His uncle sat the horse on the rise above Bristol and gestured with one hand to the expanse before them. He swept his hand across the horizon and turned to the boy who stood rapt before this new marvel in his only suit of clothes.
"This is your life now, Johnny", he said. "Here lies your fate. The destiny of all true sons of England."
He clucked with his tongue at the horse and the cart moved down the muddy road with a wobble and creak. The boy stood the whole way, making a conscious effort to feel the ground below the wheels. To feel the earth. They spoke not a word as they wound their way to the wharf where the sound of men drowned out the sound of surf. The boy saw the ships and their sailors, every man jack of them alive as he had never seen men living, their bodies strong, their eyes happy in their work, their skin glowing and as tan as a saddle. He saw the yawning gun-ports of the ships and the peeking iron muzzles with their black gaping holes of death, cold now and oiled to a high sheen, and he saw the carpenters at work, the boson and their mates, with hammer and adze amidst the flying chips of wood, scores of men at earnest fitting. He saw the reefers high above hum unfurl the great spreads of canvas that flapped and thundered like a corps of drums and he was at once excited and afraid. His life now.
The cart pulled up before a berth where a three-decker lie at lading, a monster of a ship as tall as a mountain, whose rigging and decks were filled with the shouts and activities of seamen. They stood before a be speckled old man in a black frock coat with shiny brass buttons and a snow-white wig who sat before a ledger propped on a folding table. His uncle pushed him forward and cleared his throat. The man glanced up at the boy with a sour look on his face and a smudge of black ink on his upper lip. He extended his hand and the boy moved to shake it but the man was not interested in such greetings and reached out to his uncle who produced a folded letter secured with a red wax seal.
"Name", the man said.
The boy could not speak. He felt the beating of his heart in his chest.
"Name", the man repeated.
"Silver", his uncle said for him. "John W. Silver. Signing on as mid-shipman, 3rd class".
The man cracked the seal on the letter written by the boyís father before he died. He scanned the note and nodded at the boy and entered his name in his ledger and spoke again no more.
"Now, you behave yourself Johnny, his uncle said. Make your father proud. Youíll be back in three years, God willing, and youíll be back a man, which is more than I can do for you."
He dropped a few coins into the boyís hand, and gave him his fatherís old greatcoat and his saber, which he raised from its scabbard so that the boy could see the first few inches of white steel .
"Remember this well Johnny", he said. "Take good care of your sword and your sword will take good care of you".
And he shook the boyís hand and he turned and the boy watched him climb into the cart with the horse and he watched him until he vanished in the throng of men, until the hoof beats were no more. He never laid eyes on his uncle again.
There was a moment when he thought of running, but the sound of the ship and the smell of it overwhelmed that urge and the moment passed. The ship had claimed him as her own, and the sea hers, and for the rest of his days those two great creations, one of man and one of God, would vie for his life and fight for his soul, until he was broken and cursed, disfigured and damned, and a boy like himself would come to redeem him.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
There is a state of mind I strive for, but which I cannot turn on and off at will, and this is a deep, deep sadness, a rosy melancholy that keeps me on the verge of tears. This is where I want to be when I am writing and God only knows what triggers it but today it is here, it is here, it is here. Itís a poetry kind of feeling, a glorious blue mood that calls to mind a steady rain and the sounds of the wind and sea. The key is not to think about it but to let it flow and here I am thinking when I should be writing, so let me go and do that and I will report back to how it all went. It is two minutes before nine now, and Iím nursing this first cup of coffee Ė and it is coffee, straight coffee. Here I goÖ.
It is noon now. I wrote six hand-written pages in my notebook. This is a good day. But I did not finish the chapter as I had wished. I really wanted to finish because it is an exciting chapter where Baxter Dawes takes Magdalena Flint into an Indian cave to find a special snake. Itís very Tom Sawyer-ish. I really like all the things that are happening outside the main story-line. I genuinely like Baxter Dawes, he is developing into someone I truly care about. Which is too bad, because he may have to pay the ultimate price. For that, he may have to die.
Thursday, February 7, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
Today I will finish chapter 31, and I must do this because the following chapter is beginning of the end. Meaning, things will start to happen now that will lead to resolution (resolution of what?) and Jacob will blossom (blossom into what?) and the answers to all the questions I have raised will be answered (but what questions have I raised?).
Many times, when I get sidetracked, possibilities reveal themselves. So I do not allow myself to get too concerned when I take detours away from the plot (as I have done this entire week). But I still have much trouble with the truth. I still do not know what the truth is in relation to this story, and maybe Andrew, I do not even know what the truth is as it pertains to myself and the world in general. But this is far too deep and too much of a Ďtherapistísí moment to get into here. But I will tell you this, I will tell you about something I felt yesterday, and maybe you will understand my state of mind.
I went to a discount bookstore. But it was not even a bookstore, it was a temporary bookstore. Some empty retail location leased out to some book distributor trying to dump overstock. Anyway, this was a big, big mistake. I would sooner have gone into a city morgue the day after a deadly fire. For most of what I saw there was failure. Novels that did not sell. Novels that were perhaps well written but poorly titled, or poorly jacketed, or poorly marketed, or ill-timed Ė and surely there were many which were in fact poorly written, but it did not matter why they were there. They were dead. They were corpses, and there were so many, so many books, so many novels, so manyÖand among them, were six copies of Kathy Hepinstallís Absence of Nectar. Now let me tell you Andrew, it was as if I had stumbled upon her nude and murdered body in a cornfield. I am not exaggerating, this is not me trying to be dramatic to make a point. My heart sunk, my eyes tingled at the corners and my body made every preparation it could to sob. I bought one Andrew, I bought one for six dollars. I wanted to buy them all. And I flipped open the dust jacket, and I read the acknowledgments and looked at her picture and my hopes and dreams came crashing down like the World Trade Center tower number two.
Ah Jesus, this canít be good for me. This is no way to start the day. Why am I doing this? Maybe itís so that I can be humbled again, and be warned. And then, among the stacks I found a hard-copy of All the Pretty Horses, and I read the first paragraph, and by God I did weep Andrew, I wept at the simple genius of it, I wept at the truth of it, at the fact that what McCarthy says is not thought of and constructed, but felt, it comes from the dark place and opens the trap door beneath the readerís feet ďÖ.this is not sleep, this is not sleep.Ē
And so we go on.
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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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