I’ve always written. I wrote before I could read. I had to hand my manuscripts to someone else to read to me. My dad was a man with a great imagination who wanted to encourage me, so when he read my scribbles back, the stories were good. At a very young age I was convinced that I could write.
Though I haven’t seen one in a while, I’m sure they’re still around, books about the experience of writing. I used to find them really irksome. Books about the experience of living (real books?) had more cache with me. Still do. I read some of these writer books — I cannot remember any titles — and it seemed in many of these books that the experience of writing was the one life experience the writer had had. I thought I’d rather not live if that were the case.
There are some writers who have written about writing that interested me. Burroughs, for one, here, “Well, Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote.” (Here it is) Truman Capote, also, not so much what he had to say about writing (they all seem to get a little melodramatic, like somehow it’s a curse to be a writer, like somehow it’s the same as driving an ambulance, like those whiny singers with millions of bucks and all their dreams come true singing songs like “Here I am, on the road again”) but what he did as a writer. Except for this, “‘Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” More on that in a minute…
So, I figure by Burroughs’ definition I’m definitely a writer. Here’s what I’ve learned about it so far.
Being inspired is like being on the most amazing drug you can possibly find. NOTHING in the world is more interesting, more beautiful, more compelling or more true than the IDEA that you are realizing. It’s as intoxicating as love and every bit as blind. In my case, being severely dyslexic (I can write words upside down on the board in front of my class and not realize it) and being enraptured by an idea makes proofreading impossible. ALL LOVE IS BLIND.
Finishing the book (see? Got here!) is strange. I’d lived for months in this rapturous love affair with my idea and suddenly the characters were finished talking, their world was complete, their story was told and I was DONE. THEY DIDN’T NEED ME ANY MORE! My first experience with this (when I finished the first draft of Martin of Gfenn which, by the way, I thought was absolutely perfect and finished) was the feeling that there’d been a great party at my house and suddenly everyone went home. I left my computer, walked into the living room (which was dark, dogs sleeping on their beds) and I really wondered where everyone was. Capote was RIGHT. It was incredibly lonesome.
Martin of Gfenn went out into the world the first time in the late 1990’s. He quickly found an agent (it was a 90 page novella written in the first person like a medieval confession) but she couldn’t sell the manuscript. “There’s just not enough background here for American audiences to understand the story!” She was right; but I didn’t know the back ground. All I knew was what “Martin” had “told” me during those moments of intoxicated inspiration while I listened to the same song (I won’t tell) over and over.
“It’s a great story,” she said. “Just fill it out a little.”
I did. To do this I had to become a Swiss Medievalist Historian. The book grew to 520 manuscript pages of absolutely brilliant and flawless and riveting prose. Out it went again; early 2000’s. It found an agent — the agent was gambling that the film, “Kingdom of Heaven” would really take off and start a new interest in the Middle Ages, Crusades, Jerusalem and Leprosy. My book had two of those covered and a tiny bit of a third. Jerusalem didn’t enter into the story but no one can say 3/4 odds are bad. Even I had hope that the leper genre would finally find its niche.
The film was not a big win and my manuscript languished until I fired the agent. Back it came. (This was in the transdimensional moment when paper was still the thing, but people were wondering why.)
My life and health went whack at the same time, and it was a few years before I looked at my masterpiece again. When I did I saw that I had betrayed the fictional character who had shared his story with me. I was sad — and ashamed. I’d been warned by Rilke decades before, in Letters to a Young Poet, when he wrote against “…living and writing in heat…”
Some months later, fully prepared to accept my sin and move on, maybe never write any more or write another book (I had written another book, actually) I had a dream about Truman Capote. Why? I had no idea, but it was worth noting down, so I got up and wrote about it. Not long after I had another one. In the second, he told me I was a good writer. Then there was a third. We all know that three is the magic number.
I spent that summer reading everything Capote wrote, and I saw exactly what my novel did not have; style. Story, yes, WOW, in fact. Style? No.
After reading everything he had written, it seemed to me that until he “found” In Cold Blood, Capote had not really had a “story.” He had only some bits of some stories (which I love) and experiences with which he trained his voice, honed his craft. When THE story arrived, Capote was fully prepared as a writer to tangle with it.
Capote wrote how static passages are the most difficult because only the beauty of the prose can make them live for the reader; action, dialogue, easy, but description? Situation? Necessary but often so tedious and lifeless. After my summer internship with Capote my novel was half as long.
So what makes a writer a writer? Just writing, as Burroughs asserts? When it comes down to it, without that key element, a person is not a writer. And then, as Burroughs goes on to say;
Sinclair Lewis said that if you have written something that you think is just great and you can’t wait to show it to somebody, he said throw it away it’s terrible. Now this is very often true. I had the experience of writing something that I thought was just great and I read it the next day and said for God’s sakes tear it into very small pieces and throw it into somebody else’s garbage can. It’s awful. And that is one of the deterrents to writing — the amount of bad writing you’re going to have to do before you do any good writing.
I can definitely get behind that idea. My novel had been sent to everyone I thought might even have a slight interest in representing a historical novel set in a foreign country during a historical period many Americans know only from video games. There IS no “Medieval America.” Most of these agents had seen the first proposal; some the second. The third? Everyone KNOWS you don’t send proposals for the same book twice to the same agents. After more than a year of attempting to make up to Martin of Gfenn what I had done to him in my egocentrism, lack of experience and infatuation, I decided that I would publish it myself. I also had friends who were far along in years, whose health was not good, who’d been on my side through the whole process. I didn’t know if they would live long enough to see it published if I didn’t do it myself.
I believe we’re in a revolutionary moment in book publishing (News flash?). It’s easy to put together a lovely book with a Print on Demand publisher. I’ve done it for course materials, too. Using a POD made it possible for me to put my own artwork on the cover of my novel — something I really wanted to do (and did). It reached a gratifying level of success among people who have to read it in their second (or third!) language. It wasn’t what I wanted for my book, but it was so much better than letting it languish, 520 pages of badly written prose, in a box, on a shelf.