Serpent Blog

The Good Fights 
I pray to God, show me what is right and help me to see. Help my work to have meaning. I think more and more about the effect of my work. I hope it will do a small amount of good. Perhaps that is too much to strive for...A writerís own nature is his worst enemy. Nothing escapes his attention and his curiosity. His penchant for distraction will drive him away from his work if he is not careful. I donít know if this is true of all writers. I really only know one, and I donít know him very well. But the same things that drive his desires to know and to explain also drives him away from his work. And, there is the desire for feeling. We want to feel, everything. Spiritual bliss most of all. The quest for knowing is a quest for spiritual bliss.

Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco

Dear Andrew,

I am milking chapter 31 for reasons Iím afraid may depress me, and you. What am I so damn afraid of? I suppose I fear really delving into Jacob. I suppose I fear the end. I suppose I fear my own commitment to this book. Whatever it is, Iíve got to get out of this damn cave. Iím stuck in a cave both literally and figuratively. Yesterday they found themselves a helluva snake Ė which is what Charles Flint asked for. They found a huge snake but did not manage to catch it. It has escaped into the cave and now they have to go after it because it is THE snake I need. It is the snake that will live in Jacobís unused coffin, and the snake that, well, now Iím thinking too far ahead.

I need this snake and it wonít come easy to them because it is old and over seven feet long and they have come into its world. If they manage to catch it must be on its terms. I cannot allow one man and one girl to traipse into a den of serpents and just walk away with a huge snake. I simply cannot allow that to happen. This snake must fight. This snake must assert its right to live where it belongs. I am being told by Lane Zachary (my agent at the time) that every chapter is big, every moment is big. I am being told there is too much drama and perhaps there is, but this snake and this cave have their own ideas Andrew. It needs to be as difficult for me to write my way out of it as it is for my characters to get out of it. This is no ordinary cave I have found in the North Georgia Hills, this is a sacred place and will not give up her secrets easily Ė even to an Indian who knows and respects it. This should be how it always is. We should struggle like mad for what we want. We must fight for what is good.

Now Iíve lost my train of thought. This is the danger of working in a small cafť. When it gets noisy my ears perk up and Iím in listening mode and then my brain switches away from the work. You must be frustrated by me. Iím a rambling fool.

Must finish (chapter) 31 today. All there is left to do is wrap up the snake hunt and go back for some appropriate bible verses. So today that will be done and there will be no more excuse, I will go back to Jacob and Charles and John, and kill one, elevate another and relegate the third to apostle status. You guess which is which.

Just one more thing. People are always talking about Hemingwayís prose as being terse and lean, and this is true to a point. There are many fine examples of this in his work. But there are also many examples of the exact opposite. I came across a passage today in Green Hills of Africa that would put Cormac McCarthy to shame. Iím talking about a sentence a page and half long Ė beautiful prose, wonderful writing, but not at all what one would expect from Hemingway. And this is not an anomaly. Nor are his use of adverbs; which the myth claims he abhors. He uses both long sentences and adverbs often, but masterfully, so as not to draw attention to themselves and much can be learned from this.



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My Little World... 
There is so much I donít know that it astounds me. My lack of knowledge is as vast as the stars and the universe and when I look at Serpent Box sometimes I get the feeling that Iím staring into a night sky. Steinbeck had East of Eden mapped out pretty well in his head. He knew what he had to do. He knew how to control tempo and manipulate the readerís emotions. I suppose this comes with experience, but I wish I knew more about what I wanted to happen next in my little world.. And it is that, my world. My place...

A Serpentís Journal
Excerpts, February 8-11, 2002
South Park Cafť, San Francisco


I have taken a big detour with this chapter in the cave and I canít help thinking that it will get cut. I think about this a lot now Ė about what will be cut out Ė and it depresses me because I put so much into every little sentence. But this is really the part I love most about this, the construction elements of building and shuffling and rewording and reading aloud and tweaking and polishing and then letting it sit for awhile like a bowl full of yeast feeding on sugar-water and then coming back to it yet again until it is just right. This is the real writing I think, the work after the original thought. Crafting the thought. If I have any talent, this is where it lies, in this part of the process. Give me the raw materials for a story and I can build a good one. Please tell me that one day I can work with you on a story, just one is all I ask, a gem of a short story, a miracle of a piece. Lord how I yearn to work on a short again. I hope that what I am going through now will help me and make me a better short story writer. This novel business is not for a manic, impatient writer like me.

. . .

It is a fine morning. Skies are blue with only the long wispy clouds that mean good weather to come. It is bright, so bright that one is forced to wince and hold a hand to the brow in order to see. I did not finish chapter 31 yesterday. Perhaps I got too cocky. Iím having some problems with Magdalena because I still donít know her yet and Iím having problems within the confines of the cave. Logistically, I have three people down there and I have to get two of them into a small chamber where there are snakes who are down here near a hot-spring keeping warm. I had thought that this might be the easiest kind of writing because outside [the outdoors] is my element. Once Iím in the natural world, I am at home, but Georgia is not my home and I wish to God I could have spent a few days in the woods there before tackling this book. I want to know the trees and the topography. I want to feel the quality of the air. Maybe my next novel can take place in California, or upstate New York which are the two worlds I feel I know better than any, including my own inner landscape.

It occurred to me that I am wring this for many reasons, some of them hidden to me. I of course want to tune up before working, and I want to summarize my thoughts, thus distilling them. Also, I think I am trying to convince myself that I am sane. And there are other things going on here too. Will I ever read this once I am done? Will anyone else? Who knows. But I know one thing, Steinbeck helped me with his letters to Covici, and perhaps one day I can help someone too. This has become part of the process now. I hesitate to stop for fear of jinxing the work.

Okay, now Iíll work. I am in a different cafť, one much quieter Ė though quite a distance from home. And they make the best coffee here. It is dangerous, for I will drink too much coffee.

. . .

If this thing ever gets done itíll be a miracle straight from God himself. This book has no business being completed, with my life the way it is, all odds are against it and I suppose this is why I persevere. I am stubborn like you would not believe. I simply will not give up. But I will give up this ridiculous tirade. I must finish 31 today. I must. I have milked it far too long. I have milked this book far too long, I must make better progress and work harder. The problem is I am not reading anymore. I need to be reading and Iím spending all my time reading Steinbeck's journal and the bible and Hemingwayís politically incorrect hunting journal. None of this inspires. The bible a bit. The Steinbeck a bit but I need more. Man this is turning into a rant but I must need to rant. God how I wish I had a real friend Andrew. Okay Iím done. I hope you donít even read this one, I have nothing to say today, not here, perhaps it will all come out through my fingers.


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So it would be. The boy would never dwell upon the land again. Before him lay the sea with all her glorious shades and shimmers, shadows and sallows, and it was blinding in its brilliance so that he had to shade his eyes with his hand and squint to recognize it as something real and of this earth. His first sight of it. And surely this was Heaven. It heaved like a great beast and roared against the rocks below where the docks could be seen in miniature at this distance, and the ships at mooring, the Men of War, with their jolly boats plying to and fro like pond skimmers. He stood in the dog-cart and held onto to his uncleís arm for balance. The man, who was his fatherís brother, spoke not a word. But the boy could see in his eye a look that required no translation. The mere mention of the sea had often sent him into a reverie, where heíd stare long and hard at the sky as if expecting a divine visitation. His eyes would take on that same quality heíd seen in his own father when he sat before the fire, lost in tales of ships. They would glisten and burn and smile, his eyes did, like an old man with the best hand of cards.

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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The Birth of a Chapter, the Death of a Book. 
The letters saved me. Because letters always do. Otherwise, you throw your voice out into the universe like a note in a wine bottle and most of the time no one ever hears you. Just like now. This silly blog. Itís a message in a bottle. And thatís fine. In fact itís essential, because itís hope. All writing is a form of hope, or should be I think. And when I was writing Serpent Box I had such little hope. The glimmer I had came from these letters I would write to my friend A., who did what all writers should do for each other, namely, listen...

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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The Tunnel Effect 
In order to write truly, one must feel that he has lived before, a different life in a different world. You must feel it and believe it and make your reader believe it too. When you write, you follow images and feelings from your subconscious, and you sort through them, so quickly, so unconsciously, that the process can hardly be observed, and in your writing you record those relevant to your piece, those that jibe with the feeling that initiated the story, that is the genesis of all stories. This is why Hemingway says that all stories start with a feeling. This is crucial. Because when youíre writing, what you are really doing is mining. You are mining for images and ideas that are associated with an emotion, and an emotional tone. A story must hinge upon a feeling, not just an idea. Such stories stand out like black eyes from among all others. A story that is born in feeling, and that is nurtured through that feeling, is like a living flower within a plastic bouquet. With such a feeling as a foundation for a story, one can tunnel through. You can turn the story around in your hand like a little globe and enter from any point, digging with a pen, chipping out words, carving away, drilling down with that feeling as your diamond-tipped bit, as you search through hundreds, thousands of memory-rich neurons in order to connect those that are not only relevant but true to the story. By God, writing is a miracle.

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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