My current shirt and mood
I have lost track of how many times I have declared my novel “finished.”
My current shirt and mood
I have lost track of how many times I have declared my novel “finished.”
The first time I heard Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” about the controversial murder conviction of black boxer Ruben Carter, I pulled my 1972 Chrysler New Yorker into a rest stop off the highway so that I could allow myself to be riveted. In my memory it is summer and I fumble for a pen not yet gummy and ruined by too many hot days in the car, and for a napkin in the hope I would be able to record the name and search for it at a record store.
Times were different then. Google did not facilitate such searches.
The story surfaces because it so closely tracks Emily Dickinson’s much-echoed remark to a friend named Higginson : “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” And because this weekend, Bob Dylan was to be in Sweden, months after the Nobel Prize banquet, where members of the academy were to meet up with him before a previously arranged stop on his current concert tour.
After the announcement that Dylan was being given the prize for 2016 that Faulkner got in 1949 and Camus was given in 1957, the boo birds came out in full voice. Writers from every part of the talent spectrum started responding in green ink, tweeting and posting on-line their disdain for the selection. Several took the easy cheap shot, asking haughtily if they could submit their fiction works for Emmy awards, or nonsense along those lines.
As so often happens in the world where social media values immediacy over all else, the boo birds – while seductively snarky – are mistaking ignorance for wisdom.
The first literature was sung.
Carol Wagner Traub 1942-2016
Slow Train Coming
I have, in a sense, been waiting for this since I was a 4-year-old little boy who didn’t really understand why mommy was going to the hospital and I was sleeping at Uncle Ronnie’s. After the mastectomy that granted her another 42 years, her sons and infant daughter were brought to see her at the hospital. Among my earliest memories is hugging her in her wheelchair there and crying as I said: “Mommy, don’t ever run away again.”
She never did.
It was posed as an innocent question, entirely without baggage: “Daddy, do you ever write in that journal?”
We were making the 15 minute drive to her summer camp, where she fills her days in singing, acting, film and music classes led by passionate, talented teachers. This camp session, one of her six classes is a writer’s workshop. I’ve not yet been let into the circle of knowing what they talk about there.
Innocent or not, the question gave me a little jolt. “Sometimes,” was the best answer I could muster. The journal was on the front seat, sidling up against the book I’m reading a very few pages at a time. In truth, it had been weeks since I’d written a line in the journal, and likely weeks before that. It has been years since journaling has been part of my writing or spiritual discipline. It may be ten years or more since I wrote three days in a row. But I carry it most every day.
The house is quiet.
And I’ve finished The Splendid Children.
I finished the initial draft and put the manuscript to rest on June 3, 2015. Between the rest periods and the flurries of active editing, it took almost exactly a year to have it ready to ship to an editor or agent. I reached that point just about midnight as June 1 became June 2, 2016.
When I started running again in my mid -20s, I did not go far and I did not go fast. But every time I finished a run, I put my arms in the air as if I was breaking the tape at the Pru on President’s Day. Even if a two mile run is a joke to someone in actual shape, it was a big deal to me.
In my head, I would cue the Rocky Theme, and sometimes whistle, hum or dah-dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah-dah-dah a few bars. Did it again last night.
So El Gato Guapo is the first one to hear any of my book.
We have a system. He hears me when I put my foot on the floor anytime after 4:30 a.m. and sprints from whatever corner of the house he is in. He manages to be between me and the bathroom before I can open the door of the bedroom.
I then have two options:
Option A: Go downstairs and feed him a can of mush, which someone in a marketing department rebranded “pate’,” then sit somewhere so he can come to rest on me and stay there.
Option B: Listen while he wakes my daughter, then my wife, and then execute Option A within 10 minutes anyway.
This is working out for both of us right now, since my editing procedure on this third pass is to read the book aloud. And I am finding myself unable to concentrate on what I’m reading aloud if there is another soul within earshot.
I don’t know why this is. It is not, I don’t think, an extension of author Amy MacKinnon’s caution not to talk your story away. The story is written. It is not because I am embarrassed of the story. I am unclear if it is a jealousy, that I want it to still be mine for a little while longer. Or a fear that hearing disjointed bits and starts will spoil the whole.
I have met and read people who claim to love editing their fiction. I do not hate them, but consider them strange and exquisite mistakes of nature. Like the guy who last year took home what looks like a bowling trophy for eating 62 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs at the annual (yes, really) competition held at Coney Island every Independence Day.
Writing The Splendid Children was very much like skiing down hill for me. It was still work. I fell from time to time and was plenty sore more than once. I even skied off the trail and into the woods in Chapter 4, necessitating a retreat and retry. But there was also a lot of feeling myself pulled forward to an inevitable goal, with every anticipation that I would know when I was done.
Editing offers essentially none of that.
It was quite a rush.
When people asked me what I did for a living, I could just say “I’m a writer.”
If they pressed, I’d say I wrote for a newspaper – “right now.” In the right setting – where it wouldn’t come out sounding pompous – I’d allow as how “I am what I wanted to be when I grew up.” When the census form came and asked me for my profession, I answered truthfully: Writer.
After a few years, I had moved from part-time at a weekly paper to full-time at a regional daily. Although the intervening years have obscured the details, I think it was during a drive home at 4 a.m., possibly in a snowstorm, that I realized that being a newspaper reporter was the best job and the worst career possible for me.
Even in childhood I was someone to whom others would tell their stories. Some blend of empathy, personal experience and the working vocabulary my parents passed along made it easy for me to write the stories I heard. Just a few months into the job, I did a profile on the nice woman who had just been promoted to run the bird sanctuary on Moose Hill in Massachusetts. We sat and chatted for an hour or so, I took a grainy photo of her, and a few days later a 24-inch profile showed up on the inside pages of my hometown weekly. I can’t recall if she phoned me or dropped me a note after it was published, but I remember what she said. She had thought her life had meandered without plan or pattern. When she read her profile, she saw the threads I had teased out, how all the pieces fit. The story made so much sense.
The nice lady who got a new liver from an unfortunate motorcyclist would write me a note a month after she was featured in my story during an organ transplantation awareness campaign. She had put the story up on the bulletin board at work and it had opened conversations and lines with co-workers she had known for years, but who never got it. Until then.
The best job.
But also the worst career. After 5 promotions in four years across three papers, it was time to watch my younger sister graduate college. I put in for the day off so I could be there. My new editor told me he was sorry, but someone else in the bureau had already put in for that day off and part of his management overhaul of our bureau was that we couldn’t possibly have two people out in a single day. Our bureau of 9 reporters couldn’t possibly get by with just 7.
I spoke to the editor-in-chief of the paper, and she said of course I could go. I didn’t have to come to the part, which I had rehearsed in a mirror, where I said that the day before graduation would be my last day with the company. Harvard graduations are quite a thing. Czech President Vaclav Havel had spoken the previous year, and if we were all going to get seats, I had to get there about dawn and stake them out. Then my parents and elderly grandmother could arrive at a decent hour.
It is a little fuzzy now, but I think I still had some seething in my belly as I sat in that light rain. Five promotions, the most senior reporter in my bureau, weeks of built up vacation and sick time, 10 to 20 hours of unpaid overtime donated to the company every week and getting the day off to attend the graduation had required an act of senior management. And twisting the knife just a little bit, my sister (who is admittedly 30 IQ points ahead of me even when she is anesthetized ) was graduating into a job making exactly twice my salary after those raises.
The best job. The worst career.
As I remember it, my sister and I were both wet from swimming in a pool a few weeks after graduation and I was blabbing about the stress and frustration of that job I loved. I tend to think like light bouncing off a disco ball. She tends to think like a laser beam cutting a diamond. She asked, very factually, what I wanted to really do. I said I wanted to write books.
“Is the job you have getting you closer to doing what you want to do?”
“That is your answer.”
That was my answer. I failed to heed the warning that I had long attributed to John Steinbeck that if one wishes to write fiction, you should not take a job in PR, advertising or other semi-creative enterprise. Take a job in a sardine cannery. Turns out, if Steinbeck said that, Google doesn’t know anything about it.
When Mark Bryan, author of The Artist’s Way, The Prodigal Father and Codes of Love, was getting his master’s degree at Harvard years ago, we struck up a brief friendship – largely around writing. We were at his flat one day, the draft of, I believe, Codes of Love open on a computer, when he told me “You only get so many words a day. Be careful how you use them.”
It took me too many years to digest and make use of that advice. It is why I now write in the morning. It is why the job I’ve had writing for a government agency did not stop me from finishing the draft of my novel. My word clock, whether it be real or imaginary, resets when I sleep. Now, I write in the morning, before I can pour words into press releases, legislative testimony or any of the rest of it.
It is getting me closer to what I want to do. Finally.