What I was thinking one morning, as I walked my dog into a dense, fog-filled canyon, was that one of the unexpected pleasures of writing is the tunneling effect. When I sit down to work, most times diving blindly into the page with only a vague sense of where Iím going, I will often discover territory and ideas that had been previously hidden to me. Iím sure you are aware of this sensation, but I, being so new to the art of writing, am discovering unexpected joys almost every day. When one sits and applies oneself to their writing, it is really the application of the subconscious onto the page and thus into the conscious world. Once you grasp this, once you understand that true writing is not thinking but dreaming, you have discovered the secret. This is the key to the kingdom. One image always leads to another. They fall like dominoes, triggering both real memory, and most importantly, imagined memory.
Do you see what Iím saying? I am a mole. I tunnel and tunnel and often emerge in new places, blinded by daylight at first, but then able to see and connect the tunnels together. This is how I write a story.
Good luck to you fellow miner, Iíll see you on the other side.
[Excerpt from the Serpent Box Letters, originally written on Tuesday, February 5, 2002, at the Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco]
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Wednesday, January 30, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
It is a marvelously clear day, so bright and so very cold Ė an astounding 37 degrees and a big translucent moon is visible low in the morning sky.
I am filled with so much trepidation and doubt about this current section of chapter 30, which I have been laboring over for two days now. If I allow myself to think about it outside my writing time, I feel incredibly stupid and silly and small. Who am I to write such things? Who am I to try and envision God, let alone translate that into words? I am afraid that I will fall flat on my face here and that this particular section will be excised entirely. Each night since, I try to will myself to have the dream again but it doesnít come. It may never come again and may have been a once in a lifetime thing. I cannot tell you how much this is affecting my confidence.
And now I wonder if you ever read these things. Not that it matters. I write these to you but I write them for me and once they are sent I never read them again...
I know this is going to sound silly, but I think the problem might be my pen. I have lost my good ones and need more. The pens I have now are inferior and I am not having much luck with first drafts here on the Mac. Today I will get more pens.
Maybe we should talk soon. It might be a good thing. Iíd like to hear what you are doing. I donít even want to do any talking, I just want to listen. Whenever you feel the urge.
Thursday, January 31, 2002
Tullyís Coffee Shop, Polk Street, San Francisco
My day is in disarray. Had to bring the car in for service this morning and am thus not in my favorite place and not at all in my rhythm. Iím also worried about Zak (my dog), who has not been out today, and when I think of him there at home with his head upon his paws waiting, it breaks my heart.
Iím not sure what I will do this morning or how much work I will get in. But it is strange that one can never really tell how itís going to go on any given day until one tries. This is why we must write every day, religiously. Oneís mood before starting rarely reflects the outcome and quality of the dayís work. Yesterday I took a long walk downtown and wound up writing on a granite chess table in a public park Ė this at 2 oíclock in the afternoon, which is past my usual stopping point. So, while routine is always crucial, one cannot become handicapped by it or so rigid that you become closed off inside. If possible, the story should always be at the back of my mind and I should take every available opportunity to work on it. Does this bore you? Iím afraid it bores you. It is rather trivial and idiosyncratic.
And hereís the real point of todayís letter: I am so scared of the territory I now enter. This book has gotten too big for me. Jacob has gotten too big for me. He thinks now that he has seen an aspect of God, if not God himself. He has passed all the tests of not just a believer, not just a holy man, but a prophet, bordering on biblical proportions. He might just be a prophet Andrew, and what if he is? There are dimensions to this I never, ever expected. The ramifications in terms of my story and plot are mind-boggling to say the least. I must get a hold of myself. This was to be a simple story set in a simple time and place and now I face the possibility that it may not be so. Should this boy grow up? Will he ever be old? Will the story wind its way into the present? Should it? Or should it come to a screeching halt as he stands on the cusp of possibility? How does one control the story when so many things could happen? How do you know what should happen? In short, how does one learn restraint? How does one practice restraint? Iím afraid that I donít know how to write small. I am so worried that I am over-writing - pumping this thing full of combustible gas. All peaks and no valleys. Too much, too fast, too crazy. Oh how I wish I had a mentor, a wise and benevolent Prometheus figure, an Obi-Wan, someone to pat me on the wrist and tell me how silly I am. I promise you this my friend, if by Godís will this book is done, and if I ever manage to make this my living, I will help young writers. I will seek them out. I will do my best to pass on whatever it is that I learn, or at the very least I will just support someone. Hemingway said that ďSome writers are born just to help another write one sentence.Ē This will be the motto of my Ďclubí.
Wish me luck, pray for me, light incense and toll the ceremonial gongs. I am alone in the wilderness and the devil nips at my ear.
Friday, February 1, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
Iím juiced up and all ready to go today. Itís seething in me, but I donít want to jinx it so I wonít talk about it anymore. The cafť is packed to the gills today and I am sitting at an undesirable table. There is no space for me to spread out my laptop and notebook, let alone my plate and coffee. I am being distracted now by freelance work, some of which is unpaid. You know of course that one must do quite a bit of work just so that you can get work. I write so many proposals it makes me sick. But itís good and light writing that oneís brain can fart out like so much unwanted gas so I donít mind so much. I can do that kind of stuff at night or very early in the morning.
Now to the book. Iím as a clueless as a baby as to whatís going to happen. My word count is low. Iím at 80,000+ now and I hate to go back and average that out. It would depress me. I worry about a lot of things Andrew. Is there too much going on? Is there not enough counterpoint? Does the lack of a conspicuous adversary for Jacob detract from the story? Am I overwriting? Do I mention God too much? Is symbolism seeping in consciously? Am I repeating things too much? Iím so anxious to finish a complete draft so that I can begin chopping, slashing, laying waste to the waste. I want to pare this down to a streamlined and agile shark of a book. I want it to cut clean, in one swipe, not jagged, back and forth like the blade of a serrated bread knife. And I am a person who cannot stand a mess. I must clean it when I see it, and all I see now is mess. The thought of it all lying there in disarray disturbs and distracts me. This is my neurosis, I know. But I think I might enjoy the revision process as much, if not more than, the first draft.
I hope you are well and prolific. I hope that your words sing.
Note: I had a thought, and this is really more of a way to remind myself than anything else but, I think I should eliminate the character of Adeline Flint, Charles mother. Iím thinking that it would be cleaner, simpler and more logical if the old woman was his mother. I donít know. This might also raise certain complications, also, it may change the tone of the scenes and dialog between them. I want to think about this. Surely thereís no need to decide now.
So, what have I learned in 7 years? I still don't know what's going to happen next. I still don't know where a story will go. But I have faith now that it will carry me like water. I am bouyant. And I can swim.
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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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