LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: On Life and Art | Lost Coast Outpost


Writing has been a part of my life since my early teens, when certain teachers saw something and encouraged me to pursue it. “Be a writer,” insisted one, in blue cursive atop one of my essays. And so I became one.


Photo: Tressler.

Not immediately, of course. For a long time I struggled to convey even the faintest suggestion of an idea. I was in love with words, with authors, with themes and motifs, with symbolism, with implications. In the summer of 1990, my rocky first year away from home, in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas, I toyed with the idea of ​​a novel. It concerned a certain literary citizen opaquely named Forrester, and about some remote crisis he was facing, some crisis of faith or something. There was a critical scene that I called “The Boat Scene” in my notes (I took many notes that summer, following the lead of my mentor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose notes on his unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon” I studied down to every last minute detail “… rewrite Ch. 1 from mood … atmosphere of night sustain … ACTİON İS CHARACTER).

At the time I was sharing a small apartment with a mysterious stranger named Tanner, who drove a blue Jeep and kept a quiet, Michael Stipe-like reserve that prompted the Galveston girls to study him. We’d met at this small firm that sold fake Calvin Klein colognes. Since neither of us had the inkling or ability to peddle counterfeit colognes, we’d simultaneously quit our jobs without saying a word to one another, and that summer were waking up around noon each day and drifting through the long Texas summer evenings – both of us avoiding the inevitable, that someone in the shape of a landlord was going to come pounding at the door for the rent any day, rent that neither of us had any intention of paying.

I can’t speak for Tanner, but the only income I had came from a few sympathetic friends who sort of kept me afloat, to the anxious disapproval of their parents (“He’s a bum! When are you going to realize that? Drop him and get on with your life. It’ll be the best thing for you – and him! He needs to wake up!”) On those languid, humid evenings, we’d cruise over to Padre İsland, none of us old enough to get into the bars but somehow we always managed to have beer. We’d go to the beach, where there were always plenty of young people like ourselves looking for a party. The songs that summer were Madonna’s “Vogue” and MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” – they were on the radio every five minutes it seemed. We’d stand around on the beach, the headlights of the cars and the boom of the radio not quite drowning out the hushed roar of the nearby Gulf, mingling long into the night, waking up the next day as late as possible.

Back to the novel. I’d get up and “work” at the kitchen table, pouring over my notes from the previous day. Looking back, it seems I was far more interested in writing about what I was going to write than actually writing it. “Here, in this scene with Forrester,” I noted. “I want to explore the ‘bonds’ that Maugham wrote about.” Exactly what these “bonds” were I had scarcely any idea, but they had to be explored. The novel needed “bonds,” I felt.

As I said, the adult figures in my life at that time – parents of my friends – were stern, shadowy figures that I anxiously avoided as much as landlords and employers. One of them, the father of my closest friend and sponsor that summer, was not unsympathetic. “How is the… novel going?” he asked one evening in a gently backhanded way that I found enormously flattering, allowing me the delicious opportunity to reply that I “was still working on it.”

Naturally, the novel was never written. By the end of summer, Tanner and I were both out on our asses. I was put on a bus back to Austin, where eventually I managed to get back on a track resembling the path to adulthood. The book, or rather the collection of looseleaf papers with words on them, was put in some drawer and forgotten about. To this day, I have no idea who this Forrester was, or what crisis he was facing, or why the Boat scene was so critical, and how the “bonds” fit into the story. It remains an enticing mystery as wistful and gone as that summer of youth in Galveston.

There were many reasons why that book was never written. For one thing, I had no idea how to write a story – I wouldn’t really begin to grasp that until many years later when I worked as a journalist in Eureka, California. Working as a beat reporter, covering stories over months, even years, until there is some resolution – or critically, no resolution – helped me start to see what we call the narrative arc, and by cultivating sources, it helped me to identify the key characters in a story, and what motivates them. You need real people you can see and listen to, unless you are a fantasy writer, in order to understand their stories – at least I do. Chasing boats and intriguing names like Forrester and exploring themes without an actual narrative or actual people will leave you clutching fruitlessly at scribbled pages.

So what is this narrative about? How and why I became a writer all those years ago. I wrote it because it has been some time since I wrote anything, and I was beginning to worry about it. I worried that I was bored of writing, that I had nothing left to say, that “nobody reads anymore anyway.”

Most of all, I felt that I’d outgrown these “Letters From Istanbul” that have been the main source of my output over the past decade. Having settled down, with a wife and son and proper job, perhaps I felt that the letters no longer had a reason for being. How can one write of being a stranger in a strange land when that strange land has become home?

But is the story ever finished? The thing to do is to find the next chapter. And to find, as we always must in life and art, find a reason to keep going. One must find one’s own way.

Life has a period at the end of ıt: Great writing, great stories do not – they endure and continue to grow long after their creators have passed, they alone have everlasting life. Which is why the great writers put so much into their work: they hope that the best that is in them will live on, echoing like a classic song, in the quiet chambers, the recesses and grand halls, the main streets and alleyways of the culture. I have yet to write such a story, but I haven’t lost faith that one day I will. That’s why I write.

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The question is, what to write about? It’s been a very trying, anxious year. Inflation, hyper inflation, is all anyone talks about. It’s getting harder and harder for many to get by. Everything seems to cost five times what it cost only a year ago. My wife and I recently purchased a new apartment, and have been busy settling in, happy to at last finally have a flat big enough so that our boy Leo has his own room. In other news, the war in Ukraine just over the Black Sea to the north rages on. Russians fleeing Putin’s draft continue to arrive daily, some settling here while many others head to the resort towns on the Med to buy houses. Ships carrying Ukraine grain pass through the Bosphorus on a regular basis, a reminder of Turkey’s role as mediator in the conflict. At the university another academic year looms, but with the added wrinkle of lots of new faces – replacements for those colleagues who have abruptly left in search of “a job that pays a living wage.”

So I guess now that I think about it, there is much to write about. But then again, there always is. The thing is to keep writing. “Life isn’t long enough for love and art,” wrote old Somerset Maugham, one of my mentors from that vanished summer. I respectfully disagree. Oh, and what of those elusive “bonds” that so preoccupied me?

Well, I am bound to this city, and to my family here, and to my work, and sharing these experiences. That’s what these Letters have always been about, now that I think about it.

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

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