Broke Writer

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Stories / By Age / Broke Writer /

The Adventures of Writing my First Novel

I think a couple of modules already mentioned my living and writing naked on a mountain top. I’d intended to reserve this module for more details but come to think of it, I think I’ll tell the whole story of my writing my first novel, By the Hair of the Comet. As I can find, make, or steal time, this folder will assemble the parts. For now, 2001 05 29, I’ll just sketch, hopefully getting me to the summer of 1983 which I spent blissfully au naturel.

From age ten I wrote short fiction. Very short. Maybe my ambition was short. Maybe my attention span was not much longer. I suffered then, and still suffer, from a common phobia: fear of success. In my case what I feared and fear was that too many demands would be made on my time. Isolated and neglected, my time is my own. I leave myself free to work for god. That is to say for my inner voices. For serendipity, if you prefer it to the theological references.

I would read Shakespeare’s principle thirty-six plays or Tolstoy’s thousand page novels in awe: forget about the quality: how could anyone produce such volume? Live long enough, keep chipping away, and the volume is inevitable. Have a good CPU, work constantly on your ROM, RAM, and software and quality will be possible as well. But I don’t see how the young can possibly see that. Time is very difficult to see forward through. See around you is hard enough. Seeing backward too is hard: there are so few trustworthy “optics.” Guides like Bateson, Illich, Diamond, Morris … generally have to be found on your own: they weren’t in any curricula I ever saw. I in any event didn’t see large works as within my visible grasp: and, nightmare of nightmares, you do write four hundred pages, they’ll only want another four hundred.

Acedia on my part again. And inexperience. Four hundred? Is that all? I can do that in a couple of months. At sixty-two; not at sixteen or twenty-six.

For one thing it would have eaten into my reading time, my listening to jazz time, my fucking around time, my marathons with a girl … during any moment of which I still had to be open to inspiration: divine or otherwise.

In my late twenties I was trying hard to produce at least a dozen or two good short stories. “Tell them you’re writing a novel,” Joachim Neugroschel said to me: “they don’t want to waste time with short fiction. The money is in the novels.” “But I can’t. I’m not.” “Lie. Hint that you’re thinking about it.”

I couldn’t. I didn’t. Until I was just past forty. I had tried to communicate my scholarship in graduate school and in teaching college. I had failed. Few professors and very few students could hear me. The professors who did hear me had no power or the wrong power. The students who did hear me had no power: and not enough breadth of understanding to hook it all up. That’s OK: I’m not the first or the last that’s happened to. You want a broad audience, you have to say things a broad audience can hear.

When I read Ivan Illich’s proposals that communities network themselves, make a data base of their resources, a offered the world the Free Learning Exchange. But people didn’t want to support real freedom that was cheap; they preferred the same old: fake freedom that’s every more expensive. By age thirty-five I’d lost whatever patronage had kept me alive till then. So horror of horrors I was forced to produce some money for the first time since my youth. The next thing I know, it’s 1979. My forties have arrived. But so did Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature. A half a dozen readings of that supreme book took me a couple of months. By my seventh reading I was also reading his Steps to an Ecology of Mind. It was after reading Bateson’s Communication that a novel occurred to me: but not one I wanted to write. Hell, I’ll quote the footnote that inspired me.

The late Doctor Stutterheim, Government Archeologist in Java, used to tell the following story: Somewhat before the advent of the white man, there was a storm on the Javanese coast in the neighborhood of one of the capitals. After the storm the people went down to the beach and found, washed up by the waves and almost dead, a large white monkey of unknown species. The religious experts explained that this monkey had been a member of the court of Beroena, the God of the Sea, and that for some offense the monkey had been cast out by the god whose anger was expressed in the storm. The Rajah gave orders that the white monkey from the sea should be kept alive, chained to a certain stone. This was done. Doctor Stutterheim told me that he had seen the stone and that roughly scratched on it in Latin, Dutch, and English were the name of a man and statement of his shipwreck. Apparently this trilingual sailor never established verbal communication with his captors. He was surely unaware of the premises in their minds which labeled him as a white monkey and therefore not a potential recipient of verbal messages: it probably never occurred to him that they could doubt his humanity. He may have doubted theirs.

Chapter 7. Information and Codification: A Philosophical Approach [p. 204, footnote]

There it is. My biography, exaggerated only slightly. Because we can communicate, we assume that we communicate well and consistently. We are utterly blind to gaps, lapses, and errors. That story will never be popular, but it could be told in novel form if the writer were as good as say Gary Jennings and provided he knew say sixteenth-century Java cold (or had the resources to research and learn it). Sorry, that’s not me. I put the project out of my mind.

It came back of its own accord on my first business trip to Florida. I’d just met a new girl friend on Hilton Head Island. Delay after delay had deflected my intended winter sales trip to Florida well into the spring. I’m driving south of Route 95, hundreds of miles to go to Miami, and it came to me: full blown. You don’t have to know dick about sixteenth-century Java; put it in the future: write it as science fiction.

A bolide hits the earth, teaching complaisant earthlings that space is dangerous. The living earth heals its wounds so that its supposedly sentient species can ignore the clues of history. Hard taught man is now comet sensitive. A new comet is discovered. Its ephemeris might be dangerous. Simultaneously there’s a new technology that can concentrate gravitons into a gravity laser: a gaser. John Waynes and Charleton Hestons and Sheena Queen’a the Jungle are gathered to lasso the thing. They fuck up, but nevertheless manage to crash it into Jupiter. They go home heroes.

But in the Epilogue we get a different perspective. Explorers enter a star system we gradually recognize to be ours. They detect life, intelligence, and space faring. Then they notice a signal, an SOS from the fifth planet in one of their own languages. Indeed, they find replicas of it in two other galactic languages as well.

An earlier explorer, traveling ship-less and almost bodiless, had welded a few comets together to give himself mass for a ride inward. Hundred thousand year journey? So what? He had the time. Wanted to look around. See if any of his life seeding had reached this system. He encountered anomalous gravity tides and crashed.

The current explorers are indignant that the current local space farers have ignored a set of galactic distress signals for millions of years. They’re ready to exterminate but will study the situation further first.

The business trip’s delay proved disastrous. I found few gallery owners in situ: they’d gone north for the summer and taken their checkbooks with them. I limped back to Hilton Head for a meal and a friendly bed. My friend was stunned by my idea. Rich, she wanted to help. By the following autumn, after a couple of visits to me in my Long Beach “beach house,” she convinced me. I suspended my business, closed my home, and moved to South Carolina to be taken care of while I wrote.

I skip the bulk of those details for the time being except to mention that they were another disaster. Homeless and broke, I fled further south where I would need a minimum of shelter. I set my typewriter up on the picnic table of my Jonathan Dickinson State Park campground and wrote till I had only $5 left. That was enough to put gas in the car and head for Boca Raton. I always carried $60,000 or $70,000 worth of art in the truck of the car. I’d sell a graphic or two and retreat to my home among the Australian Pines on the Loxahatchee River. Bantam publishers had told me they wanted to see three chapters. I’d submitted three and been told they wanted to see more characterization (the comment I always get). The second version of the three chapters had a lot more characterization and was twice as long. I sent it off to Bantam and headed north to sell more art while I awaited their answer.

Their answer was that they had someone else working on the same idea so they were no longer interested. Good luck. It was at least ten more years before Bantam published Arthur C. Clarke’s novel with very much the same plot as my Part One. Did they send my idea to Clarke? Or did Clarke’s outline arrive soon after my second manuscript? Or did they mean some of the comet trash that came out in the meantime? Do you realize how many comet disaster novels and movies have been released since I told them my ideas? Armageddon was merely one of the more recent ones.

I’d emphasized in 1982 that we had three years to work before Comet Halley was once again in the news. Halley would be brightest by early 1986. Catch the tide. They didn’t. All the comet stuff missed that tide. (And Halley didn’t turn much of a tide this time either: a big fizzle.) But of course none of them, not Clarke’s excellent novel, and certainly not the trash, were about communication, the way mine was. My novel was infinitely more profound than the rest put together. Or would have been had I been able to finish it.

I hung around New York, sorry I’d left Florida, unable to force myself to spend more than five hours a month selling. No, I had to write. When not writing I was learning the flute. I decided to try an Adirondack spring for the first time in my life. I phoned my old college roommate and asked if by any chance his old sculpture studio could be made available for a few weeks while a starving writer prepped a third draft of his first three chapters for a different publisher.

That was another mistake which I’ll report more details of later. For now let the fact that an Adirondack spring is actually a winter anywhere else suffice. After a month or five weeks I believed that my and my theological arguments with Roman Catholic Bill had overstayed our welcome and I headed for the Catskill mountains. My wife’s mother owned thirty acres of mountainside near Lexington. Hilary and I had camped there plenty before we were so disastrously married. Hilary might hate me and her mother might hate me more, but my mother-in-law had promised the Lexington land to my son and I had my son’s permission to camp on it and write.

I arrived just before Memorial Day. Rain was continuous for a week. I put my tent on a steep incline and slept with little between me and the rocks. But that passed and from the middle of the fist week of June till the last days before Labor Day, the weather was such that I didn’t need to dress at all except to go to the store once a week.

I’ll be back with more as I can. Except I can’t leave without this admission: I still spend a great deal of time writing naked: only now I do it inside my own trailer with the door shut; not outside en plein air.

I’ve been catching up on lots of stories in my personal folder, but I’m afraid it’s still another form of procrastination: I’ve still avoiding the most important ones: stories about my experiences in writing and submitting and getting back, rejected, my stories, novels, movie scripts, scholarship … and stories about my businesses: my failure to support myself consistently so I could do more for deschooling, write more, write better … reach somebody; but especially stories about getting built up and let down in business, getting screwed and doing a little screwing too.

What brings me here today though is one simple memory I can no longer stand not to include. It leaves out the bulk of the introduction of the necessary characters. Well, there’s me: but there’s also the woman without whom I never would have begun By the Hair of the Comet. Jeano pleased me (at first) by confiding that she had never like the name Jeano. That she had always wanted to be “Brooks.” “Well?” I said: and Brooks she became. Brooks was beautiful. Brooks was the oldest still-active model in America. You may remember her as the blond that Perry Como sang to weekly on his show, or perhaps as one of the Rheingold girls. Brooks was then a wealthy widow. She’d given up her Connecticut home on the Sound. She’d sold her sloop that she’d kept moored off her backyard. She’d even sold some of her Chippendales: not because she had to, but because she’d decided to live as a comfortable gypsy. After years of traveling about the country in her motor home, she’d parked it in a yacht, tennis, and motor home resort on Hilton Head Island, where I met her. In simple, I told her my idea for Comet as soon as I got back to Hilton Head from Florida. She said immediately that she’d love to take care of me while I wrote it. She repeated the offer again the next time I stayed with her and again when she came to spend a few weeks with me at my beach place on Long Island. The third time, I took her up on it. I suspended the business, watched as she sold off my furniture, watched as her decision about what we would keep, how we would transport or store it dwindled and dwindled in generosity. Her offer of a rented office on Hilton Head — she’d even shown me the realtor’s brochures — evaporated. Her promise to provide me with word processing never materialized. Finally, I not only had no place to work, not even a decent light where I’d crammed by old Smith Corona, but she allowed no solitude. Writing a novel seemed to mean paying endless attention to her: going shopping, playing tennis … Even the fabulous love we had made, described already elsewhere, began to pall.

Well, plenty more details can be added in another session. Right now I want to tell only one.

Brooks at first had seemed fascination by everything I told her about science, about epistemology, about Gregory Bateson … She did an about face once we were officially living together. (Where have I heard this before? Oh, in my own life!) Still, as I prepared my novel, I tried to discuss some of the background issues with her. One of my expatiations included information on the theory of the Big Bang, on the skepticism of Sir Fred Hoyle and others, and most definitely on the supporting evidence of the background radiation discovered by astronomers listening to the universe on the newly mastered micro-wave frequencies. I’d tried to explain to her about the electro-magnetic spectrum. From what follows, I see that I must have made some analogy between micro-waves and X-rays, visible light, radio waves …

Time comes for me to refer back to it. I want to see what she remembers, see what she’s understood. How did the astronomers come by this important theory, I ask her. Where did they get their evidence.

“They heard it on the radio, ” she answered.

That’s it, of course. And Einstein discovered relativity by reading about himself in Life Magazine.
And Columbus discovered America by subscribing to National Geographic.

That was far from the only thing, but it was certainly a major contribution to my falling out of love with her almost as fast as I’d fallen in. Oh, well: we were together almost a year.

One other incident almost as bad has already been shadowed her. I’ll find it and link it, but meantime, very briefly: I see that PBS has an hour with Richard Leakey scheduled. We watch as he talks about chimp sexuality. The footage shows a female in estrus presenting her grotesquely swollen rump to male after male, each copulating with her in turn. The males are of course much larger than the females in that closely related species. After the show Brooks said she like the section that showed mothers cuddling a baby. What mothers? What babies? No mothers and babies had been in the coverage. She can only have mistaken the male / female fucking for momma / baby bonding! And this was a woman I was trying to share MY writing with?!

Stories Stories by Age Stories by Theme

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in writer and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s