Tag Archives: literary obsession

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic! part 5: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

24 Feb

1.

No posts for a while. The stomach flu whipped through our house, snagging Beth first, then Simone, and then me. Pearl remained half-sick throughout; her MO is to carry a cold eight days a week. She’s a happy, toothy, snuffly baby who doesn’t cry[1].

Fever, chills, the shakes and aches, ignominy, retching, and delirium times three; there’s little room for dignity in a household under the banner of sickness. Too sick to read, too miserable to watch movies, too uncomfortable to enjoy other people. Simone bore her burden well. She kept shaking her head when we would tell her it’s okay to get sick. Her response: “No! It’s too stinky!”

Despite the nausea, Simone was pretty happy; she went on a movie binge, watching My Fair Lady; Meet Me in St. Louis; Singin’ in the Rain; and Hello, Dolly. She’ll be an expert on movie musicals by the time she reaches kindergarten. Which has been my plan all along.

The only good thing to come out of it is the return of my appetite and my first cup of coffee in three days. And a major itch to get back to writing. Of course, I also have to return to work.

Back to life. Back to reality[2].

2.

I have plenty of half-written essays soon to be posted, including a lengthy essay on The Master, and an essay on Downton Abbey[3]. I (mostly) ceased caring about the Oscars a long time ago, but I’ll be disappointed when Hoffman, Adams and Phoenix are passed over for the acting awards, despite the fact that they should all win the top honors. (Here’s another prediction: my gut tells me Silver Linings Playbook—which to me was mediocre, although it looked great—will run away with most of the awards. That and Argo.) I also have a multi-part history of black cinema, “Little Ben and the Gnostic Christ,” and “Soccer-skate-surf-punk Pensacola.” That’s a preview, however, not a promise. Don’t know what will make it here or when.

The imagination can be a mercurial thing. My thoughts slip and slide. I don’t procrastinate, I lose interest. I sometimes have difficulty focusing my attention. I write in manic bursts—always have—and then slide into a lonely stupor.

Since Christmas, I’ve been on a reading tear. The Twenty-Year Death (a neo-noir three-part novel written in the styles of Georges Simenon, then Raymond Chandler, then Jim Thompson and it’s excellent); The Natural (Bernard Malamud is superb, my nominee for the most underrated writer of the last fifty years); Tenth of December (worthy of all the attention it’s getting, and more so); The Big Screen (David Thomson’s history of the movies and it’s just great); Somebody (a marvelous biography of Marlon Brando, and I’m only a quarter of the way in); Little Big Man (a very fine romp of a western, I liked it, but ten years ago I would have loved it) and The Ginger Man (one of the best novels I’ve read in years, funny, complex, beautiful, moving, squalid, yet easy to read). I’m also re-reading Sandman for the umpteenth time and finding it to be as rich, satisfying and rewarding as the first time I read it. It’s a milestone, and alongside The Invisibles and Promethea, a reminder of how tame and un-ambitious most comics series are.

I also re-read Heart of Darkness, a few pages a week here and there, and it still holds a disturbing, dark magnetism, and plenty of surprises. There’s a scene near the end when the narrator first sees Kurtz’s house, and it’s ringed by decapitated heads stuck on poles, and the heads are all facing Kurtz’s house. A throwaway detail that explains so much. It’s such an appalling, dense and rich work. Why they teach it in high school is a mystery to me. I despised it when I was eighteen, loved it just two years later.

3.

Finally, the real reason I’ve been posting less: I’m back in the submitting game, with a novel manuscript (which I’ve worked through three drafts), an excerpt that (mostly) works as a stand-alone story, and a short story. I’ve sent the novel to three places. I’ve sent the short story to six or seven. I’ve sent the excerpt just to one place: the New Yorker. Fail big, my friends. That’s my motto. Any neo-friends in the digital ether who want to help a stranger, I’m here.

More to come.


[1] Except in the middle of the night.

[2] I doth quote En Vogue freely.

[3] Prepare to have your mindgrapes blown.

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Dreams of automatic writing and the first paragraph of another failed short story.

10 Nov

1.

At 20, I experimented with what Yeats called automatic writing, using my left hand. I bought into the idea that each hand corresponds with the other side of the brain, so using my left hand would bring the right side of my brain around. I got some strange results. The notion is that, unfettered by social conventions or the burden of consciousness, the unconscious would produce startling and creative ideas. It mostly works. There’s a mystical side to it, if you want—Yeats believed that he was communing with the dead, at one point—but for me it was a way of circumventing some of the blockage of my culture and childhood. I did this for a few months.[1] I filled half a little notebook with it. Memory distorts, but I have a recollection of a shift in my dreams.

I have a notebook, somewhere in my archive, with these left-handed scribbles. I do remember one day writing about the earth being hollow, existing as an incubator for a giant octopus. Weird.

There’s something liberating about writing something you know no one will read. Something comes loose; there’s a sense of freedom, and freefall, that unpacks the brain.

2.

I carried the idea of automatic writing with me for years. But I let the practice of it die out. I instead began turning to my dreams for inspiration.

I’ve always been a vivid, if disturbed, dreamer. I sleepwalk. I cry out. I, reportedly—on at least two occasions—sleep with my eyes wide open, staring out into empty space. One time I dreamed of a professor stabbing a necklace with a toothpick at a cocktail party; the necklace had a tiny vampire yoked to the chain like a locket. Another time I dreamed my father was some bull god from ancient Sumer, hiding out in Pensacola. Throughout my life I’ve awoken in severe, stomach churning fright.[2]

On multiple occasions I’ve started stories (or ended them) with images and ideas given to me while asleep.

One of these is titled “Red Giant, White Dwarf.”

The germ of it came from a peculiar nightmare. The dream went like this:

I was in my apartment, in the kitchen, and I had the strangest sense of being watched. I went into the bedroom, down a long hallway, but there was no one. I searched in the bathroom, but didn’t open the shower curtain. I went back into the living room, but it was just the stillness and the furniture. But the feeling wouldn’t go away. Then a friend came over. He was scared. He needed to confess something to me. His hands were shaking. He started to tell me something about the water and then shoved me down behind the couch and put a finger over my mouth. “Shhh,” he said. “There’s a dwarf in the cupboard over the refrigerator. He has a gun.”

I tried—with middling results—to use this as a starting point for a short story. I had a character tell his friends that he couldn’t get over the feeling that he was being observed. They ignore his fears until he disappears. It reads like a mystery, and it’s pretty good, too, until the penultimate scene where I have two characters go to Subway. God.

Despite appearances to the contrary, I had progressed as a writer at this point, having written a few hundred thousand words of fiction, and read years of the world’s great literature every night. The problem wasn’t my style, but my subject matter and my lack of focus. I would finish a story or novel and then move on to a new one. I didn’t spend the hard time with the edits. I didn’t massage the tone of my sentences, the tone of my stories. I wrote in bursts, did a little rewriting on the sentences, then slunk back to my cave until another burst of energy hit.

Anyway, I had absorbed Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo, as well as more David Goodis and the good pulp writers like Robert Howard[3] and H.P. Lovecraft[4]. I was in a lean, muscular phase. Here’s the first paragraph:

It all started when Robert disappeared. His friends knew he was an alcoholic, that he didn’t like to be confronted about anything, that he slept with a white trash whore over on the west side of town. But when he disappeared they became worried.

It’s ten thousand words and I never submitted it anywhere. One friend read it, said he thought it was pretty good. It is pretty good—I reread some of it just tonight—but I put it away, moved on.

3.

I don’t believe in automatic writing, or magic either, but there is an alchemical process that occurs when writing novels. Every writer who addresses the subject says something similar. Halfway through writing a novel, the story begins to flow out of your fingertips; the characters begin to resist your directions; the plot begins to radiate a kind of kinetic glow. When this happens, the rest of your life begins to lose shape, all the problems and worries are smudged away. It’s wonderful, and one reason why so many novels feel like the writer has lost the thread of the plot. Usually, h/she has.

It’s a hard feeling to describe—it’s akin to drunkenness—and in its absence, when the hard work of re-reading and rewriting and editing appears, there’s a slight ache. I often fall into a depressed state after finishing a first draft. I used to tell people it’s because I’d been living with the characters and I miss them, but that isn’t really true. It’s that rushing feeling of my body taking over, where my brain seems to slink down my arms through my fingertips, where my brain feels hardwired into my imagination and not the other way around, and then the crash of the second to minute to hour to day to week to month to year of fretting and worrying and striving in this world.

And the magic is gone; only hard work remains.


[1] Years later I created a persona—misanthropic, perverted, and sex- and film-obsessed—to write from, another way to get around the obstacles of the psyche.

[2] This still happens. For the last three years I’ve had reoccurring nightmares, of Simone suffocating in a pillowcase in the bed, and I’m powerless to get her out in time. I usually awake with my hands in the pillow, near hyperventilation. It’s unpleasant.

[3] He’s sensational.

[4] He’s problematic.

Build up to invasion of Iraq; shift in political consciousness; and sections of untitled (and unfinished) novel.

1 Nov

1.

I flew all over for the junkets, including New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Sometimes the actors and directors came to Atlanta. When this happened, I often had one on one time.  (I interviewed Neil LaBute, for instance, in a single occupancy room in a Sheridan. He was acerbic and funny, but friendly beneath the acidic veneer.)

This was close enough to 9/11 that flying was strange and scary. Paranoia was high. On one flight, for instance, my dad pointed out to a stewardess that a passenger five rows in front of us had a cast on his arm and said, “It’s sticking too far out. It’s suspicious. I think someone should check into it.” For the whole flight he kept turning to me and saying, “I don’t like the look of that cast. He could be hiding anything under there. Someone needs to do something!”

I flew a lot anyway, but the extra inspections and anxiety made flights longer and more worrisome.

On one cross country flight back from L.A., the plane returned to Atlanta and then sat on the tarmac for an hour. I was sitting in the exit seat, and I could see out the window other planes landing. I imagined all those other people de-planing, getting in their cars and going home. I was tired and hot and nervous and I put my hand to the exit release, I could feel some force moving my body to push open the exit door and flee, and then . . . nothing. I waited. I grumbled. I rolled my eyes. I staved off a panic attack. Claustrophobia and a feeling of diminution, a shrinking away—I was desperate to push out the exit door and run away.

Instead, I used this as a jumping off point for my next novel manuscript. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

The impulse hit him like an invisible wave as he was sitting in the exit aisle of the landed airplane. He looked out over the tarmac, over the expansive concrete runways that seemed to go for miles. He felt the man’s elbow touching his on the armrest, and he looked at the instructions for the emergency exit. The plane was waiting for a gate to open.
It was a crazy thing to do, he knew, and yet he felt the compulsion in his chest, beating there with his heart. His brain had already enacted it in his imagination, and he could see himself running over the hard ground, the plane and everyone in it marveling at his freedom and bravery.

My protagonist was, more than in all the other stories, simply me. My life and my fictions had collided, intertwined. He returned to the apartment where I was living, he saw his roommates who were my roommates, he was reading the same book I was reading when I started the novel. I had donned the fiction suit and lowered myself into a story. The results were depressing.

2.

Still, my technique had come a long way. (And yet I had so very far to go.) I was still in my Philip K. Dick phase. This novel in some sense is a mash up of The Man in the High Castle, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and my own life. The writing isn’t bad, but it’s at times limpid. It doesn’t crackle. It isn’t crisp. The workmanlike sentences don’t surprise. Still, for all its flaws, this is the work of an adult writer. There’s (some) subtlety, flashes of elegance.

And even a few little moments that shine. Here’s a description of the protagonist’s life as a child:

His eyesight was poor, and he had been given glasses at the age of eight. The year was 1984, and he began looking through curved glass to see things more clearly. But unknown to him, the glass was curved too tight, and everything looked elongated, bent. To his eight-year-old mind, this was the true nature of the world, and the blurry haze without the glasses hid some of the grandeur, and terror, of things around him.
Trees bent to the sky. Buildings seemed miles high. People were too long in the waist, and everyone seemed much larger (and much skinnier) than he was. But it was the methods of communication—the bare bones of the United States infrastructure such as telephone poles, power lines, television antennae—that worried him. The world seemed tied together by ominous strings, black and brown and sometimes blinking red. Driving in the car with his parents, he would look out the backseat window and marvel at the complex lattices, the criss-crossing of different lines, and the large poles that seemed to be behind everything.
But he had exceptionally good hearing. His hearing was so sharp that he heard the noises behind sounds. He could hear the hum of electricity in the electronic registers and computers in stores, he heard the sound of water moving through the piping when he leaned over and sipped the water fountain; he sometimes thought he heard blood moving through people’s veins as they walked around him.

It isn’t revolutionary or award-winning. It isn’t even that good. But it’s solid. I was making headway, of a sorts.

3.

I remembered this manuscript the least of all, which speaks to my destabilized mental state. Leafing back through my files was a fun—if also strange, frustrating and bewildering experience; I wrote the lines but don’t remember them.

The plot involves a mid-level bureaucrat who, for complicated reasons, decides to destroy the main character’s life. He uses the auspices of Homeland Security to do it. He begins to monitor the main character in his house. He has him followed. He has agents go through his trash. He becomes obsessed with this lowly writer who thinks he can step outside the rules of society because he feels like it.

The novel has immense problems. The story takes too long to move. The characters seem to wade through a viscous sludge. There’s a lot of thinking and milling about but not much happening. The characters do a lot of driving around Atlanta. Characters argue about ideas, make phone calls, ponder entropy. It’s a surprisingly boring affair, considering the subject matter.

Lowering myself via the fiction suit into the novel had turned out to be a very bad idea. My life was too circumscribed at the time; I had tethered my imagination too tightly to the ground.

4.

I try not to write about politics directly, despite my strike entries. But it’s germane to my evolution as a person and a writer.

I was in the midst of a profound political re-evaluation, and this psychic dissonance plays out in the novel. I was raised conservative, and up to my twenties subscribed to a tough libertarianism. Leave me and mine alone. Don’t dictate morality. Protect property and prevent plunder. I was a free market scribe. At 19, I went to an evangelical camp for up-and-coming ultra-conservative Christian intellectuals. (You can read a little about my Southern Baptist childhood here.) I read Bastiat. I read Stormer.  I read Lewis. I railed on about nuclear defense satellites and the erosion of American autonomy due to the United Nations. I subscribed to the idea of American exceptionalism.

I was opinionated, and like many right-wing people, I had a scaffold that I used to protect my opinions. That scaffold, to my mind, was watertight, logical, undeniable. Why doesn’t everyone see things exactly like me? I often wondered. It’s all so simple and obvious.

The problem, and I was starting to see it, was that my beliefs were predicated on a handful of falsehoods, misconceptions, and cherry-picking from history. It was muscular, yes, but also simple, unsophisticated, and too removed from reality.

And I was beginning to see things differently in the here and now. We had invaded Afghanistan and were clearly about to invade Iraq. It was clear to me from the start—and I was basically still a Republican—that we were invading Iraq because we could. The evidence, even in the scant reporting in the various news outlets, was insubstantial. Worse, involving the U.S. in two occupying wars was foolhardy; anyone who knew anything about military history should have known that. Worst of all, to unleash the machinery of death—and that’s what war is, widespread death and suffering—without some imminent threat of attack is immoral, evil and wrong. Wars are unpredictable and messy and murderous, by their nature. Even with supreme right on your side—think of the Allied powers in World War II—you still have incidents like Dresden and Nagasaki.

Literature and philosophy and history were working their alchemical magic, too. The more I read, the more paltry and small-minded the fundamental beliefs of the far right, which I was until recently a member, seemed to be.[1]

I also had become, through my old boss Randall Williams’s influence, a self-taught student on the civil rights movement. And anyone digging around in the civil rights movement will tack left, politically; you have to.

I wasn’t yet honest enough with myself to see my childhood beliefs dying. The process took another six or seven years to complete. But I was disillusioned and unhappy and felt adrift. Unmoored. I had some tough roads ahead. The old way was lost; I hadn’t yet found a new way.

The novel holds within it this dynamic. There’s both the libertarian and the socialist duking it out inside the story, like a half-hidden code. The thing is saturated with bitterness and anger.

I lacked the novelist’s skill to situate characters within a power structure but still allow them some agency. Instead, I have characters being eaten alive by the social structures around them. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

The result is a depressing, despondent read, where the main character again sort of floats through things, buffeted by large forces. After breaking free of the airplane, he does little else but feel morbid and morose.

It’s no way to build a novel. But I felt powerless in the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion. There was nothing I could do to prevent it. Nothing. I knew with every fiber that it was a mistake, that it was wrong, and that it would have catastrophic consequences. I also knew it was going to happen anyway.

I felt way outside mainstream American culture. I didn’t listen to popular music or read popular books or watch popular television shows or hold popular opinions. It was the punk rock thing again; I didn’t have a job, I didn’t make much money and I was, in this regard anyway, much happier than I had been when I was working full-time.

5.

I also wrote without any sort of outline or plan. There’s a great feeling of liberation when you do this, but it’s dangerous. Soon one of the minor characters was in prison and I was writing about life in the big house with zero authenticity. I felt phony, the writing was fake, and I didn’t know how to fix things. The novel was out of control. Characters were killed and kidnapped and yet there was no real plot. I finally had the main character’s cousin pick a prison yard fight during a basketball game and the scene was so asinine I gave up in a fit of self-disgust.

So here’s a warning to young writers[2]. Don’t start a novel without having some inkling of where you’re going. I wrote myself into a box, and couldn’t write my way out. It felt easier to start over with something new.

I read six or seven of Paul Auster’s novels around this time—he was a major influence for about a year—and most of them have a meta-fictional approach. In Oracle Night, Auster takes a minor character from The Maltese Falcon and then locks him into a room under the ground with no way out. Auster describes the feeling of frustration that he’s tricked his own imagination into some unsolvable puzzle. Then he drops this novel-within-a-novel completely. Auster circumvented the problem I was having by situating his failed novel within another novel. I was not yet so bold.

I’ve always written fast, once I sink my teeth into something. I’ll write very little, a few sentences here and there, and then have an explosion of a few thousand words, often fueled by caffeine.

Here’s a passage near the end, that I wrote one day when I was waiting for an appointment near downtown. Everything about this passage reflects how I felt about America, and my role in it, at the time. Not the bitterness:

With these thoughts in his head, he walked toward the huge stone federal building and felt utterly alone. That’s me, he thought as he scrutinized the cracked sidewalks, the slumped-over trees, the overflowing garbage cans. I’m the one sane man in the world, being slowly broken on the rack. The bureaucrats are winning, he realized sadly. There were no birds, no squirrels, not even any people. The parking lot was full of dead cars and the grounds were simply drying grass and some litter. The bright sun did little to illuminate the day. He sat on the park bench, knowing he was too early for the “appointment.” His head fell to his chest as he felt gravity pushing him ever downward.
The bench was hard, and it hurt the back of his legs. He felt a terrible loss. He knew at that instant that America—his civilization, his world—would not last. And that everything passed, that all things ended. He had known this intellectually for some time, he guessed, but not like this, not as a profound understanding in his heart. He felt decay in his breast, he felt the molecules that made up his arms and legs and chest and brain and muscles all slowly fading from each other, all moving toward an inevitable destruction. But it was the end of the idea of America, the end of his pure if naive version of this land, that made him saddest. In the face of this, his own mortality paled in comparison.

I had reached the end. The manuscript was going nowhere. I didn’t even print a copy. I saved the digital file in pdf form and decided to move on. Thirty thousand words and I never even deemed it worthy of a title. I shed no tears.


[1] More on this in another post.

[2] I don’t know if any young writers read this, but . . .

Junket life and five stories.

29 Oct

1.

My confidence was shaken after the Project Greenlight fiasco. I retreated from screenwriting and didn’t try again for years. The tremors of this reverberated through my writing for a while. I felt like a failure. It added to the doomed, romantic view I was cultivating. Success would destroy my writing life. I had to keep failing, for as long as I could. Only then could I incubate new ideas and keep growing stronger.[1] Success was for losers. All my heroes had been failures, at least for a while.

I kept going on the movie junkets. I met Kevin Costner[2], Ben Affleck, Kevin Spacey, Liv Tyler, and Viggo Mortenson among others. I wasn’t very good at the job, not at first. I wasn’t aggressive enough, and often got elbowed out of conversations.

Most of the press events were roundtables. The “reporters” would wait for the talent, usually laying recorders on the table and jockeying for the seat next to the actor. Then some asinine conversation would follow. For movie writers, they were a nearly illiterate movie-watching bunch. They normally spoke of trashy reality tv, despite the common ground we all supposedly shared. They complained when the rooms were too small; they complained when the rooms were too big; they complained with the stars were late; they complained when there wasn’t bottled water in the room. They were, on the whole, with a few obvious exceptions, spoiled brats with little to say. They tried to catch actors with insipid questions about such and such movie doing poorly in the domestic market. This was the height of their criticism. Here’s the rest: What are you doing next? What was it like to work with so and so? What attracted you to the character? It was as if the whole thing was by rote. I hated the roundtables, even though the actors, directors and writers were on the whole polite, interesting, and intelligent. It was the reporters who dropped the ball.

Keanu Reeves was taciturn and wry. Ewan McGregor was combative and funny. Tim Burton was dismissive and annoyed. Jack Nicholson likes PM Dawn. Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were roommates in the early 1970s. Richard Zanuck was great, although he looks scary enough to eat a roomful of recalcitrant reporters. And John Cusack was exactly how you’d expect him to be, somewhere between Lloyd Dobler and Rob from High Fidelity.

The culture—the whole entertainment industry really—wasn’t and isn’t about the movies, about ideas, good writing or even good acting. It was about image and money and the latest thing. The sense that movies were part of a tradition, that they represented a corpus of immense artistic and social importance, that I loved them with a guileless heart—these things meant nothing to this group of cynical people. They were coddled and petty and small-minded and I grew to loathe them.

There were a few outsiders and film nerds who had stumbled into it, like me, and I got along with these people fine. But they were the exceptions.

But I didn’t really fit in, and after two or three junkets, I didn’t want to. I liked going to the movies and staying in fancy hotels; I liked free passage to New York, to L.A., to New Orleans[3].

I stayed in top flight hotels. I drank away my per diem, ordering room service with eight dollar Heinekens. My first hotel was $400 a night. They asked to see a credit card. I only had a debit card and was worried they would charge my account, which had less than fifty bucks in it. I was reluctant to hand it over. “You’re not going to . . . charge anything to that card, are you?” I asked. I looked like some rube, some Deep South hayseed.

I stayed aloof. I didn’t go out with the other writers. I only sometimes chatted with any of them. I was regarded with a slight disdain. I didn’t have expensive clothes and I looked young. I was, I’m sure, grouped in with the college kids who sometimes attended. I didn’t care. I grew to despise the irony, the bottom line nonsense of the other reporters.

I wandered the various cities alone, often in a slight drunken haze. I didn’t write much in hotels (I still don’t), and as much as I love reading on airplanes, I couldn’t read on a junket. Not fiction anyway. Hotel rooms, even nice ones, feel antiseptic and chilly. So I walked, or I watched movies on TV while sipping cans of gas station beer.

I made some headway, as a feature writer and as a reviewer, but my heart wasn’t in it. I could have worked my way up the food chain, but I eventually let it go.

There was no future in fiction or film for me, not that way. I would have to try a different path.

2.

During this time I also was traveling back to Montgomery to help with various editing jobs. I did a lot of copy-editing; one book, which shall remain unnamed, should have me listed as a co-author. I ghost-wrote a few things, too. And I had ongoing pieces in two papers. I was never a good proofreader, and I’m still not, but I was becoming a stronger editor. The writing life was hectic and crowded, but I was making a go of it. I had turned the Titanic around. Or so I thought.

I was still living with a shroud of darkness, but the despondent helpless angry frustrated sad enervated knotted up feelings were dissipating. My weight stabilized. And as I was learning how to live hand to mouth, I was getting adept at stretching my dollars. It was here, for instance, that I started going to the library every day. I stopped going out to eat. I stopped going out to bars, save for nights where pitchers of PBR were five dollars.

But. We moved into a bigger apartment and my finances were stretched once again. Now I had to pony up $500 in rent every month. It was a strain and a mistake and two months in I felt a gnawing uncertainty about my future prospects. The higher rent forced me to look for more little freelance jobs, which in turn distracted me from writing fiction, which was why I was unemployed to begin with. Coleridge’s advice to a young writer was never truer; I should have become a city clerk or taken on a menial job and saved my writing muscles for the night.

I kept writing anyway. I got three stories accepted for publication. The first was called “Infestation,” and was accepted by a new magazine based in Atlanta. An editor there loved it, but before the magazine put out a single issue it folded. The story is a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only the whole thing seems to be playing out in the deranged (and chronically bored) mind of a suburban man. Here’s the first two lines:

“A black beetle with spindly legs balanced precariously on the lip of an empty wine glass. The curved antennae twitched as the dark bug made its way around the red-stained glass, only to start another revolution.”

It’s a good, but not great, story, and probably my last foray into straight science fiction. It’s (relative) success lies in the point of view. It’s written in the third person but all of the experiences are refracted through the main character, who is profoundly disturbed. Other writers figured this out before me, but I learned from this and took it on to other stories.

The other two stories were essentially flash fiction—I hate that moniker and despise most of the stories carrying this label, but there it is. Both were published in a literary magazine out of Montgomery, started and run by my friend Foster Dickson, called Honeydu. The first was called “Good Neighbor Policy.” It follows a possibly deranged man who has a run in with his neighbor. The second is called “Hypothetical,” a little story about a guy who finds himself in the exact situation a friend had posed to him as a hypothetical the week before. It’s . . . okay, an unsophisticated and bleak look at the human condition.

I made this same mistake with other stories. The plots are too straightforward and the characters too one-dimensional. During this period, all the characters are basically empty-hearted intellectuals capable of grand violence. I was floundering, really, writing just to be writing, but I learned from this, too. Complexity and sophistication have to incubate. I was feeling my way around in the darkness. I was exploring my own psyche and the boundaries of my own tastes. I was developing a style, too, I just didn’t know it yet. I was, in the end, leaving my adolescent writing life behind.

I wrote a short story in the vein of Cornell Woolrich and Robert Bloch, ripped out of the crime genre. I don’t know how it worked out. Here’s the first graf:

“There’s a hole in my mouth,” Jason Elzy said as the doctor looked at his clipboard. “I saw it last night in the mirror. A small, black dot. I tried for a few hours to scrub it off, but I think it may be a hole.”

I titled it “Black Dot Like Stone.” It isn’t terrible, but a major departure for me. Jason ends up embroiled in a crime/revenge caper involving the possible end of the world. Kiss Me Deadly, the film, was a huge influence. I knew the story was weaker and after a cursory rejection put it in the archive and forgot about it.

Meanwhile, my little life in Atlanta was breaking up. Keith went to Sudan on a humanitarian trip. Jonathan was moving on. The 941 Arts Consortium was disbanded. Looking back, it really is a sad thing.

There were silver linings, however. I got a job in Spain. And, best of all, I met my future wife.

During this time, I started two novels and failed to finish them both. They’re both interesting failures; one is comically terrible, the other intriguing but a labyrinthine mess. I’ll get into them next.


[1] I recognize, now, the absurd problems with my beliefs. Bear with me; I was still young.

[2] I have one of the great Kevin Costner stories. Ask me about it some time.

[3] There’s a good story here, too.

The first scene from my wretched little screenplay: The Doctrine of Past Things.

26 Oct

1.

During my dog days in Atlanta, I got a job at a used bookstore. The store had devoted regulars and a cast of bizarre characters, including a coworker who had turrets and would curse at people when they asked him for help.

It was a great place, right at the corner of Virginia and North Highland, across from the Highland Tap and Catty Corner to and Joe’s. Two blocks one way you’re on Ponce. Four blocks the other and you’re in Decatur.

Most people into books eventually find their way into the literary underbelly, discovering people like Celine, Barry Hannah, Steve Erickson, Angela Carter and the like. The shimmery, unclassifiable weirdos; the misanthropes; the discursives; the synthesizers; the oddballs; the heretics; the non-conformists; the violent, vile, criminally minded artists who seem to write outside the entire tradition of western letters. Cormac McCarthy (before he was famous and halfway respectable) and Roberto Bolano and Paul Bowles and so on.

I also began reading the great crime writers. James Ellroy was a revelation; he’s one of the great prose stylists and a marvelous writer. Ditto for David Goodis, who was, at his best, a kind of Hemingway of crime. James M. Cain—who reportedly had a crush on one of my aunts—Jim Thomson, Kenneth Anderson, Horace McCoy, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I loved it. It’s this literate and fascinating parallel literary culture, running side by side its more respectable mainstream literature. (For people interested in taking a taste, I would recommend The Long Goodbye and Red Harvest and My Dark Places.)

It was a great time for reading. I read Ian McEwan and Angela Carter and Charles Portis—who I think I love more than any other writer—and Shirley Jackson and Michel Houellebecq and George McDonald Fraser and Harry Crews, among others. The bookstore was a paradise. I had to resist spending too much of my money on books. As I said in my last post, money was tight.

I made $235 a week. My expenses were $200 a week. I got paid in cash on Friday evenings. My first order of business was buying a case of beer, usually at the gas station catty corner to the store, for 12 bucks. This left me with 21 dollars to eat and entertain myself with each week. (The freelance work came and went unpredictably. With this money I would go to movies, or out to bars with friends.) I lived off of rice and potatoes and whatever my Dad bought me at Sam’s when he came to visit. (One visit he was incredulous when he looked inside my refrigerator. “We’re going to the store. You have to have cheese!”)

I kept up my own writing, using a dead man’s typewriter[1]. I discarded the manual for an electric. I used my computer, too, and also a bevy of notebooks of various shapes and sizes. I took up the odd habit—I don’t understand it myself—of writing from the right page to the left, and sort of jumping around within the notebook. I still do this. I wrote down words I didn’t know, books I wanted to read, story ideas. Lots and lots of story ideas.

And I continued with the movie reviews. I was getting better. I had a concise style, often cutting. I was always looking for something, some moral viewpoint.

I grew up on movies. My dad is a huge fan. We used to go every weekend and watch movies on the television at home. I took this base of movie knowledge and built on it as I got older. In Atlanta, I got to attend private screenings, often just for me and one or two other movie critics. These were usually at 10:30 in the morning, perfect as my bookstore job kicked off in the late afternoons. I saw some great films, including Talk to Her, The Barbarian Invasions, Chicago, and The Quiet American. Then I would drive home, bang out a draft, cut it in half, and send it along.

At some point, during one of these mid-morning screenings, I decided to write a screenplay. I knew movies; I had some talent with dialogue; I was, I thought, a natural fit for screenwriting.

It was a mistake.

2.

Like the writers a generation before me—like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead, to name a few—I was raised on horror movies, comic books and pulp paperbacks. I came to literature as an adult.

I’m a low brow/high brow incubator. I thought I could write a screenplay that was literate, compelling, and artful, but also scary as hell. I stole my starting point from Mark Danielewski’s brilliant novel House of Leaves—a family moves into a house and discovers that the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

I set the screenplay in Atlanta. I had a handful of characters. The main character is named, ahem, Ben. He holes up in his apartment and refuses to leave. He becomes convinced that the apartment is getting bigger on the inside. He’s besieged with visions. He wanders around his ever-growing house, bumping into nightmarish things. His two friends keep checking in on him to help him. They argue. They philosophize. They fight. There’s a flashback that explains why Ben is refusing to leave. The whole thing is shrouded in a sad melancholy, with little bursts of horror. It has some bright spots, but it’s a bleak, pretentious undertaking and terribly flawed.

It began with a real-life encounter. In the bookstore a customer asked me for a book about Hitler. We didn’t have it. He then pressed me on my political beliefs. We began to argue. He was an acolyte of Ayn Rand. I wasn’t. He pressed me on her books. I said I wasn’t going to read them. It was tense and testy and the man’s demeanor was one of a thin veneer of sanity; he seemed one splinter, drop of rain, or one sip of tepid coffee away from a mental breakdown.  Our conversation, verbatim, became the first scene.

I titled the screenplay The Doctrine of Last Things, lifted from a book on Gnosticism I was reading. (I’ve recycled the title a number of times, but it seems to be always doomed.)

3.

I worked on the screenplay for a month, and when I finished, I submitted it to Project Greenlight. I had, as my goal, to break the top thousand screenplays. I thought I was being realistic.

The process went like this. Each screenwriter had to review at least five other screenplays. The more you reviewed, the more you were reviewed. You gave a score on dialogue, story, and character development.

I read eight screenplays and they were all terrible. I tried to rate them generously, and in my comments speak of the good things, ways the weaker aspects could be improved. My screenplay—and I admit it’s not great—was vastly superior to the ones I was reading. I thought, you’ll make it to the top thousand easily, old boy.

Then I received my screenplays responses. Holy God. I was trashed. Not a single reviewer scored mine as high as I scored the worst screenplay I had read. And people were pissed. One reviewer said the dialogue was great but that the story was terrible. One reviewer said the story was great but that the dialogue was terrible. One reviewer said I didn’t use the three-act structure. One reviewer said the characters were horrible. One reviewer actually said he felt I had wasted two hours of his time.

And so on. I was crushed. My taste of the brutality of Hollywood, even refracted through this silly online process and near the opposite coast, was bitter indeed. I didn’t crack the top one thousand. I probably didn’t even make it into the top five thousand.

I felt so downhearted about the utter waste of time I didn’t write another screenplay for years.

4.

I’m less proud of this screenplay than my early novels and stories, but I’ve included it in this series on my writing life anyway. I wanted to change things, re-reading this, but I didn’t.

Here’s a little bit of the first scene:

MAN #1

Do you have any books on Hitler that aren’t in his section?

BEN

Just what you see in the World War II area. The books in some places are three deep, though, so maybe—

MAN #1

I know.

BEN

Is there a specific book you’re looking for? Maybe I know if we have it.

MAN #1

It’s called Hitler’s Pope. I need it for a project I’m working on and used to have it but I loaned it away.

BEN

Sorry, we sold our last copy last week. I don’t know when we’ll get it in again.

(Man #1 nods, then lingers. Starts to turn, then comes back, this time a little closer. He is still eight or nine feet from the counter.)

MAN #1

Tell me. I heard you say earlier that you were a bit of a writer. People of your persuasion tend to lean towards the left. Tend to be more liberal.

BEN

On some things, I guess, but—

MAN #1

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

BEN

No, but what I know of her, I don’t necessarily agree with.

MAN #1

Well, I think you’d have to read her to say that.

(Man #1 gazes at Ben, perhaps with challenge, or a lack of social skills. But it is unsettling.)

BEN

Well, I’m pretty familiar with her philosophy. My roommate was a big follower of hers, and always talked about her.

MAN #1

What do you know about her philosophy then? What is it?

(Man #1 walks a little closer. Ben can see odd lines in his face, a ruggedness he wouldn’t have suspected. An anger.)

BEN

That every act is a selfish one. And that selfishness is a virtue, basically. And —

MAN #1

You’re wrong.

(Man #1 stares at Ben. Ben looks down, then back.)

BEN

How so?

MAN #1

Ayn Rand basically said that compassion, love for others, etcetera, isn’t likely to result in a new medicine. It can’t create a new invention. Kindness won’t change the world.

BEN

I’m not sure I agree with that.

MAN #1

That’s of no consequence. She saw things as they are. The weaker virtues result in nothing but sweetness and self-indulgence. There is no true benevolence.


[1] Obviously there’s a story here but it’s complex and not very interesting.

First three lines of an (unpublished) short story. And a slight crackup.

25 Oct

At 25, I hit a patch of existential black ice. My quarter life crisis.

My problems began when I left Montgomery. I had lived there for some time, and although I wanted to move to a bigger city, I had friends, I had a job, I knew the backroads, I was ensconced.

I moved to Atlanta to live as a writer. The move shook me up. The rent was too expensive, so each month I had to scramble for freelance work. I wasn’t aggressive and I didn’t shake enough hands, so I was always a little behind. I did some editing, some ghost-writing, and I started reviewing films for a second paper. This was a big step up; they had publications all across the south. The paper began to send me on movie premieres and junkets. I met celebrities. I stayed in four-star hotels. I flew to New York and Los Angeles. I met a number of disagreeable movie writers. On the whole they were a pampered, spoiled, and silly group; half of them didn’t seem to even like movies anymore. (More on these experiences in another entry.)

In some sense these were halcyon days. I had time to write, read, think and watch movies. I was living with my best friend and cousin. I was meeting new people. I was beginning a new life.

But.

I had no health insurance. I broke my foot. It turned purple and swelled to twice the size. A long term relationship ended. I had no money and little purpose. I was in free fall. Anxiety and depression and immense darkness. I didn’t write much, at a time when I had almost endless free time. I lost weight. I drank too much. I had fits of undirected anger. I had trouble focusing. I didn’t sleep well.

I became convinced that strangers were going to attack me. Riding in an elevator with another person was pure terror. I tensed up, projected danger, menace. I peered through other people’s clothing, saw knives and hacksaws and axes and bludgeons and garrotes. (Strangely, no guns.) I imagined gangs of ruffians lying in wait for me in alleys, behind dumpsters. I felt like I was being followed. I was convinced my emails were being monitored. I was certain that I was being watched.

I was disturbed and getting worse. I saw a deep black sludgy ooze behind ordinary objects, like walls, floors, books and furniture. This ooze was the world. The veneer of benign things was a lie. Existence was composed of this malignant tar. Everything else was window dressing. There was no afterlife, no decency, no heroism, nothing but the viscous, vile sludge. My hands felt sticky with it.

There was always something wrong with the sky. Where others saw vermillion sunsets, I saw petrochemicals refracting the dying sun’s last rays. The cobalt sky of daylight, I learned, isn’t blue at all, but black. It’s an optical illusion.

I saw myself differently, too. Beneath the skin there was a smaller, harder man. I appeared friendly but I harbored vicious thoughts. I daydreamed about delivering eulogies to my loved ones’ funerals. I imagined car wrecks, natural disasters, entropy at work in the cosmos. I moved through the same thought patterns over and over, like a maze with no exit.

My cousin was in a similar situation. He responded to my sadness, and I responded to his. Our third roommate, Jonathan, lost his job soon, too, and began working at a restaurant as a waiter. To combat the blues, we formed the 941 Arts Consortium, and began performing plays in our house[1]. We all acted in them. We rotated the directing chores. We shared the writing, although I did most of the writing chores. And we served a themed meal beforehand. We were so into this we installed curtains inside our house, to delineate the stage.

941 Arts offered distraction, but little else.

I was at the end of my tether. I knew I needed help, but I had no money for therapy. And then I heard an advertisement on the radio. I called the number. I set up an appointment. And just like that, I enrolled in a drug study. I became a human lab rat.[2]

I drove to an office park outside the city. I parked, entered a strange office. Two beefy dudes in business attire asked me questions. I answered. They said I had generalized anxiety disorder. They said I was depressed. I said I know. They said I could be a candidate in their study. I said fine. They offered me two months of free therapy once the study was over. I said that I would do it, but that none of it would work.

I underwent a battery of tests. An electrocardiogram. They drew blood. I exited the office feeling worse than I had in my entire life. Ruined. Marred. Soul sickness eroding me from within.

I got onto the elevator and hit the button for the first floor. As I descended, I noticed that the walls were padded. Like in an asylum.

I felt a shudder through my body. I’ve trapped myself, I thought, in some silly story.

I decided to turn my fear into fiction. I wrote a science fiction short story on the experience. I called it “The Sound of Breaking Waves.” It’s about a depressed dude who enters a drug study only to see the nurse inject something into his arm when she’s supposed to be taking blood out. He investigates, while grappling with depression, various issues with his family and life. It’s a good story, it has some vibrant core. As he starts to feel better, he grows more and more suspicious of his new life. I’m proud of it, even though I would write it differently if I started over from scratch now.

Here’s the first three lines:

“Jonathan looked out the window and saw shadows forming grotesque angles under the old sun. Spots on the glass speckled the sky. The dots and smudges looked a little like satellites. He turned back toward the doctor.”


[1] I will return to this in another post.

[2] I’m working on a longer essay about this tentatively titled, “My Life in Six Nervous Breakdowns.” I plan to send it out, but if it’s rejected, or if I lose interest, you’ll see bits of it here.

First line of a failed short story: Sadness in Unending Time.

24 Oct

After Midas, I floundered.

People had responded to my little novella. The head of a book publisher read it and clearly was interested in a longer form. I was writing movie reviews for the free paper in town and meeting more and more writers. I met poets and novelists of some repute. I shook hands with agents and publishers and editors at conferences, galas and banquets. I felt like I was on my way.

But I struggled with finding a basic rhythm. I couldn’t settle in on a writing medium. I didn’t like writing by hand; I was easily distracted when writing on the computer; my typewriter was a manual. I tried all three. I wasn’t comfortable. I kept starting and stopping projects. Nothing grabbed hold. I was hitting my head on my lack of life experience. I was writing about writing—and books and writers and so on, the labyrinth of solipsism that so many writers fall into.

I also tried my hand at short stories. Writers who say short stories are more difficult than novels should be shot. They aren’t. (Maybe George Saunders or Steven Millhauser or alice Munro could make this argument.) But, they are a different form, and one I never quite got a handle on. My early stories were too simplistic, morality tales without any real moral. The best of these was my rewriting of Job.[1]

Because I was also trying to break into comics. It seems a bit silly now, but as I was writing novels and stories I was also trying to learn the craft of writing comics. Comics were my first love, really, and with the explosion of new adult-oriented comics—Sandman, The Invisibles, and so on—I felt the pull. I wrote half a dozen treatments; I met with different artists; I plotted, formatted, and slaved. I wrote query letters to Marvel. I even wrote about two issues’ worth of a comic biography of Dostoevsky. Nothing doing. Then my dad introduced me to an artist who was in his forties. We exchanged emails. He was a devout Christian, but militantly so. He said in one email he had no patience for “weak, mealy-mouthed Christianity.”  He was a very fine artist, though, so I tried my best.

So I rewrote Job, in a modern setting. Despite some problems, the story sort of works. As I envisioned it as a comic, I loosened up the prose a little. I borrowed from Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and even Alan Moore in some of the devices.

I worked on this story for a long time. I sent the artist the prose version and he promptly cut off all communications with me. People are strange.

Here’s the first line of the story that I—embarrassingly, really, as it’s a bad, faux portentous title—titled Sadness in Unending Time:

“The radio wailed Jim Morrison’s deep voice asking to light his fire as Keith shook his head awake.”

As a side note, up to this point I was still using my friends and family for the characters’ names. Robert and Jeff and Chris and Keith, my closest childhood friends and my cousin—these were the main characters. People who had wounded me often had their names co-opted by the villains. Who says writers aren’t petty?


[1] I’ll get into some of the others in another post.