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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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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Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco
I must confess that I feel very uncomfortable hearing about other writers. I do not like to see them interviewed on television, and I do not like hearing about their prizes and awards. I do not like to go to readings and I despise overhearing conversations in which writers are talking. This is because I feel so insecure about my own work, and also quite impatient. I envy that they have finished (books) and when they talk about how they are deciding to write their next book, and what to write about, I am forced to muster great self-control so as not to scream. I have no money Andrew, and no income, and try as I might to not let this creep into my daily thoughts, I find myself worrying more and more – and perhaps this is yet another insidious way my subconscious attempts to sabotage my work. And there are so many ways. Steinbeck used to write his confessions in letters to himself that he would then immediately burn. I wonder if this helped in any way?
I have been dreaming. My night-time visions have been vivid and filled with strange and sometimes terrible things. It is wondrous and fantastic how the mind works. It always shows us what we need to see. Last night I witnessed the suffering of wandering men. I saw them sleeping in culverts, and beneath stairwells. It was very cold outside and they were wrapped in horrible blankets and castaway rugs. And they were covered in their own vomit and in excrement, and I did nothing to help them, In fact, I ran away. I choose not to interpret this.
But I wish I would dream of the book. Why don’t I dream of it I wonder? I am worried that it is not consuming me. Shouldn’t it consume me? Why doesn’t Charles Flint or Jacob Flint come to me in the night? I need them to come. I need them to tell me things. I never see them at any other time then when I am working. I want to be consumed and obsessed. I feel like such a sham. Who am I to write this book? I know nothing of them, I know nothing. Now this is a wonderful way to get started isn’t it? These letters are supposed to warm my engine, not drain its oil. Therefore I will stop. Know this my friend, if you are suffering, I suffer with you. There is no end to this I’m afraid. And I don’t think I want it to end. I only want to finish the book.
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January 11, 2002
South Park Café, San Francisco
I realize now that I misdated my previous letter. It was in fact the tenth and not the ninth of January yesterday…
Now, I must tell you, that I feel it is necessary for me to walk to my writing place, and if possible, to walk a significant distance in order to arrive there. I have made it my habit to come here, to this café, on Fridays, though it takes considerable time and effort to do so. South Park is a lovely and secret little place a quarter mile from the new baseball stadium and less than a hundred yards from the spot where Jack London was born. This is where I began my first story, and where I drew my early inspiration. I feel as though his wandering spirit bolsters my abilities here, and I am talking about Jack London, who resides in my heart and pantheon of influences and inspirations. But back to walking for a moment.
Movement, the pounding of one’s heart, the ever-changing scenery, exposure to people, regular people, working-class people, going about their daily routines, trains, buses, taxis, street-beggars, the sunlight dancing on the windows of the high-rises, the cold air and the steam seeping up from the sewer grates – all this frees the mind and prepares the conscious to greet the unconscious. There is also a sense of purpose when one journeys to one’s place of work. I have often felt the spark of inspiration for many of my writings on these walks. It seems that I must warm up like an old car in winter before I can drive….
I am excited now because I am developing my process, though it must remain a flexible process. I do not worry. I do not think very much. I trust it to come. I have faith, not so much in the end result, but in its inception. I know I can begin, and if I can begin, there is hope of an end.
“Just remember that this book will go on forever. I do not ever intend to finish it. And only with this attitude will it progress as I wish it to.”
Andrew, nothing in my life or in my experience has prepared me for this kind of patience. I am most ill-prepared for the writing life - for the creation of the great and lasting novel. You may as well ask me to create one of those Navajo sand paintings that are crafted grain by grain over many years, only to be swept away upon the moment of completion. Did I get that right? Are they Navajo sand paintings? Or are they Indian, as in the yogis of India? Please correct me if I am mistaken. Andrew, it is my great wish to work side-by-side with you. I envy how you and Gina have your desks in one room the way you do, and I think you have a fine office and workplace. If we ever live in the same city, we must rent office space together.
I must get to the writing now. I know that my work today will be fine.
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There is a quote attributed to Hemingway that I cannot verify, but it sounds like something he would believe, if not actually say and it goes something like this:
"Some writers were born to help another write a single sentence."
And it is true. As writers we not only help each other to write, but it is our solemn responsibility to do so. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, including old Papa. But this duty, this responsibility goes beyond obligation. The gift that one writer gives to another, in helping him or her to believe, is an act of love.
This is a small story about one of those rare writers.
You wake up very early, sometimes before the sun, and you watch the light as it comes. You wake but not fully, you move slow and remain quiet and you wait for the feeling to come and then you face the page. There you sit. Alone. Day after day after day. What will come? You ask yourself this question every day and you fall asleep asking it of God. What will come? And nobody answers you. Will anything come today? You try to see things that are not really there and never were there before you imagined them. You stare at the blank page but you’re really looking inward, for some semblance of a waking dream. That’s what it is if you’re lucky, a self-induced dream. If you can will the dream to come you can watch it play and then it’s sort of like dictation except there’s no voice, only a stream of images that you record with your hand like some medium pulling messages out from beyond.
Writing is the loneliest thing there is. I mean riting from the heart. Writing beyond what you know. Writing toward the center of yourself. Writing as discovery. Writing as a means to knowing – not just who you truly are, but who we all are and what it means to be alive, and not merely alive but living, why do we keep on living? This is what you ask when your writing is true. Writing from darkness toward light. This is a great and difficult journey. This is a hero’s quest. And it is very lonely. And it is terrifying in its loneliness. And the world outside yourself will try to crush you with solitude and the world inside yourself will try to destroy you with doubt.
But if you are very lucky you will have a friend. Please God, help me. Send me an angel. If you are very, very lucky you will find another like yourself who understands this drive, this desire, this need, to plumb the depths of this living, with words, which are magic and which were given to us by God to literally create realities and to help us understand ourselves and to change our lives and, if used wisely, to change the world for good. This is true of writers, but it’s true of all people who sincerely want to grow, to transform, and evolve into a better, loving human beings. If you are lucky you will find a friend who takes you by the hand and guides you toward the light.
Writing Serpent Box was the most difficult challenge I have ever faced. How do you write a book? Where do you begin? You can research and plan and outline. You can read and study. You can travel to your desired locations and interview other human beings. But eventually you face the blank page. Then what? You have to put something on the page and someone has to read it. And when you’re new, and green and a child, with no preparation or background in writing, that person has to tell you the truth. And if that person understands you, and if they love you and believe in you, then you stand a chance at surviving the onslaught that will be hurled at you every single day. All the doubt, all the fear, all those voices that are telling you that you can’t do it, that you should quit, that you don’t have what it takes. All you need to weather the storm is another writer who is a friend.
In 1999 I went to Belize and met a writer who changed my life. His name is Andrew Wilson and he has been my mentor ever since. We became friends at the Zoetrope All-Story Short Story Writer’s Workshop. It was in Belize that I began my odyssey. Everything changed in that high forest near the Guatemalan border. I wrote the first line of Serpent Box in Belize and left that country determined to turn writing from a hobby into my life’s great passion. Andrew Wilson, who is more talented than I, who has more experience than I, who has written one of the best novels I have ever read (a novel as yet unpublished) listened to me, read my work, and was there for me during the dark and hopeless days when I not only wanted to quit, but wanted to die.
I wrote Andrew a letter every day before I began my writing and sent them to him via email. I used those letters to bolster my confidence and to weigh ideas. They were sounding boards, those letters were, and often Andrew would answer them with a few well-chosen words of advice, or, with a quotation from some great writer who had gone through what I was going through. My letters were cries for help and Andrew replied with love. I grew to trust him, and thus, to trust myself. Knowing that a living, loving human being was out there listening to me was enough to keep me going through some very dark times.
The Serpent Box Letters were inspired by The East of Eden Letters, written by John Steinbeck to his editor Pascal Covici while Steinbeck was writing that great novel. Reading Steinbeck’s letters showed me that all writers, regardless of stature or level of success, continue to struggle each time they try to pull a book out of themselves that is greater than themselves. Writing a book that is bigger than yourself, that is far-reaching, and that tries to answer a great question that burns within you, is a hero’s quest. And the great heroes of myth never do it alone.
Here now is the first letter I wrote to Andrew Wilson, only a few months into the process of writing Serpent Box. By this time it had become my routine to work in a local coffee shop each morning, a wonderful place called The Higher Grounds Café in the Glen Park district of San Francisco.
January 9, 2002 - The Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco
Today I begin what I hope will become a daily habit, a way to warm up my fingers and loosen my writing head. It is a glorious morning, and I cannot tell you how important that is for one’s state of mind. If there is sun, and most importantly, shadow, I know that the day’s writing will be rich and full of raw emotion. Yesterday I wrote in the morning in long-hand, as I explained, and in the afternoon I transcribed some of that onto my little Mac laptop which I love so much. I write everything in long-hand first and then transcribe onto the Mac. This process is arduous, and the transcription is many times more difficult than the actual writing. This is because I labor over it and mull it over, and read it, again and again and sometimes out loud so I can get a sense of cadence and tone. I fill in all the blanks this way and beef up the writing and it becomes rich like churned butter as I work it over and over during this part of the process. I know now that I will have to go back into the manuscript and add scenes. I suppose that on my first pass I hit all the highlights and perhaps leave out the broader and perhaps more important mundane aspects of the world my people live in.
I approach the work with great excitement today. This is because I think I know what the next scene will be. It is so strange to have these visions, these waking dreams in which I see fictional people alive and in motion. Sometimes I feel like an unwilling prophet, like Jonah or Isaiah, with these dreams thrust upon me from above. I feel as much pain and consternation as they, and I wish that if God actually wanted to speak through me, he would just appear and be done with it…
One thing before I go. I feel bad about yesterday. I don’t think I was much help to you, and I so badly want to give back. I sensed a reluctance in you, I felt that perhaps you had wanted to say more. I am nobody to be giving you advice about writing, but I feel we are kindred spirits in other ways too, and that I am more than qualified to speak on the subject of angst and pain. Particularly pain. And I feel it my friend. Like a an old wound of war, a bullet too close to the spine, it’s always with me, and there are days when I am so close to the black edge that I can hardly believe I escaped a darker fate…I know now that is the words that saved me, if I did not find books when I did, my path would have been very bleak indeed. Perhaps this is what Tim O’Brien means when he says that stories can save us…
To read more letters please come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that...
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