Monday, January 28, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
I woke in the middle of the night after a horrible nightmare. The strange thing about it was that it was non-linear and not character driven. It was a nightmare of pure tone and that tone was evil. I was filled with fear. But I was not unwilling to go back to sleep and in fact was hoping to get back into the dream in order to find out what it was that disturbed me so much.
The moon is in a phase now that is conducive to my dreaming. I donít want to bore you with this, but the final dream I had last night was that I found a dead garter snake which was unusually, if not freakishly, long. It was over ten feet long and someone had slit it open from its neck on down to its tail. I was beginning to examine the snake as I woke. In the dream, I was fascinated with this dead snake. Isnít this strange? Iím writing a book with snakes as primary elements and I have this dream. Not of a deadly snake, or even a living snake. These must be something to thisÖ
I will try to invoke the feeling of these dreams today as I work. The first one being almost too powerful to confront, too powerful to wield. I wish I could somehow convey the feeling to you. If I had time I would try. Wait, I just had an idea. Iíll pick this up later...
[Still January 28]
...I just put about two hours of work in, realizing that what I saw last night was not a dream. You wonít believe me if I tell you what I think it was. Itís amazing, the revelation I had, and itís also amazing that it relates directly to the book. I may have seen something not meant for my eyes specifically, but meant instead for Jacob to see and I did my best to translate it, though I will continue to rework it for the remainder of the day. This may the hardest passage I have ever written, the toughest five hundred words of my career. If I can pull this off, it will be the most powerful moment in the book so far. Wish me luck.
I try now to do the impossible. I try to describe an encounter with the all-seeing, the all-knowing, the omnipresent and the ubiquitous. How does one pull this off? The only way I believe is not to invent it, but to actually experience it. I could not imagine such a thing without drawing from hackneyed cliches at least to some degree. But I saw something, and more importantly, felt something the other night that gave me a clue. I am not, and will not say, that I had such an encounter. Only that I saw something so strange and unfamiliar that it could almost pass as one. If I do this right and try very hard not to go too far, it might just come off as something astounding.
I will tell you this, we have had the freakiest weather of late. It has been so cold here and there has been snow, even here in the city. Yesterday in Petaluma, they had a snow day. No school. I have never heard of such a thing here (though Petaluma is north of here and it does get cold in Sonoma county). Also the moon has been very large and bright these days. The sky is spectacular, with every shade of smoke gray and gun metal blue you can imagine. This must be having at least a coloring kind of effect upon me. I can use this. I can use everything. Iíll let you know how it goes.
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January 25, 2002
Where else, but the Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
Had a good day of writing yesterday. All long-hand in the notebook. But my good pen ran out of ink and I had to run across the street and buy a new, but inferior one. I am very particular about what I write with and I hate most pens. They are too slow for me. I like a fast, inky pen that flows smooth and wet. I have to go to an office supply and purchase ten of my favorite pens.
Today I will transcribe and embellish upon what I wrote yesterday. It is most of chapter 30, but I saved the climax for today. Since I know what it will be I saved it to let it brew a little. This is a scene lifted directly from the short story. The last scene of the story when Jacob drinks the lye. But here, there will be no doubt as to the outcome.
There is something quite relaxing about embarking upon a writing session in which there need be no invention. I have the skeleton, now for the flesh and blood. I love this part.
I have been reading the New Testament and have become infatuated with Paul. I wanted to discuss with you the Holy Ghost, because he/it is the key to everything yet I still do not understand it. As I see it, the Holy Ghost is the manifestation of God on Earth. But what does this mean? If Jesus sits at the right hand of God, as the bible tells us, than who is this Holy Ghost? Who is he the ghost of? Jesus? I know I am taking this too literally, but I am drawn to this almost to the point of obsession. I have decided not to discuss this with you until you are with me in the flesh. But I want to put the bug in your ear.
I am already thinking about the next book Andrew. I donít know much about it, other then this: it will be a classic heroís quest. Though I will not begin for at least another year. I will write the short stories after this. I am so anxious to do that. By then, perhaps, I will be close to you, in New Hampshire, and we will have regular retreats to discuss these matters.
One more thing before I go. It is a sad thing. But I have to tell somebody. As I may have told you, a friend of mine killed himself last year. He was struggling with heroin addiction. I tried to help him as best as I could. I was also his boss you see, and I gave him much leeway and many chances. I did not fire him, though there were many occasions when he should have been fired. He grew to trust me and count on me and I visited him in rehab and even spoke to his mother on his behalf. He was recovering well for awhile, but slipped back into addiction. It got to a point where I had to draw the line and I told him something I now regret. I told him that if he didnít get his act together, I could no longer be his friend. I told him that his lying, deceit and destructive behavior could not be tolerated, that this was not the behavior of a friend. He was crushed by this. I could see it in his eyes, he even cried. Iíll never forget the look in his eyes when I told him that. I thought I was being tough. A few weeks later he hung himself in his apartment. Andrew, this guy was so talented. He could have been great (he was an animator). He was 29 Andrew,. He told me heíd never see 30. And he didnít. I know his suicide was not my fault. But I abandoned him. I took away something that might have made a difference. I am haunted by this. Haunted.
Thatís all. No moral. No climax. Nothing. Thatís all there is. Inexplicable death.
I miss you Aaron. I am sorry.
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It is amazing to me now, looking back on what I wrote seven years ago as I was struggling to write Serpent Box. I wrote these letters, every day, to the one person in the world who would listen. having that one mind, that one heart out there, beating for you, is all you need to survive in this mad, crazy world... This is how I figured out.
January 22, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
Late start today. As Steinbeck says, Ďoutside things got in the wayí. My morning was eaten up and now it is late, but not quite noon, and most of the golden hours are gone. So Iíll see what I can do with what time I have.
The story took another unpredictable turn yesterday. It wasnít so much of a turn as it was an event Ė another of which I did not anticipate. One of the benefits of all these strong characters is that their will can affect your own. They live outside the narrative waiting for opportunities to enter the story, and if one is permissive enough and open enough to let them act of their own accord, the story can write itself. What I mean is, the plot will find its own way home. At least this is what I hope, for I am still a great novice and run on the fumes of faith alone. Many times I write scenes before understanding why. And perhaps some of the scenes will not make the final cut in the end, but I believe they are written for reasons which only that end will tell.
I believe the desire to believe is second only to manís will to survive Andrew. This manifests itself in myriads of ways, but it is religion I am most interested in exploring. Religion and myth. The forces which exist beyond the visible and which allow man to transcend, to become greater, and achieve remarkable things.
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He rode up on an old blue bicycle that was too small for his frame. A girlís bike with tassels hanging from the handle bars and a white basket studded with little purple flowers. He had the swollen red nose of an ancient drunk and a wore a black stocking cap that drooped over to one side. He was well over six foot and he looked like a circus clown straddled over the bike as he peered into the darkness of the garage, wincing, shading his eyes with his hand.
He said his name was Mack. He said he was from Nogales, Arizona. He said he loved garage sales. His two front teeth were split wide like a wishbone and his face was weathered brown. He had thick fingers all black under his nails and he propped the bike up on my mailbox. He walked straight back into the garage, passing all the good stuff ¨the vintage Philco radio, the shoebox full of old postage stamps, the shawl-collared tuxedo, the alligator golf shoes. He went to the back and crouched before a framed oil-painting of a large picture of an old train, big as a wide-screen T.V train.
Twenty, I said.
He cringed. He picked up the picture and carried it out into the light of the day. It was an old painting. A steam engine pulling a line of boxcars off into a desert sunset, with a big red caboose in the foreground beneath a purple sky, reefed with pink tinged clouds and a long billow of smoke curving out behind the locomotive like a kite-tail. The train was passing through a red-rock desert with the shadows of saguaro cactus stretched long across the sand and rock formations carved by ancient lakes to rival the architecture of man.
Mack just stared at that painting while some kid came up and bought the Philco and an old timer haggled for the gold shoes. Mack leaned the picture on the side of the house and got back on his bike. He peddled away slowly, looking back over his shoulder, and then, swinging the bike into a driveway across the street, looped back over to the train.
Twenty? He said.
Ainít got but five, he said.
Canít do it, I said.
Mack straddled his bike, his chin resting on the handlebars. He looked like a dog watching a cake on a stove. Then he smiled.
Was a time, he said, when I rode them rails. Slept in boxcars, camped in train-yards, made my living with these.
He holds up his hands, and they donít look good. Thereís nothing sadder than an old manís hands.
When I was your age, he said, I never stood still. I seen all this country, and them was the best years of my life.
He turns his head to the side, even more dog-like now, looking at the painting from a new angle and smiling wide enough for me to see that his wishbone teeth are the only ones heís got that are still his own.
I can hear it, he said. Hell, I can almost smell the damn thing.
Then he mounts up on his bike and turns to ride away.
Mack, I said, Wait. Take the painting.
For five? He said.
No, for free.
Canít do it, he said.
Then give me the five dollars.
He wass the kind of man who kept his money in a silver clip. All ones. He counted them out and made sure the heads were all facing the same direction.
Bless you, he said. Happy trails.
And with the picture under one arm, he rode off down the street, whistling.
In all the years I owned that train picture I had never hung it, though took it with me through three moves. It was too big, and the colors too vibrant. I liked it because the rendering of the desert reminded me of a backdrop from a road-runner cartoon. I bought that picture for fifty-dollars at a flea market in Sausalito a long, long time ago and I knew I bought it for a reason. Sometimes you have to pass things on.
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You hear writers talk about their process and what that is, is, how you work. Pulling a big story out of thin air is daunting. Sitting down day after day with nothing but the vaguest idea of what you're doing is terrifying. Creating a rhythm to how you work, not just physically but mentally, psychologically, is, I believe, essential to finishing a book. So when you write your first you have to half invent, half discover what this process is for you.
It's fascinating to me to witness my own process as it developed. Trial and error. Feeling my way in the dark. Failures. Patience. Faith. This is what you do.
These first letters written in early 2002, only a few months after 9/11, show me that I was struggling, every day, to figure out what the hell I was doing. Imagine building a ship out of wood by hand. I was so lost. I am not very good at building things of complexity. I failed plastic-model-building 101. All those pieces. All those instructions. All that unwieldy glue. But this was different. No reference photo to consult. No step-by-step booklet. No plastic cement. And maybe that's why I was able to pull it off.
It was early 2002. The world was, if you remember, a newly terrifying place. What would happen tomorrow? We didn't know. They were still pulling body parts out of ground zero. Have we even begun to recover?
I sat in a tiny cafe. I drank a lot of coffee. I read the Bible. I read Rumi. I read Frank Stanford poems and listened to Tom Waits. And I wrote.
January 21, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
I have grown to fear the weekends now. I fear the days that I am not writing. On these days, my body chemistry changes, I can feel it. I am not my true self. I am cranky and cynical. I wish there was some way I could find even a small period of time to do something. Even a paragraph would help (Hell, on some full writing days I have barely managed even that). On this past Saturday I had it all planned out. I was going to take one hour to come here, to this cafť, and work. Just one hour is all I wanted. One. But it wasnít meant to be. One of the girls is always sick and this time it was Lilanaís turn. So I did not write at all over the weekend and Friday was not an especially productive day, therefore I am feeling morose and guilty and am quite anxious to get back on track. I am not sure yet if my situation is good or bad for the work. On one hand, I have too little time and wish I could get more done. On the other, there is much to be said for time taking its time. These pauses and delays, which seem to be forced upon me, may in fact be given me as gifts by design. For I truly believe the real work is done between the actual moments of writing, and that this is where connections are made, inspiration is found and ideas brew. One should force oneself into a period of daily exile from the page and the pen.
Now I begin. I will read the last few pages I have written and work myself back into the state. I prefer to read this aloud, in a tone of voice that is almost a whisper, so that the flavor and texture of each word is enhanced in my throat and on my lips. This, to me, is very satisfying.
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