Serpent Blog

Picture of a Train  

He rode up on an old blue bicycle that was too small for his frame. A girl’s 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.
How much?
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.
Alright, fifteen.
Ain’t got but five, he said.
Can’t 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 don’t look good. There’s nothing sadder than an old man’s 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 he’s 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.
Can’t 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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The Serpent Box Letters: Sometimes Writing Means Not Writing 
So, I have been posting the letters I wrote during the writing of Serpent Box, not just for you dear reader, but for me as well. I want to learn what I learned during that time when I was working on what I hope will not be my last novel. As I post these, I am reading them for the first time. So we're discovering together.

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 Café, 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 café, and work. Just one hour is all I wanted. One. But it wasn’t meant to be. One of the girls is always sick and this time it was Lilana’s 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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The Serpent Box Letter: A Writer Needs a Good Book 
January 17, 2002
Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco


I feel antsy today. I feel tightly wound. I think there are several reasons for this, but the main one being a lack of any good story to read. I do not however lack reading material. I am currently reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, The Idiot’s Guide to the Bible and of course, The Bible itself. Of these only the Bible is providing any direct source of inspiration.

But I need a novel. I’m desperate for one in fact. I started Ha Jin’s Waiting, but it begins at a slow and plodding pace and I want to be swept into something. Perhaps you can recommend a novel by an author I have never read. Something astounding. Assume I have read nothing, for in fact, I have not. Oh, how I wish I had majored in English Literature someplace nice in New England. What a wasted education I had. This is my biggest regret. And it stems from a lack of a role model and mentor as a boy. It is essential, imperative, crucial – to take a young person under one’s wing and help him to find his path. My mother was a fabulous cheerleader, she was, the source of my confidence. But I needed a guide, a captain. Still, I would change nothing if I could.

Now to the book. It goes so incredibly slow. My daily word count is unimpressive. If I was living alone in a cabin somewhere, it would not matter, I would work on it forever if need be. Time. Money. Distractions. These are the enemies of the poor writer. The rich writer has different enemies. But those are his to worry about.

I wonder Andrew if you have ever fly-fished, and if not, if you desire to do so? One of my dreams is to spend my dusks hip-deep in cold water. Working flies. Can you imagine that? Shall we build our writer’s cabin by a stream? Think about it. I’m going to work.


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All You Have To Do Is Believe 
(More from The Serpent Box Letters)

January 16, 2002
Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco


I had a small breakthrough yesterday. Perhaps it was not too small. We shall see what happens today. But I knew it was important because I wrote a sentence that tipped the story, as if on a fulcrum, and I swear to you I got chills, and my throat tightened and I had to stop for a moment to collect myself. Now, maybe it isn’t as big of a deal as all that. Perhaps it is even a dead end. But what happened was this:

I am writing now a scene that takes place as the now twenty-year-old John Cross (since renamed Tobias) has brought Charles Flint and Jacob up to Slaughter Mountain (In the previous chapter, John Cross was re-introduced, he came to Jacob’s aid after he was seriously bitten by a snake and came close to death (Jacob survived, but by his own accord, through his own inner strength). During their journey back up to the mountain, and the church there, John Cross tells them all that has happened since Charles Flint departed ten years earlier. He had been taken in by the Bowsky Brothers, and he was indoctrinated into their church, where he became a young preacher. But when he was only fourteen, both Ray and Esau Bowsky died suddenly, a week apart, as a result of their dealings with poison and snakes. As Esau lay dying, he made John Cross promise to go on as the preacher of the Slaughter Mountain church, and he told them about a dream that both he and his twin had on the same night – in fact, it was the night before Charles Flint showed up and destroyed the African voodoo-box. In that dream, they foresaw their own deaths, and they also saw that a child should take their place, that a boy would come who would not only lead their congregation, but all Holiness congregations, uniting the disparate backwoods churches. Both John Cross and indeed myself, believed that he, John Cross, was that boy. For several days, after having written this scene in long-hand, it never occurred to me that it was not John they had seen in their dream, but Jacob. And when this happened, when I was re-working the scene and re-thinking the dream, I was struggling with a single line of dialog, spoken by John Cross, and as I often do, I speak it aloud and try to get into character. For I become these people while writing them. I am them, I feel everything they feel, and in that moment, I did not think about the dream, I knew it, as if it was told to me, and I spoke the line aloud. And I knew it was true. It was truer than true. It was one of those rare moments when one says to oneself ‘This is why I write.’

* * *

So, you struggle and you struggle. You wander lost and groggy. The hours of darkness are many, you cannot count on the imminent rise of a sun. Gravity does not apply here, its rhythms are not circadian, but cicadian. You dig into the ground and gestate and God only knows when the time will come, when the light will pour back in. So you work. You keep the faith. You have faith because that’s all there is, it’s your only possession. You don’t think, you know. That is faith. Knowing. You know the work will find itself, that if you yourself are worthy, it will take form. And all you have to do to be worthy is, believe.

I’ve spent too much time on this damn letter and as you can see, I am not writing. So I will now stand and refill my coffee, and make the transition from meandering to prose. Be well.


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Like Sisyphus - The Serpent Box Letters 

January 15, 2002
Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco


I had a terribly depressing thought last night. I thought, ‘What if I’m not ready for this book?’, ‘What if I am over-reaching?’. I was watching Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary about Mark Twain. And it always makes me feel so feeble to hear of the lives and exploits of the great writers. I am worried that I say too much, show too much, describe too much and yet reveal so little. I look at my long-hand work, and I see that is falls so far short of doing the job – it is so sparse, these first drafts in long-hand require much tweaking. I spent much time working them and re-working them, as the potter throws clay and destroys…throws clay and destroys. There is a great story in the bible about this. I am trying to remember it now. God tells one of the prophets to go to a house of a potter, to watch this process of building and rebuilding, the pot is an allegory for Israel and the story is meant to show the reader that this Sisyphusian process never ends. I will look up this passage and share it with you.

The whole thing is very mysterious. Yet I resist the urge to attempt an explanation. I am not writing something from a plan. I did not even want to write this book. I wanted to write a collection of short stories instead. Mark Twain kept Huckleberry Finn on the back shelf for years. He needed to go back to the Mississippi, to travel down and then back up it once more in order to prepare. But this is not my Huckleberry Finn, this is not my world, nor do I draw from any childhood experiences or characters from my own life. I am proud of myself because this is pure imagination, pure fiction, pure dream. If I can pull this off Andrew, I can do anything, write anything. I will never ever give up. I have the faith of Job.

Now to work. The sun is out strong, the air is quite cold for this city and there are cowboy songs playing in my head.

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