My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Patrick Dacey, author of We’ve Already Gone This Far. George Saunders had this to say about the short story collection and its author: “Patrick Dacey is one of my favorite young American writers. The stories in We've Already Gone This Far are dangerous, funny, sometimes savage (the phrase lyrical hammers comes to mind), but underneath it all beats a strangely kind and hopeful heart.” Patrick holds an MFA from Syracuse University. He has taught English at several universities, and has worked as a reporter, landscaper, door-to-door salesman, and most recently on the overnight staff at a homeless shelter and detox center. His stories have been featured in The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, Guernica, Bomb magazine, and Salt Hill among other publications. We’ve Already Gone This Far is his first book. His novel, The Outer Cape, is slated for publication in May 2017. Originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.
My First Fears
My greatest fear as a child, and for many years after, was that there was nothing beyond space. I could not grasp that space was infinite; I saw it as solid and defined. There was a moon landing before I was born, there were shuttles rolling on Mars, stars were named, movies were made, books were written, the news showed every launch, every landing, and so, I thought, if we have already done all this, and we can explore that place of so-called infinity, then what is left?
The thought isn’t so pressing now, but the fear is still recognizable; I know what it feels like to tremble, to scratch, to tear, to sweat, to weep, with the knowledge that what surrounds us is what we’re born into and we cannot change or go beyond it, even in our imaginations. I wondered if anyone else had received this terrifying message. I wanted to know how to erase it from my mind.
It was that I had nothing to hold onto, nothing to pursue. I had dreamed of playing in the NFL all my life. I was 17, six feet tall, 270 pounds. I was not big enough to play, not fast enough, not strong enough.
I look back on my teachers now and those special ones, the ones who often looked clueless walking down the hallways or across campus, the ones who forgot to comb their hair or shave for two weeks, the ones who dressed sloppily one day and sharp the next, the ones who spoke with uncertainty and passion, as if discovering the truth or core of what they were teaching for the first time, those were the real living teachers, the ones who expose us to a new world but do not try to explain it. They are guides into the unknown, and this man, a man whose name I’ve forgotten, whose name is not what’s important here, was that guide for me.
Rule of the Bone. For me, at the time, it was the most amazing piece of writing I had ever read. I’ve read better books since, but have always appreciated the way he plays with text, shifts narrators and implements the novelist’s voice, his voice, or the voice of a second narrator, into his work. In this way, he is an innovator, an original. The narrator of Rule of the Bone is a teenage boy. He writes about smoking pot and listening to Pearl Jam and breaking into houses. I had done all of this. He writes about an absent father. My father was absent. He writes about searching, about leaving home, and I had been both searching and wanting to leave home. It was the first book I had truly read, because it was the first book that I had reread, and I had reread that book because I wanted to see how he was able to take me from place to place, both real and imagined, without my getting lost.
I played three months for the Hoggers. We won two games. Our star running back was knocked out for the season with a knee injury. During that fall, I snuck in and out of the girls’ dormitory, mashed apples with my bare feet and washed dishes at 5:30 in the morning as punishment for abandoning my school chores. I smoked, drank, drugged, and was eventually kicked out.
But something had changed in me then. I had a new fear. I wanted to be an artist. And if I was to approach any aspect of art, I would have to listen, read and feel the very best, over and over, first with enjoyment, then with study, breaking down each section, phrase, word, note, until the entire structure was laid out like bones I would have to make a skeleton from. But then there has to be heart. The fear came with those rare opuses, the ones that fill entire bookshelves with criticism. They are indefinable and unknowable. They are, to me, what is beyond the universe. They allow for the idea of the unattainable, excite and horrify, reveal the essence of love and then snatch it away and more.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” Marlon Brando’s Vito Corrleone, Grant Green’s “Am I Blue?”
They are those perfect moments of creation that we respect but never understand. More often than not, the artist has no idea where their creations come from. Sometimes they only come once, and this in itself is a miracle, something delivered from beyond the universe, where, if what I fear is correct, all great art lives, and makes itself available to a select few who keep themselves open to receive it.