Hollywood Pretty

sean_illo_39_by_brad_beshawIn the movie The Hours, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf walks halfway down her stairs and pauses.  Inspiration has struck.  She tells her husband that she believes she has the first line of a novel.  The film cuts to her sitting comfortable in a writing chair among the soft morning light and using her favorite pen on lovely paper to construct what becomes the word-for-word first sentence of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

I like this scene because it’s absurd.  It’s absolutely nothing like the real life process of writing.  Novels are inspired, sure, but that inspiration doesn’t visit us from up high like a muse or like God handing down the fifteen commandments to Moses*.  Instead, novels linger in our imagination for days or months or years until we finally decide it’s time to let them live outside our imagination.

When I pause to think I have the perfect first sentence, it doesn’t emerge as a complete sentence.  Like everyone, I have ideas that I have to translate into words, and translations evolve from the idea to the idea’s representation on the page.

And writing novels isn’t scenic and softly lit.  It’s a daily process of hammering out a few words, paragraphs, or pages until, several months later, you actually have something.  Then there are the years of revision.  The first sentences of every novel I’ve written came at least a year after the original draft of the novel was complete.  They are all revisions.  The first sentence of Madhouse Fog was one of the last things I wrote.

Also, Virginia Woolf looked nothing like Nicole Kidman, and the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway isn’t that cool.

Then again, I’m a very different writer from Virginia Woolf.  Woolf said that writers need to have a room of one’s own and a monthly stipend that allows one to focus solely on writing.  I still don’t have either of those things.  And it’s okay.  Charles Bukowski said something like, “No writer who could write worth a damn could write in peace.”  I believe in that.  Not because it’s necessarily true.  Just because it’s a better representation of the world I live in.

So in honor of these thoughts, I want to include a column that I wrote for Razorcake back in 2007.  It’s about writing the first draft of Drinks for the Little Guy.  I think it’s an honest representation of what writing a first novel was like for me.  It’s definitely not pretty like a Hollywood movie.

Here’s a link to download the PDF of the column: Carswell_Column_Razorcake_39

*Perhaps you were thinking there were only ten commandments.  You forget that God handed Moses fifteen, and he dropped the stone tablet with the first ten.  At least that’s the way Mel Brooks and I remember it.

One Hundred Awful Pages

A few years ago, I was invited to be the visiting writer in the University of Redlands Visiting Writer Series.  As part of the activities, I participated a writing class.  It was taught by the novelist Patricia Geary.  It was one of the coolest classes I’ve ever been in.

Students were required to write one hundred pages of a novel over the course of the semester.  I visited late in the semester, when they were all deep into their respective stories.  Everyone in the class knew what everyone was writing.  They were into it.  They talked about one another’s characters as if the characters were part of their lives, people they saw down at the student union or at parties the past weekend.  The students were flush with the excitement of creation.

Smith CoronaIn retrospect, probably only a handful of those students actually finished the novels after the class.  Maybe fewer than a handful.  I doubt the finished novels were published.  More than anything, I’m willing to bet most of the students are now embarrassed by what they wrote then.  But that’s okay.  In doing that, they learned one of the most important lessons of writing: you have to write a lot of shit before you can write something good.

Before I go on, I have to admit that I didn’t know any of those students or their writing.  They may have all been brilliant.  Everything I wrote in that last paragraph is pure projection.  I’m not thinking about them as much as I’m thinking about me and how important it was for me to write a hundred awful pages before writing my first novel.

In 1994, I lived in Atlanta and worked as a waiter in a downtown restaurant.  I lived in a studio apartment.  Every morning before going to work, I wrote.  My whole goal in moving to Atlanta and working that job was to write a novel in the mornings.

In February of that year, I started working on a novel.  I wrote four or five pages a day on it.  I wrote on an old Smith Corona word processor with a screen that only showed four lines of text.  You could save up to twenty-five pages on a disc.  I filled up about a disc a week.  I was so excited.  Words just flowed out of me.  I felt like I was tapping into my masterpiece, like Kerouac when he powered through the original scroll of On the Road in three weeks.  I wrote like crazy and didn’t reread what I wrote.  When I was done writing, though, I knew that I was brilliant and every word was a little nugget of gold.

Sometime in early March, about five or six discs in, I thought about printing everything up and taking stock of my progress.  This was a big decision.  It took a few minutes to print a single page on those old word processors.  Printing the whole file would take me  a couple of days.  I decided to read off the little screen, instead.

A creeping sense of panic seeped into my bones like a cold, rainy morning.  I tried to fix things on  a sentence level on that first disc or two.  By the third disc, I stopped even that.  By the last disc, I calculated the cost of word processor discs and the value of this novel I’d been working on.  I decided that the discs were worth more.  It would be okay to write something else and save those files right on top of the novel I once thought was my On the Road.

I remember what was wrong with that novel.  I remember a lot about it.  A painful amount.  I’m not telling you what was wrong with it because it was so wrong, so embarrassing.  And because I don’t have to.

In the nearly twenty years that have elapsed since then, I’ve never regretted abandoning that work and writing over the original files.  I’m proud of that young man in 1994 who recognized a lousy book when he read one.  Even if he was the one who wrote the book, he was okay with putting it down and picking up something else.  After I abandoned that first novel, I started writing Drinks for the Little Guy.  I actually started it the next morning.

I know Drinks is far from a perfect novel.  I’m not even sure it’s a good one.  I’m the one who took it out of print, in fact.  But I’m still glad I wrote it.  I’m not too embarrassed if you read it.  It has its charms.