred—about manic depression and AS a manic depressive. And certainly
to first to make it all seem comic. And therefore bearable. And temporary.
Those of you who read authors’ acknowledgements
page (and most writer and editors read it first, before reading the book) know
that Thom broke ground in his acknowledgements page by thanking a Big Pharm
company—I think it was Eli Lilly?—for providing him the opportunity and the
sanity to write (I should find that page and quote it properly, but I am away
from my books right now). Before then,
not everyone was willing to admit they struggled with psychological issues
and/or that they took medications to cope.
Both the struggle and the ways in which one attempted to cure such
struggles were considered shameful things. Dark. Scary. Thom helped take that shame away. And I know he became a willing confidante,
cheerleader, uncle, friend, mentor and counselor to many a young writer
struggling with the “curse of a creative mind.” His simple kindness and total
lack of judgment has helped many, many people I am sure.
I also had the honor and pleasure of editing
Thom, which gave me a cherished window into his creative process. Structurally,
his first drafts were often a delightful mess, but one could always see the
genius and energy behind his words. (As an editor, I have an inexplicable ability
to take messes and make sense of them--inexplicable because I don’t seem to
have that skill when it comes to my own life). Plus, in Thom’s early drafts,
there was always an irrefutable through-line, and that though line was pretty
much, as stated above: life is painfully comic and/or comically painful, but
beauty and love always prevail. Other
editors/readers might see a different through-line, but that is also the genius
of Thom’s work. It operates on so many levels.
I’ve used Thom’s brilliant—sorry, I meant
f*cking brilliant—story “Cold Snap” in all of my creative writing classes since
1998. My strategy is to bring this one out about three weeks into the semester,
after we’ve read and discussed a few modern classics and gotten a sense of
typical story structure. Then—wham—I offer them Thom Jones and enjoy the
pleasure, again and again, of witnessing their reaction, of feeling what they
feel, which is basically “you mean I can write as myself, with a voice?” Invariably, some students will then try to
write using Thom’s voice, and, if I’m successful as a teacher, I can help them
find their own voice, which sounds cliché, but is the essence of all creative
writing. What I’m trying to say here is
that Thom Jones is/was one of those authors who can help an aspiring writer
find his/her own voice. His work gets writers excited to write. So read him.
And love him. And celebrate him. He took
on a lot of pain in this lifetime and gave back reams of beauty, of life, of
wonder. That’s what a true Artist does.
advice to me, during my dark days, was always to 1) write about it and 2) spend
more time with dogs. Chloe and Sugar. Chloe and Sugar. Our dogs never met, but
they know one each other’s names.
I haven’t gone through my correspondence yet to
highlight all the nuggets of advice I’m sure to find in his many emails, and I
look forward to reading some of our exchanges about Schopenhauer (Thom’s favorite philosopher) and Buddhism (my
guiding force) but for now I am just going to sit with this feeling of awe and
gratitude and wonder, that a man with such an “untamable” and “poisoned” (not
my words) mind could put forth so much kindness and generosity and joy and
peace. Those qualities are all the
antidotes to poison. Imagine the amount
of energy and essential goodness it took? To transmute one’s own mental poisons
into beauty for others to enjoy? Thank
you, Mr. Jones.
Here’s an oft-quoted quote from an interview in
the Mississippi Review: “I channeled my obsessive-compulsive behavior into my
writing and soon found that if I wrote a lot each and every day, a kind of psychological
integration took place within me and a form of peace became available...”
Thank you, Mr. Jones. You were a true Champion
in this lifetime. May you now dwell in the purest of Pure Lands. Om Ami Dewa Hri.
My heart goes out to his family, including his sweet-faced
~ photo of Thom Jones by Zhong Juanning