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.


I’m growing less cynical as I get older.  That’s probably backwards.

I noticed this while going through the latest issue of Razorcake.  I’d written a column about getting hired on the tenure track at Cal State Channel Islands.  Now, for me, that column was finished on December 1.  Since thaclamor cover10_bigt time, I spent about a six weeks doing other things.  In late January, I picked up the latest issue from Razorcake HQ.  I read everything in it except for my column.  Which isn’t to say I ignore my column.  I don’t.  Every issue, I flip to my column first, check out the illustration Brad Beshaw did, feel lucky that he illustrates my column, then move on.  At some point, my wife usually comes across the magazine.  This tends to happen after I’m already done reading it.  She reads my column, says something to me about it, and I have go back and read it to remember what I said.

It’s not so much that I’ve forgotten as that, by this point, I’ve written another column and I’m in the process of idly thinking about what the next one will be.

Anyway, I re-read my latest column and it reminded me of a piece I’d written for Clamor Magazine a dozen years ago, when my experiences teaching in Arizona and Florida left me so jaded that I got out of the business altogether.  When I wrote this article, I wasn’t teaching at all.

I’m a much better teacher now than the guy I portray in this article.  Much better.  I hope.

Still, I think it’s a nice time capsule that I found lingering around the internet.  You may find it worth reading.  It’s called “Teaching the History of All Wars.”