Friday, October 11, 2019

What it Takes


(Note: The following is a partial continuation of my previous post, “Quick and Dirty.”)

I started writing my first book on October 9th, 2009. I remember the day well. I’d spent half of it having a panic attack in the shower; I was afraid I’d contracted HIV from a night of unprotected sex the week before. I wasn’t going anywhere in life. I’d just spent 27 months in the Peace Corps and the only things I had to show for it were three stacks of dogeared journals and a severe drinking problem. Because of my language skills and special knowledge of Central Asia – the region I’d served in – I’d gotten job offers from Chevron, the State Department and the FBI. I might have taken the bait, but I knew what these assholes were after. I turned them all down flat. It felt good, but it still left the question of what I was going to do with myself. I had told everyone I wanted to be a writer. I had the journals to prove it, but who the fuck was gonna read thousands of pages of rants about suicides, sandstorms and outhouse disasters that took place in an unknown country on the other side of the planet? My Peace Corps chronicles would have to wait. I knew they’d make a good book someday, but they just weren’t ready to come out of the banker’s box. This left me with another question … What the hell do I write about then?

My childhood was out because I was still in it. Pure fiction was out because I could’ve given a hot butt-fisting about alcoholic detectives tiptoeing after serial murders, or wild blue dragons blasting green fire against the shields of muscled dwarves or whatever. I ran through a few more options. Once I’d sliced away the garbage, I was pretty much left with one thing: a trip I had taken around the world with my childhood buddies in the spring and summer of 2006. It seemed like the perfect focus. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about seven crazy dudes partying it up in 15 countries across Asia and Europe for 85 days?

After my panic attack in the shower, I sat down at my computer and started typing. I knocked off the first chapter before nightfall. I forgot about the HIV. I told my family I was gonna write a book and that was that. My father said I could stay at home rent free until I finished. I thanked him. He smiled with half his face.

“But after that,” he said. “You’re on your own.”

I hit the keys like a deranged pianist crushing an army of ants with his fingertips. The pages clicked off again and again and again. I guzzled energy drinks by the case. When my kidneys started to ache, I switched to black coffee. I kept odd hours. I slept till noon, ate breakfast at one and had lunch for dinner. Some nights I’d stare at my laptop for hours. I’d get to the point of nodding off or jamming a knife through the keyboard, then, like flowers in a cave being touched by sunlight, something inside would come alive and an explosion of letters would blow across the screen.

….

On July 23rd, 2010 I finished the book. I printed it out (all 700 pages) and brought it downstairs. I placed it at the center of the kitchen table. I grabbed a bottle of my Dad’s best red and popped it with an old-school corkscrew. I poured myself a huge glass. I packed my hookah with mint tobacco and went outside. It was three o’clock in the morning. The moon looked like a giant radioactive fruit hanging from a black twig. I sat down in front of it and lit my hookah. I took a slug of wine and a puff of smoke. I felt the moonlight on my body. It turned my lips into a Buddhist smile. A little creature crawled in my ear.

“You did it,” it said.

I stayed outside listening to Greek love songs till 5 am. Then I came inside and grabbed another bottle of wine. I filled my glass and sat at the head of the table. I looked at my book sitting there across from me. Suddenly I heard the snapping of wood. It sounded like a body falling from a treetop and hitting every branch on the way down. I looked up. My gigantic father materialized in his underwear at the bottom of the stairs. His eyes were creases of sleepiness. His face was a jumbled mess of parts. He clicked on the overhead light and stepped into the room.

“What the hell are you doing?” he said.

I took a hit of wine and pointed to my book. His face dropped.

“Jesus. Is that it?”

I nodded. He reached down with his gorilla hand and grabbed a hunk of pages. He ran his thumb up the side. It sounded like a drug dealer’s money counter loaded with hundreds. He puffed through his nose. Then he looked up at me.

“So, what now?” he said.

I’d already made my move. I had five flat viewings, two job interviews, and a friend to meet me at the airport. I told him all this. He raised his eyebrow.

“Where?”

I leaned back in my chair and laced my fingers behind my head.

“Prague.”

….

Things happened quickly after that. I said my goodbyes, packed my shit and split. I hit Prague like a Mack truck. Within a week, I had a job, a place, a crew, a few bucks. I started editing my book in earnest. When I finished a draft, I switched to my Peace Corps journals and strained material from those. During my downtime, I banged out poems. Occasionally a rap or a short story slipped through. To keep the ideas flowing I inhaled literature. I read all the masters: Bukowski, Dostoevsky, Sexton, Plath, Hesse. I rubbed elbows with all the literary types. I attended their readings, meetings, parties, and festivals. I did a few readings of my own. I started a blog and even managed to make a little name for myself. 

Once my book was in a pretty state, I started submissions. I sent it out to a grip of publishers along with a synopsis and a cover letter. I waited for months. A river of booze passed through my liver. When I got my first response, I was pumped. I opened it like a sugar-high toddler opening a trainset on Christmas. I hung my tongue out and stared at the screen. I searched for the intro, the outro, the meat, the congrats. Instead what I got was a tiny sentence with one comma. It read:

“not for us, thanks”

I slid my fingers around the ass of my computer. I lifted it from its seat and took it over to the window. I held it out and looked down. Fifty feet below me a man with a shiny bald head was walking by. I wanted to release my grip. I wanted to watch that miserable little sentence fall to a dot and shatter atop that dude’s skull. I swear on my fucking beans, I almost did it. The only thing that stopped me was the promise of better luck. I took my computer back inside and set it down. I whipped a finger at its face.

“Next time, it had better be a yes,” I said.

Next time came a few days later. It was a NO so big I could have had it stuffed and mounted on my wall. Every response after that was also a NO. When I ran out of publishers, I switched to magazines. I fired out dozens of short stories and hundreds of poems. I had them in almost every state and in countries around the globe. There was a four week pause between submission bouts (during which I drank profusely). Then the heavens cracked and a shower of NOs rained down on me, bouncing off my head, shoulders, knees, and toes and collecting around my feet in jagged and hideous puddles. I felt like the most gigantic loser the world had ever known, like all the angels and all the demons and all the creatures of purgatory had scoured the earth for losers, and after centuries they’d found me and agreed that Yup! I was the greatest loser of them all.

Shit got low after that. I still wrote and did my submissions, but it took more drink to get there. My gut got fatter and my hair got thinner. My patience shriveled to the size of a booger. I trolled the bars harder than ever. I picked up strangers, most of whom were as sad and lonely as me. I contemplated ending it all. I imagined walking in front of a tram and being crushed into raspberry jam across the tracks. I was afraid to leave my flat. I thought if I did, something might snap, and the vision of my death would come true. 

Meanwhile, life was moving on. My friends were getting married and buying houses and having kids and their whole world of sunshine, barbeques and road trips was clogging up my newsfeed like gym socks in a toilet bowl. I tried to ignore it all and move on. I found solace in my work and pleasure in my isolation. I managed to get a little routine going. During the week, I was all focus and scrunched eyebrows, but on weekends I let the confetti explode from my every orifice. Life became a system of moving parts. I built it gear over wire, piston over pipe. Soon I was at the center of a mechanical labyrinth. Everything was in a harmony of sorts, until my phone rang on my 34th birthday. 

When I got the news of my best friend’s death, time froze. Minutes warped into hours and hours into years that felt like seconds as the devil yanked my toenails out one by one with his teeth. After what seemed like a century squeezed through a Cheerio, I got up and went to the bathroom. I clicked on the light and looked in the mirror. My reflection stared back at me. Its skin was clear, and I could see my insides. My mind was a carnival on fire, my soul was an empty pail, my liver was a grizzled cowboy, and my heart was a sobbing geisha being cranked feet-first through a meatgrinder. I reached for the bottle. When the whiskey became water, I reached for the pill and powder. My system went nuts. What was once a greasy but neat configuration, became a heaving mass of junk and springs. I collapsed under the weight of it. I hit the ground so hard and so fast I flew apart at the joints like a He-Man toy dropped from the needle of a skyscraper. Everything went black. I disappeared down my screaming mouth with the liquor and the blow and the smoke.

….

I came to on a feeding tube. There were needles in my veins and blinking lights all around. I could feel my lifeforce floating off. I could hear the cries of my loved ones in a halo above my body. I looked down and lifted my gown. My belly was streaked with purple wounds and my legs were skinny and bent like a mummy’s. The pain was unimaginable. It felt like a nest of fire ants had burst inside my guts. I wanted to give up; to hang my forearm and drop the chalice and let the wine spill all over the floor. I knew if I did my mother would come with me. She was sat in the corner of the room hugging a pillow with her watery eyes just visible above it. I willed a tiny smile. I opened my hand and she flew over and grabbed it. The warmth of her spirit braided down my arm. I knew what to do.

As soon as I could walk, I started typing. The letters popped under my fingers and the words filled the page. My hands tangoed through the agony; they brought me to a place where my mind was empty and my heart was full. Over the course of nine months I managed a small miracle. With the help of my editor, I touched up my first novel and started pruning my second. I sent the former out to a hundred and thirty agents. They all stuck a NO in a slingshot and fired it at me simultaneously. I didn’t give a handsome fuck; I’d already been rejected by a boatload of their cronies, what the hell were a few more?

I decided to self-publish. I found a woman named Dawn in Livermore who ran her own press. I sent her an email and arranged a meeting. She came over on a hot June day. I still had a tube in my face. It was long and yellow and tipped with a two-pronged spigot. I had it hooked behind my ear. When Dawn saw it, her jaw flopped off and did spinning cartwheels toward the ground. I laughed and brushed it off. We sat down at the table and started in. I gave her the lowdown on my book. I told her it was based on a trip I'd taken around the world with my childhood buddies back in 2006. I said it was edited and ready to be published. I showed her the first few pages and she smirked. 

“This ain’t nearly ready,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“First of all, I can tell it’s only been edited for content; you’ll need a line-editor.”

Okay.”

“Second, you don’t even have a cover; you’ll need an illustrator.”

“Jesus.”

“On top of that, you’ll need a short bio to let the reader know who you are, a blurb summarizing the plot so people don’t hafta dig through a buncha chapters to figure out what the hell your book’s about, and a photo of yourself so people know who to hug or throw darts at.”

“Anything else?”

She raised an eyebrow and twisted a red fingernail through her dirty blond hair. 

“Some critiques would be nice, but I’m guessing only friends and family have read it up to this point.”

“Yep.”

“Well, they’re all unreliable.”

“Ah ha.”

“What you could do though is send it to some beta-readers.”

“Beta-readers?”

“Yeah, you know, people who get off on being the first to read new books. I know a couple you could send yours to. They’re published authors so their critiques’ll be worth a damn. Plus, if they like your book, who knows? They might even write you a nice review.”

I told her “good shit.” I took the info, cut the check and got to it. I sent my book to two beta-readers; a man and a woman. I’ll call them Biff and Mildred. Biff responded the next day. He told me he’d read the first forty pages and the last forty pages and skimmed the middle. Before I get into anything else he said, a bit about my book …

As you already know it’s about a trip I took around the world with my childhood friends in 2006. I call it a novel, but the heart of it is still true. What’s also true is the slang-based dialect the characters speak is essentially the same as the one my friends and I use to converse with each other. We developed it as kids to conceal talk about the nasty shit we used to get into. When we started travelling together, we found that speaking in a way that only we understood was useful for the same reason. We named our dialect ROAST, which is an acronym for “Result of a Small Town.”

Some of you who went to school with us in Livermore might remember a few words. Perhaps the most famous – if such a thing could be said – was the phrasal verb “chuck out.” In the book, its definition is the following:

“To chill with gusto; to unwind completely and let the stress of the day dribble from your joints.”

The verb and its definition may seem incongruous. However, “chuck” does not refer to throwing something carelessly or casually, rather to a buddy of ours (ten bucks if you can guess his name) who was, is, and always will be the Jedi master at chilling the fuck out. Since our group was pretty damn rowdy, it was nice to have a meditative counterbalance. So nice, in fact, that when we found out good ol’ Chuck was joining us on the big trip, we decided to start calling ourselves the “Chucks” and our life of world-travel intermixed with sublime relaxation, “Chuck Life.”

This is all explained in the introduction. However, I can imagine the title “Chuck Life’s a Trip” might look pretty stinkin’ odd to some random shopper at a used bookstore. Biff the beta-reader kindly let me know this in his critique. He also said the use of ROAST was a bit heavy, and that my book could use a “chapter-ectomy.” I thanked him for his honesty. I contacted Mildred (the other beta-reader) to see where she was at. She told me to give her another few weeks. She said she was in the process of critiquing a friend’s book and that she’d dig into mine once she’d finished. I said OK and went about my business. I had the tube in my face removed and the stents in my pancreas replaced. I started eating only solid foods. I gained a little weight and even managed to find an illustrator and a line-editor. 

While the two of them worked their magic, I had some free time to think about what Biff had said. I was too attached to the title and the dialogue to mess with them. And the chapter-ectomy? Well, I’d already cut the book in half over the course of a dozen or more drafts, so cutting any more for the purpose of making the book shorter seemed quite impossible. There was still the question of content; removing certain portions for fear of offending certain people was definitely on my mind. It’s not hard to guess why. My book is about seven guys in their early twenties who traverse the globe drinking, cursing, fucking, burping and chasing skirts. There are deeper themes, of course. But someone who bleeds easily might only see the thorns. 

….

Mildred’s critique came on a Sunday afternoon. I opened it after lunch while lying in bed with my feet up. I saw that it was addressed to me, my publisher, Dawn, and my line-editor, Claire. I wondered why that was. I scrolled down to the text. This is what it said:


Hans,

Your book is good. Like most, it has problems that I have confidence that you can solve. Shall I begin with the tough stuff? 

1. The title has to go. I was considerably further than the average reader would go before I understood the title. It just looks ungrammatical on first glance. It wouldn’t merit a second glance. Remember, titles sell books

2. Worst of all, the characters are downright unlikable. Sexist, selfish, entitled, rude, crude, very crude, and a lot more. By New Delhi they are mellowing and showing some of the qualities that makes you stick by them all these years.

Nevertheless, in the age of #me too#, you ain’t gonna get away with this kind of behavior. Women are not bitches, to be chased for nookie. Is it any wonder that the lot of you failed so miserably most of the time? I know that you made this point, but it was much too subtle. 

For some reason, you like, even love, these guys. You need to show us why. You could introduce the Chucks as people you had a reason to befriend as a young person, and to follow their development into callow dudes later, then you show their attitudes during your trip. Something like that.

3. The slang, or whatever you call it don’t always work. Most sentences can be gleaned by the context, but some are too dense. If only the Chucks can understand it, but no one else, go to Kinko’s and have six copies run off and call it a day. But do you really want to do that? I think you can keep the originality and still make the rest of us get it.

4. The good stuff: each country was so beautifully and perfectly described I felt that I was there. I was surprised and pleased that you had done your homework, and knew so much of the history of each country and special site. Your description of your experiences and what you saw was worth plowing through the rest of it.

5. You owe it to your friends to show their sober selves, their background and their aspirations, before attempting the Chuck Life. 

6. This is definitely a memoir, not a novel.

I hope this helps,

Mildred


When I finished reading, my eyes were smoking. I wanted to fire back with something “very crude.” My better angels took the wheel. I responded with an email thanking Mildred for her honesty. I went downstairs and into the backyard. I walked in circles for hours. My brain was like an old ship being pummeled by waves in a storm. I nearly chewed my nails to their cuticles.

When dinner came, I read Mildred’s critique to my folks. My father dropped his fork. My mother pushed her plate away and stood up.

“I feel like slapping that woman in the face!” she said.

I laughed. My father raised his eyebrows. I asked him what he was thinking. He cocked his head to one side.

“Well …” he said with half his mouth. “Have you given any thought to a pseudonym?”

“Yeah, Dad. But would it really make a difference? Everyone who knows me knows I’m a writer, and the shit I talk about is pretty unmistakable.”

He shrugged and picked up his fork. We all went back to eating. No one said a word. A few minutes went by. My mother started sawing her asparagus into tiny pieces. I took a deep breath.

Okay Mom,” I said exhaling. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

She pursed her mouth to a dot and brought it underneath her right nostril.

“Well, I hafta admit, there is a lot of profanity in your book.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And let’s be honest, you guys did hit on a lot of girls.”

“I understand that, Mom! But that’s what really happened. You want me to rewrite the whole fuckin’ thing and make it all pretty and nice?”

“No … but you could tone it down a little.”

I dropped my shoulders and rolled my eyes. I took my plate to the sink and went upstairs. I watched a crappy movie and read a little. Then I clicked out the lights. Sleep was jittery and illusive. I turned around and around like a lamb on a spit. I popped a few pills. They shaved away the bullshit and sent me off. I got a couple hours with my tongue out. Then a goblin stuck his dick in my ear and pissed a dream into my head …

I was in a dark room sitting Indian style. My chest was burning like a torch. The flames were lapping at my eyeballs. I wanted to burst out and cry. I just sat there shivering. Time tipped sideways and melted into a line. I almost did the same. My gut told me not to. I heard a loud click. Light poured down from above. I saw a pyramid of stairs. They led to a silver throne with curled arms and pointed ears. A woman sat on its belly. She had black hair in a flipped bob and wore a frock down to her calves. Her face was caked in white makeup. Her lips were two red anchovies. She had a nose like a little shark fin. A pair of cat-eye glasses rested on its bridge. I stood and walked towards her. She held up her hand.

“Stop right there!” she said.

Her voice was commanding yet grating; like a chihuahua barking through a megaphone. It triggered the yellowness in me. I did as I was told. She grabbed something from her lap and held it up. It was a big thick book. I thought it was the bible. I squinted at the title. She shook my eyes off it.

“This is an abomination!” she cried.

I knew what book it was. I also knew who she was.

“Hi Mildred,” I said.

She thinned her gray eyes at me. Then she licked a flake of makeup from her upper lip.

“I told you what to do with this reprehensible work,” she said. “And if you don’t obey my orders, I’ll have my posse of sirens nail you to a stake and burn you from the feet up!”

She flicked her words at me like a witch flicking a spell off her fingertips. They hit me in the chest and buried themselves into my heart. I could feel it rumbling and cracking apart. I fell to my knees and hung my head.

Okay,” I said miserably. “I’ll do it.”

Her wicked smile singed my scalp. I heard a sharp grunt then my book clattered to the ground in front of me. I picked it up and dusted it off. I stood and walked into the next room. There was a tiny desk and chair there. I sat down and got to work. I made all the changes Mildred had stated. I changed the title, the dialogue, the content; I even went back into the childhoods of all the characters and showed what wonderful little dudes we were and how it all just fell apart.

When I finished, I had a completely different book. I brought it back into the throne room with a grin on my face. I walked up the steps and handed it to Mildred with a bow. She took it and flipped through the pages. An hour later she looked up at me.

“Hans, you’ve done a fine job,” she said. “But it’s now the year 2025, and to be honest, the women in your book just don’t look bad enough.”

I crinkled my face in shock.

“The women?” I said. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Well, while you were locked in your little room writing, all the men of the world came clean about all the crappy things they’d done. There was a gigantic healing forgiveness ceremony and then we women realized we had some stuff to come clean about too.”

“What in the cock-suckin’ fuck, I mean, what in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks does this have to do with my book?”

“Well, I noticed you painted a prettier picture of your female characters than you did of your male characters, and, in this day and age, that just won’t do.”

“But I told the truth.”

“Of course, you did. And I’m not asking you to lie, just to change a few details so that the reader really gets a feel for how shitty women can be. Think of it as an enhancement of the truth.”

“An enhancement of the truth?”

“Exactly.”

I shrugged and took the book from her hand. I walked down the steps and into my little room. I closed the door and sat at the desk. I cracked the book and got to it. The clock hands spun around the nose. The pages fell from the calendar like yellow leaves from a tree. I made the women in my book look terrible. They were all snarling eyeballs and bloody fangs and snakes for hair. I added a final period. Then I rushed the book on up to Mildred. She took it from my hands with a crooked smile. She flipped through it with lightning speed. I stood there chewing my lips. When she finished, she looked up at me.

“Nicely done,” she said.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

“But!” she said, raising a long finger. “It’s 2030 now. And do you know what that means?”

“No,” I said meekly.

“It means that enough time has passed for everyone to forgive everyone for everything and now we’re all working in harmony to save our planet from destruction. Do you get where I’m going with this?”

“No.”

“Think hard.”

I thought hard. It came to me like a soda burp. I hung my jaw and let it out.

“You want me to really describe all the nature we saw around the world so that everyone who reads my book will really grow to appreciate Mother Earth and work that much harder to save her.”

She pursed her lips into a dainty smile.

“Precisely.”

I took my book and went to my room. I wrote until the walls crumbled and weeds twisted up from the floor. When I finished, I gave my book to Mildred. She looked at it and laughed.

“Hans, it’s 2060 now!” she said. “The world has been saved and everything is okay. Why don’t you just write children’s books … or I know, fortune cookies!”

I woke up screaming. I grabbed my computer and checked my book. It was all still there. I wiped the sweat from my brow. A new email popped up. I clicked it open. It was from my line-editor, Claire. She’d sent me her edited version of my book. I figured now was as good a time as any. I opened the file and started reading. There wasn’t much she’d changed; a word here and there, a few commas, colons and exclamation marks. The grand meat of it was intact; every ugly incident, every beautiful moment.

I finished the last chapter as the sun went down. I closed my computer and went outside. The sky was a bomb-blast of pinks and reds. The clouds were puffy little footprints leading nowhere. I walked in a circle around the grass. I thought of my book and what to do. I wondered how my family and friends would take it. I wondered if they’d hate it, or worse, if they’d hate me. I thought of all the other people who might read it. I imagined their outrage, their comments, their threats. I felt the world closing in around me; a sea of angry faces screaming at my neck. They called me all sorts of horrible things. I listened to every one of them. I was just about to cave. Then I felt a presence near my ear. It crawled inside and filled my head.

“Do it,” it said.

I smiled wryly and looked around. The faces lost their anger and faded away. I walked inside and went to my room. I wrote an email to my publisher and sent it off. It had one attachment and the following words:

Dawn,

There goes the fuckin’ neighborhood.

….

2 comments:

  1. You can write. I enjoyed reading about your experiences and what you went through. I wish you success. Sooner rather than later.

    ReplyDelete