Letter from Istanbul: On Life and Art | Lost Coast Outpost

Writing has been a part of my life since I was a teenager, when certain teachers saw something and encouraged me to pursue it. “Be a writer,” someone insisted, in blue cursive above one of my essays. So I became one.

Photo: Tresler.

Certainly not right away. For a long time, I struggled to convey the faintest hint of an idea. I fell in love with words, I fell in love with authors, I fell in love with subject and subject, I fell in love with symbolism, I fell in love with meaning. In the summer of 1990, my difficult first year away from home, in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas, I toyed with the idea of ​​writing a novel. It’s about some literary citizen cryptically named Forrest, and some kind of distant crisis he’s facing, some kind of crisis of faith or something. There is a key scene in my notes that I call the “boat scene” (I took many notes that summer, and under my mentor F. Scott Fitzgerald, I researched his work on his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon’s notes down to every last minute detail “…Rewriting Chapter 1 from Mood…Night Atmosphere…ACTİON İS CHARACTER).

I was sharing a small apartment with a mysterious stranger named Tanner, who drove a blue Jeep and maintained a quiet, Michael Stipe-like reservation that prompted Galveston’s The girls study him. We met at a small company that sold counterfeit Calvin Klein colognes. Since neither of us had the idea or ability to sell counterfeit colognes, we quit our jobs at the same time, didn’t say a word to each other, and woke up around noon each summer that summer and drifted through long Texas summer nights— Both are that we avoid the inevitable situation where on any given day someone will come knocking on the door in the form of a landlord asking for rent and we have no intention of paying it.

I can’t speak for Tanner, but my only income comes from a few sympathetic friends who keep me afloat and whose parents anxiously object (“He’s a bum! When will you realize that? Give up on him) Go on with your life. It’s the best thing for you and him! He needs to wake up!”) On those lazy wet nights we’d take the boat to Padre İsland, neither of us old enough to get into the bar, But somehow we always manage to drink beer. We would go to the beach where there are always a lot of young people like us looking for a party. Songs that summer were Madonna’s “Vogue” and MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”—they seemed to come out every five minutes. We’d stand on the beach, the roar of the car’s headlights and radios not completely drowned out by the quiet roar of the nearby bay, mixing into the night and waking up as late as possible the next day.

Back to fiction. I would get up and “work” at the kitchen table, reversing the previous day’s notes. In retrospect, it seems that I was more interested in writing what I was about to write than actually writing it. “Here, in this scene with Forrester,” I pointed out. “I want to explore the ‘bonds’ that Maugham wrote about.” I hardly know what these ‘bonds’ actually are, but they have to be explored. I feel like this novel needs “bonds”.

As I said, the grown-up characters in my life at the time — my friends’ parents — were stern, shady characters that I eagerly avoided being the same as landlords and employers. One of them, the father of my closest friend and sponsor that summer, was not without compassion. “How’s that . . . novel going?” he asked one night in a mild backhand manner that struck me as very endearing, giving me the chance to answer that I was “still working on it.”

Naturally, the novel was never written. By the end of the summer, Tanner and I were out. I was sent back to the Austin bus and eventually I managed to get back on a track that resembled the road to adulthood. The book, or rather a collection of loose-leaf pages with text, was placed in some drawer and forgotten. To this day, I have no idea who this Forrester was, or what crisis he faced, or why the ship scene was so important, and how “bonds” fit into the story. It remains a tantalizing mystery, as longing and disappearing as that teenage summer in Galveston.

There are many reasons why that book was never written. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to write a story—I didn’t really begin to grasp that until many years later, when I was working as a reporter in Eureka, California. As a beat reporter, reporting on stories for months or even years until there is some solution — or, critically, no solution — helped me start seeing what we call narrative arcs, and by nurturing sources, It helped me identify the characters in the key stories, and their motivations. You need real people you can see and hear unless you’re a fantasy writer to understand their stories – at least I did. Chasing small boats and fun names like Forrester, exploring themes without real narrative or real people, will leave you crawling scribbled pages in vain.

So what is this narrative about? How and why I became a writer so many years ago. I write it because I haven’t written anything in a while and I’m starting to worry about it. I’m worried that I’m getting bored with writing, that I’ll have nothing to say, that “nobody’s reading anymore anyway.”

Most importantly, I feel like I’ve surpassed these “Letters from Istanbul,” which have been my main source of output for the past decade. Settling down, with a wife and son, with a proper job, maybe I feel like these letters no longer have a reason to exist. How can a strange land be written as a stranger when that strange land becomes home?

But is the story really over? All you have to do is find the next chapter. And to find, as we always have in life and in art, find a reason to keep going. One has to find one’s own way.

There is a period at the end of life: great writing, great stories don’t – they survive the death of their creator and continue to grow, and only they have eternal life. That’s why great writers put so much energy into their work: they want the best in them to live on, reverberating in quiet rooms, recesses and halls like a classic song , main streets and alleys. culture. I haven’t written a story like this yet, but I haven’t lost the belief that I will one day. That’s why I write.


The question is, what to write? It has been a very difficult, anxious year. Inflation, hyperinflation, is what everyone talks about. Many people are getting more and more sad. Everything seems to be five times what it was a year ago. My wife and I have recently bought a new apartment and have been busy settling in, so happy to finally have an apartment big enough for our boy Leo to have his own room. In other news, the Black Sea war in northern Ukraine continues. Russians fleeing the Putin draft are arriving daily, some settling here, while many others head to resort towns on the Mediterranean coast to buy homes. Vessels carrying Ukrainian grain regularly pass through the Bosphorus, a reminder of Turkey’s mediator role in the conflict. At university, another academic year looms, but with many new faces – replacing colleagues who have left suddenly in search of “living wage jobs”.

So I guess now that I think about it, there’s a lot to write about. But then again, there are always. The key is to keep writing. “Life is not long enough for love and art,” wrote Somerset Maugham Sr., one of my mentors on that vanishing summer. I respectfully disagree. Oh, and what about those elusive “bonds” that keep me so preoccupied?

Well, I’m connected to this city, my family, my job, and sharing these experiences. That’s what these letters have always been about, now that I think about it.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher who lives in Istanbul.

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